Jason Robert Brown is one of the most iconic songwriters in the musical theater world. He is responsible for writing modern classics like “The Last Five Years”, “Parade”, and “13”, all of which have received critical acclaim and several award nominations. Starting his career back in the 1990’s, his influence on the contemporary style of musicals is prevalent throughout several works of fiction. One of his first major musical productions, and probably his most underrated, is the 1995 Off-Broadway production, “Songs for a New World”.
Now, this musical is a bit different from other shows. Rather than having a conventional story with a two act structure, the show doesn’t have a story at all. “Songs for a New World” is more like a theatrical song cycle, with it being a series of different songs that don’t really connect with each other. As such, each musical number tells a different story and each has characters that don’t connect. This means that each song is unique and often has its own self contained narrative, sometimes being more dramatic and others more comedics, and often taking on a different musical style.
However, each song does have one thing in common. They are have a connecting theme. Each number discusses a characters dreams and aspirations when they are at their lowest moments. They have gone through hard time and want to do something amazing, creating a world that they feel comfortable in. However, they have come to a road block and need to figure out their situation. Some songs are more triumphant and others are more tragic, many of which have a very bleak ending. Despite this, the show does have an overall uplifting message of moving forward even when life seems hopeless. Life is worth living and you can achieve anything if you make if past the trauma of everyday life. A new world can be made if we try hard enough. As the show says itself, “a new world calls across the ocean”.
To more accurately analyse the show and its themes, I think it’s appropriate to take a look at every single song in the show to see how each individual number stands on its own and relates to the main theme. So let us dissect the magnificent score of “Songs for a New World”.
The New World:
This powerful opening number starts the show off with a soft whisper as they relay the motif of a new world in its lyrics, and slowly becomes a loud bang as it becomes a triumphant yet uncertain quartet with all four of the performers singing about the themes of the show. They sing about the one moment in life where everything seems like its about to crash when everything seemed certain before. Life seems as its going downhill and the characters need to find a way to get out of their situation. This number is as beautiful as it is purposeful, as it connects every single song together to one single theme, showcasing Brown’s clever storytelling and powerful lyrics.
On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship:
This haunting musical number takes place on the self titled “Spanish Sailing Ship” heading for the promised land of god, where the captain of the boat relents to god as he tries to find faith in a dangerous situation. The people on his ship are starving, tired and wounded as their journey seems almost hopeless when death feels so close. The captain feels responsible for the safety of the people, but asks god to show a sign that there is hope, essentially finding a literal promised land. There are also brief interludes by other performers involving people repeating the phrases “Lord, I am not worthy. I am not strong enough”, reaffirming the theme of faith throughout the song and trying to find god in the light of dark times and when you don’t feel worthy of love. This gospel inspired song perfectly represents the themes of a literal new world and mental struggle of somebody who has power over a situation when he doesn’t have faith in himself. Its literal searching of “a new world calling upon the ocean” is beautiful and sets up the rest of the musical perfectly.
Just One Step:
The jazz inspired, fast paced number features a Jewish woman, likely in the 20’s, ranting about his husband Murray for not being a loving enough person. She is shown to be materialistic, yet is also shown to be insecure as she assumes his lover does not show affection for not being young or beautiful. Because of this, she threatens to take one step, and the lyrics imply that she is attempting to commit suicide to make Murray feel bad for not treating her right. This is an example of Brown’s more comedic abilities as the ranting of the woman is rather amusing, but also shows the theme of relationships and failed love that is relevant throughout many songs in the show. Relationships are something that can start out perfect but end up becoming sad and tragic as it continues, creating conflict for the characters. This is a perfect showcase of the themes and this song sets up the motif in light, yet effective manner by showing a more extreme and irrational example of a failed relationship and its effects on others.
I’m Not Afraid of Anything:
This somber ballad centers around a girl who discusses the many fears of the people around her, many of which are irrational. For example, her dads afraid of babies and a girl named Jenny is afraid of water. However, she doesn’t fear anything and she wants to take chances and see the world, with excitement and adventure “calling” to her. However, he husband is afraid of holding her, not letting himself be intimate. She is essentially held back by people who don’t want to take risks and see a new world, limiting herself from actually reaching her goals. This is what starts out as a cute song that slowly turns tragic as it showcases the themes of relationships changing our destiny, and our character realizes that the people around her, that seemingly make her happy, restrict her from being free, something that ties to the themes perfectly.
The River Won’t Flow:
The upbeat, soulful number showcases two men as they discuss the misfortunes that they go through in life, like a poor childhood and a dried up river when they need to drink. The characters come to the conclusion that life isn’t handed to them and it just doesn’t go their way. While the characters are going to keep trying in life, they realize that life will never go their way and its not worth dreading. It’s a pessimistic ideology told in an upbeat fashion that clashes with the message, which creates for an interesting piece. It is slightly different from other songs as the characters have always gone through misfortune in their life, and they have grown used to it, coming to the conclusion that life is something you cannot control. So not only is it the most fun musical number of the show, but it is also the most impactful and relays the themes of the show in a unique fashion.
Stars and the Moon:
One of the most emotional songs of the show, the musical number talks about a woman who marries a wealthy man over men who actually care about making her happy. She chooses materialistic possessions over genuine compassion, which is represented by the stars and moon, only for her to realize what a mistake she has made. This song, along with many other, showcases how love and relationships can affect the decisions of a person, typically in a negative light that stops them from taking on new horizons. It is a haunting song where she seems complacent and confident in her decision, yet suddenly realizes what she sacrificed for the wealth of another man. Negative influences of other people guide many characters throughout the show, whether it’s in “Just One Step” or “I’m Not Afraid of Anything”, these negative relationships keep the characters from true happiness and is perfectly examined in this song.
A man describes the love that he feels for another woman and the amount of power she has over him. Even though he tries not to have to fall for this woman, no matter what happens she still has some sort of control over him, trapping him in a relationship that where he feels like a toy, yet it is something he cannot resist. It is an emotionally complex song as it showcases the power that a relationship can have over a person. Even if he does not want to be seduced and thinks he can resist, something about attraction can change a person’s dreams and change them as a person. In this case, attraction holds a person back from being their own person and being happy with themselves.
The Steam Train:
This upbeat, steampunk, early 90’s style song features a kid who is attempting to make a career in basketball. The people around him say he is an incredible talent and he is confident in his abilities. In the song, we learn that his dad set fire to his apartment and left him right there, and many of his classmates ended up having poor jobs and prison lives. This shows how he is determined to overcome his disadvantages to have a better life somewhere. This songs repeats the “A New World” motif halfway through, which further connects it with the other stories and showcases the theme of overcoming disadvantage to achieve greatness. It is a fantastic piece that gets across the themes perfectly and gives us a look at a person who has nothing attempting to be something more than he is.
The World Was Dancing:
A more conversational song with 70’s love song influence, it tells the story of a man who decides to leave his fiancee due to being afraid of his big risk would be too much and something might go wrong. He describes how his dad failed to run his own store after quitting his job, which convinced him to not take risks with his life. This is an emotional song that showcases a man who lives his life in a conventional way and is too afraid to take the risks that will make him happy. His dreams were shattered by his own anxiety and he left the world that could have brought him happiness. In this case, relationships actually represents a positive aspect of his life that he is neglecting in order to stay safe, denying himself of progression in his life.
In one of the most comedic songs in the show, Mrs. Claus talks about how her dysfunctional relationship with Santa Claus. He fell in love with him a while back, but slowly became neglected due to his career and it drove her insane. She proclaims that she is going to leave Santa and escape is “Santa claws”. It is indeed a humorous song filled with dark comedy and puns, but it also ties into the theme of an finding a solution in our darkest moments and trying to find happiness with ourselves. It gives us a look at a relationship that holds a person back and it relays the themes of the show well while also giving out the biggest laughs in the show.
A huge contrast from the previous song and most other songs in the show, this somber and beautiful song showcases a pregnant woman who realizes that she may not be the most important person in the world, but due to having a child, she is holding the future of the world who will make everything better, comparing herself to Mother Mary. It is a beautiful song with vivid religious imagery and a hint at hope when the other songs were so depressing and downbeat. A person who is hoping for the best in the world due to having a child showcases somebody who wants a new world to start, giving us a look at an optimistic view of the future.
King of the World:
This song is one of the most difficult to interpret as the lyrics offer a very vague yet vivid picture of what the song is about. The lyrics say that he is trapped in a cell, either figurative or literal, and he was fighting for the right thing, for his people and brothers. He wants to see the sun and be free as he will eventually stand tall. Many interpret the song as a song about a political activist who was jailed for fighting for civil rights, much like Martin Luther King Jr, a war veteran, a man in a gang who is now in jail, or a literal king. Either way, the vagueness helps make the song applicable to all people as the show is meant to represent the epiphanies that most people would face. We have all faced times where we felt trapped and hopeless when we were on top of the world, and this song is the definitive representation of the themes of “Songs for a New World”. A man who is on top of the world swiftly falls down and is going through an epiphany, and yet he finds a way out and tries his best to stand tall even when faced with the worst that the world has to offer. It is a powerful ballad that captures what makes this musical so special.
I’d Give it All for You:
A couple attempts to spend time away from each other, thinking it will make their life is better, only to realize that their lives are not the same without being with each other. It is another song that is relatively upbeat and it showcases another positive interpretation of a relationship that represents a positive dream and a better world. There are moments in our lives where we think that we have to sacrifice something in order to move on, but often that aspect of life can only make us stronger, which is beautifully conveyed in this song.
The Flagmaker, 1775
Set during the Revolutionary War, a woman back home begins to feel dread as her husband and children are out fighting. To cope, she continues to sew an American flag to help keep her spirits up as the world goes insane. This emotionally driven song uses beautiful figurative language as she describes the world going downhill as war continues on, but still hold on to the feeling that something will go right and the world will get better, showcasing a patriotic spirit and the pure will to see a better tomorrow.
A spiritual continuation of the previous song, it tells the story of a soldier who has died in battle who is being lifted to heaven and having his body sent back to his mother, which showcases a figurative and literal flight. This is one of the last stories of the show before its finale, and it showcases somebody who has struggled and is finally achieving what he wanted through his hardships. He is heading to heaven and being buried at his home, which perfectly showcases the ultimate message of the show.
Hear My Song:
The shows finale is told through the device of giving words of wisdom to a child. It essentially wraps up the entire story of the show by giving a inspirational message. We may want to give up, but we have people to rely on when we get older and we can make it through all of the hardships that life has to offer. It is an emotional song that gets across the message of the show and leaves the audience with something to hold onto when they leave the theater. It is inspirational and gives hope for the future and the world we live in.
“Songs for a New World” is not like traditional musicals, but that only makes the thematic elements of the story all the more strong, showcasing songs will a wide range of topics and emotions that all get across the theme of never giving up even when life seems hopeless. Especially in a current life where everything seems dark and pessimistic, it is important to know that the world will get better. This is a must watch for any fan of musicals and Jason Robert Brown in general.