Penn Valk, director of OXAGEN’s July production of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For a New World, talks to Theatre People about telling stories through song in this unconventional musical.
Taking the form of a series of vignettes, Songs For a New World transports its audience over eight centuries while introducing a variety of characters at significant moments in their lives: from a group of struggling passengers on a sixteenth century ship, to a woman who regrets having married for money instead of love, to a separated couple who realise that they belong together. In the words of JRB, “It's about one moment. It's about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back…”
Theatre People: Songs For a New World is a little out of the ordinary in its structure – would you say it’s more challenging for the production team and cast than an average musical?
Penn Valk: I’d say it presents a different challenge for the cast. It’s a double-edged sword. They don’t have the luxury of a two-hour storyline to portray a character and develop that character. They have to present, portray and convey a character within a five-minute song. The other edge of the sword is that, because the characters are really only seen once, the actors don’t have to rely on setting a precedent for their characters and then being forced to stick with that for two hours. This gives them a certain amount of freedom in their creative choices.
From a production team perspective, again the challenges faced are no more or less than for a work with a grand narrative, but they are different. Each number is a vastly different musical style and creative setting, so it’s been a challenge to wrap our heads around the fact that no two songs are the same.
TP: What kind of approach has your production taken to the show?
PV: Songs is classified as a song cycle as it has no grand narrative. It was not written with one in mind and we have certainly not tried to create one. As we are an Australian cast we have tried to make sure that audience members can relate to the show. We are taking quite a traditional approach to this production and have focused on telling stories rather than making any kind of statement with the work. Our production has a cast of thirteen performers and spans eight centuries and sixteen locations.
TP: As each character only appears for a vignette and doesn’t go any further, has characterisation been hard?
PV: When we cast the show we were looking for singers who were brilliant storytellers and our cast is excellent at telling stories through song. The cast has been very open and willing to follow the creative process and has brought fantastic ideas to the table. In fact, some of the best moments in the show have come from cast making offers on the floor in the moment and trusting their impulses.
The staging of each number has always begun with a discussion of the lyrics: what the character is saying and the story they are trying to tell. It’s been a collaborative process between cast and creative team to develop these characters. It’s a very clever piece in that the lyrics are supported by the music and the music supported by the lyrics. In those moments where cast have struggled with characters, we have come back to the music and lyrics for clarification.
TP: What would you pick as the highlight of the show – something that audiences shouldn’t miss?
PV: I would say the highlight of the piece is the sense of ensemble our thirteen performers create. It is true ensemble work both vocally and dramatically. It is ensemble work at its best and not something that you want to miss seeing.
TP: What in particular attracts you to Songs For a New World?
PV: I first came across Songs in 2004 when I performed the opening number in a summer school music theatre workshop. It’s been on my iPod every since. It’s a show that I go through phases of listening to intensely and then I put it away for a couple of months. Musically it’s very clever and not all that different in nature to the work of Stephen Sondheim. JRB, in one of the numbers, clarifies it perfectly. He says “I don’t want to philosophize; I just want to tell a story”. This sums it up for me. I have a very traditional approach to theatre. I’m not interested in pushing the art form to its limits or making the audience feel uncomfortable. I want to create theatre that the average guy on the street can enjoy. I want the audience to feel something, to be affected by the work I create – that might be joy, sorrow, empowerment or questioning what they have just seen. For me theatre is about telling stories and that’s what Songs is all about.
From 11-13 July, 2013, OXAGEN Productions is proud to present Songs for a New World at The Open Stage, Melbourne University. Strictly limited run. Tickets available now from www.oxagen.com.au or by calling 0425 854 741.