Available until: Available on demand until 28th February
Content warning: Donald Trump
Songs for a New World is advertised as a musical and performed by musical theatre singers but it is very different from most musicals. The songs don’t tell a story (there is no dialogue). The singers don’t play the same characters every time they sing – sometimes they don’t play a character at all.
I asked the others and they said maybe the best way to describe it is a song cycle. Sometimes song cycles are a series of songs using poems as lyrics and there’s not always a connection except that the poems are usually all by the same poet. Jason Robert Brown wrote the lyrics and the music so they were always designed to be performed together and the words were always intended to be sung. The songs are about lots of different situations but I think there is an underlying theme of hope and looking to the future.
I thought Songs for a New World was composed especially for the pandemic but it was actually first performed in 1995. But it is a song cycle which suits the situation very well. We are looking forward to a new world, a bit like the old world before the pandemic but hopefully better. Also because it’s completely natural for four people to be separate and not interacting when they’re performing a song cycle, it works for them to be singing in four different locations.
I enjoyed Songs for a New World more than I was expecting. There’s one song I’ve heard before (about five times!) because it’s one of those songs everyone wants to sing. I’ve only heard it sung by singers I really love but I really don’t like the song. So I was a bit worried I wouldn’t like any of it but I did enjoy all the other songs. There weren’t any songs that stood out to me as being really amazing (though lots of people would disagree with that) but they were mostly nice to listen to. In the circumstances it was really moving and it felt so right for this moment in time but it’s probably not a piece I’d rush to again (unless the cast included someone really adorable like Luke Bayer or really inspiring like Aimie Atkinson or a complete and total legend like Trevor Dion Nicholas. Or my co-bloggers Imogen and Aashiq, of course). My favourite song was the one where Rachel Tucker told her husband off. That song was quite funny, even if the circumstances were sad, and Rachel gave the song lots of personality.
In between and sometimes during the songs, they showed images of closed West End theatres (and maybe Broadway too as I didn’t recognise all of them) and also images and moments which have become very important during lockdown. There is a Donald Trump moment which was a horrible shock and also pictures and videos of Black Lives Matter events. Some of these moments were very moving. You know which one wasn’t.
The four singers are Rachel Tucker, Rachel John, Cedric Neal and Ramin Karimloo. They all sang well and the really nice thing is that they are versatile singers and can sing in any style (and they also sound great when they’re singing together) they do have very specific strengths. The song cycle seems to have been written for four specific voice types and the four singers are perfect for the songs they sing.
Rachel Tucker has a very big, powerful voice and is good at creating personalities. So she’s great when she needs to show a bit of character or belt or move into a slightly brassy tone but although it’s a big voice it’s still a flexible voice. Rachel John is a far more lyrical singer with a voice which sounds sweet and gentle. It might not have Rachel T’s volume but her voice isn’t quiet and she isn’t drowned out by the others when they all sing together. Rachel J is especially good at the songs which need a really deep vulnerability and sincerity and where you really want to feel this is a real person singing the song and not just a character that has been created.
The men are also really good. Ramin Karimloo can bring a real darkness into his voice and he can sing in a more classical or operatic style if it suits the music. I was going to say he has great stage presence but I guess it’s screen presence this time! Cedric Neal can sing conventional musical theatre really well but he can also go into a really jazzy, relaxed sort of style which is perfect for his songs and it makes a nice contrast with Ramin who is good at all the intense stuff. 2020 graduate Shem Omari James also appears for one song and he sounds good and looks so natural sharing a concert with some of the best singers in musical theatre.
All the singers have thought about setting the scene for each song, providing props, scenery and new costumes and hairstyles to suit the musi and, filming their songs on their iPhones. They are directed by Seimi Campbell but even so they have to come up with what he asks for. It is great to see singers doing so much on their own and showing that they are more than good enough with hair, make-up and costumes to look really good onscreen. Of course we’ve all had several months to practise that with the whole Zoom thing but we’re not all achieving what these singers are achieving and it shows their varied talents and their total commitment to all aspects of performance.
If you want to see some great singers giving a really moving performance in a show which isn’t performed that often, Songs for a New World would be a great choice.