This weekend the London Palladium became the first central London theatre to offer live performance after successfully advocating new audience safety measures during the summer and conducting a trial event for journalists a couple of months ago. Songs for a New World written by Jason Robert Brown was performed live on stage for one day only, a matinee and evening show that once again puts musical theatre at the top of theatrical agenda.
Staged without sets or scenary this felt like a cabaret-concert performance with the band placed on stage and a smattering of chairs that remained empty for one final surprise. Its dual purpose worked well, giving the performers the freedom to move around the space and create variation in the way numbers were staged, while also nodding to the still empty chairs and venues around the country as restrictions thin companies to essential teams and reduce audience capacity.
And while this industry has been indirectly described as not viable by the government, they have vastly underestimated not just the economic and creative contribution of the performing arts but also the pure joy it brings to millions of patrons. That joy was more than evident among the uproarious Palladium crowd on Sunday afternoon as an extended ovation of applause and whooping followed a (presumably) pre-recorded announcement that the show was due to start. The musical itself became a participatory event as performer introductions, song openers, long notes and character quirks were greeted with the same rapture among an audience starved of indoor live performance and, in spite of the reduced capacity, making as much noise as a full audiotorium.
To be back in the London Palladium and a traditional West End theatre clearly means so much to everybody in the room and Jason Robert Brown’s music provides the perfect uplift, a beautiful song cycle that could almost have been designed to galvanise a more than half-empty theatre space. Drawing on Motown, funk, blues and gospel as well cabaret and old Broadway, Songs for a New World is a collection of thematically related numbers about the difficulty of relationships and the possibilities of new beginnings where change and breaking free of old patterns is something to embrance.
And London is enjoying a mini Brown revival with The Last 5 Years not only resuming live performance at Southwark Playhouse after a terrific staging earlier this year, but now extending its run and offering a filmed stream in late November open to an international audience. Now, with this one-day revival of Songs for a New World, previously performed by most of this cast online during lockdown, Jason Robert Brown’s lyrics and music are already shaping whatever our new theatre world will look like.
This Palladium production divided into two 45-minute Acts with a 30-minute interval (arguably superfluous but it does eek out the joy of it) is an outstanding musical experience that becomes a part-theatre, part-concert show that places as much emphasis on the music as the singers and characterisation. It feels like a live gig as the toe-tapping sounds of piano primarily (for which Brown especially likes to compose), drums, bass, keyboard, cello and guitar fill the room accompanied by five extraordinary voices.
As musicals along Shaftesbury Avenue look set to reopen before Christmas with Six, There’s Something About Jamie and a freshly announced return for Les Miserables: The Staged Concert with last year’s brilliant cast, Songs for a New World serves as an all-to-brief reminder of how it feels to listen to live music in an enclosed, traditional theatre space, feeling the sounds thrum through the seats, filling the air around you as it echoes and reverberates in a room full of people – even as few allowed to be in this one – responding to every note and beat.
It opens with the title number performed by Cedric Neal, Rachel Tucker, Rachel John and David Hunter arriving onstage one-by-one and lit dramatically by a circle of rear lights like a film set. The New World is a song the recurs throughout the performance setting the tone for a selection of work about key moments where decisions are being made by individuals and couples that have potentially life-changing consequences, some of which, as this first piece suggests, can come as a surprise.
There is considerable variety across this abstract but interlinked selection of stories and messages, and Brown plays with narrative perspective, dramatic intensity and musical styles to create range and depth across Songs for a New World that make it ideally suited to this more simplistic concert-staging where direct connections between numbers are intangible and songs have their own individual impact as well as a collective effect as a single musical.
Some of the most crowd-pleasing numbers are entirely comic and in the first half Just One Step performed by Tucker is staged on a step ladder in lieu of a window ledge as a harassed wife insists she is leaving her neglectful husband, quite literally taking her first steps down the ladder as she bemoans his treatment of her. Tucker proves a comic delight throughout, also bringing an amusing acidity to Surabaya-Santa, a early song in Act Two for an increasingly embittered Mrs Clause as she rails against husband Nick and drinks away her cares while clambering over the piano.
The audience is equally enchanted by the other solo performances including Cedric Neal’s soulful voice on King of the World, a man wanting to resume his rightful place in the hierarchy and leading Flying Home about repatriation. John’s voice is incredibly powerful earning some of the loudest cheers for the sensitive Christmas Lullaby that has a choral feel and particularly the rousing I’m Not Afraid of Anything in Act One that fills the auditorium with her defiant vocal. Completing the cast is David Hunter whose She’s Cries moves from a comic shrug to a more interior piece about the cost of love while later opens Act Two with The World Was Dancing in which Hunter emphasises the twin demands on his character to support his struggling father and his fiancee.
But some of the best moments in Songs for a New World are those that bring the different but complementary voices together to create moving and meaningful relationship portraits. One of the best is Hunter and John’s tender performance of I’d Give it All for You, a beautiful tale of two people gone their separate ways willing to sacrifice their now more exciting lives to be reunited once more. Hunter and Neale also performer the bouncier The River Won’t Flow while John and Tucker combine voices on Transition I / Stars and Moon that creates lots of different textures across the piece as the cast work together, frequently providing backing vocals and support for each other’s performances along the way.
There are some lovely surprises as the show unfolds, including a brief appearance from Shem Omari James partnering with Neale on the fantastic Act One finale The Steam Train as both play the same character dreaming of a future as a sports star, the inevitability and driving certainty of which they both evoke. James certainly holds his own during his brief appearance on stage adding a small choreographed dance section before dropping in for a later number. For the final song, The New World / Hear My Song director Séimí Campbell fills those empty chairs with a young choir who enhance the vocal power in the room creating a fitting spectacle to end the show.
Given the limitations of socially distanced performance for those onstage and no set, Campbell makes some interesting choices to keep the show moving while helping to create intimacy between the performers as songs demand. With boxes at the four corners of the stage and close to the piano, Campbell moved the singers around to create a balanced sound coming from all sides of the performance space. Sometimes clambering onto these boxes to create height, at others moving their microphone stand to different positions in all three portions of the stage as well as roaming with handheld mics which frees the performer to go where the story and their instinct takes them. Like a simply staged Shakespeare monologue, sometimes less is more; performer, writer, voice is all that is needed.
The entry process was a tad chaotic with four separate queues and little signage as lines stretched all the way round to Regent’s Street, so depending on which direction you come from you might find yourself in the wrong queue more than once. In theory, separate queues for each level of the theatre and the Box Office makes sense along with timed entry, but in reality this was the most arduous entry process among the handful of venues open so far, taking around 30-minutes to pass through the long queues to reach the momentary temperature and security checks.
The staff at the Palladium were absolutely doing their best, operating an untested system for a public audience for the first time and this will certainly refine with practice, hopefully before the venue stages its socially distanced pantomime. Other measures worked extremely well including roving ushers taking bar orders delivered to your seat and at last a contactless system for purchasing programmes. Miraculously, the show itself started precisely on time so credit to the Palladium team for managing the process as well as they did.
Musical theatre has the unusual ability to create a show’s tone and feeling in the space of a single song or even a few bars, a feat it can take hours to achieve in drama, and Jason Robert Brown is especially good at immersing his audience in the emotional complexity of his work almost instantly. That Songs for a New World doesn’t have a plot or successive narrative is entirely irrelevant to the connection the audience has to the patchwork of lives and moments that are both separately and collectively affecting.
That this incredible concert version appeared at the London Palladium for just two performances is the only tragedy here and audiences can only implore LW Theatres for an extended run as soon as possible. Musical Theatre really is shaping the new world and, after a considerable ovation that lasted for many minutes, it is wonderful to see just how many people long to be in these rooms once more.