By Mark Dreisonstok
“Songs for a New World” was recently performed at George Mason High School in Falls Church in an impressive one-night-only virtual performance on May 27.
Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, the show displays the changes between European musical forms and those of the New World, such as jazz and gospel.
The show, which consists mainly of short musical vignettes, straddles an unusual position between American musical theater and the European Song Cycle.
The latter is often associated with German verses of the Romantic Age by poets such as Heinrich Heine set to music by composers such as Robert Schumann in such works as “Love of a Poet” and the eponymous “Song Cycle.”
Shawn Northrip, the show’s director and Mason’s theater & film teacher, explained the choice to perform this work.
“The pandemic had everything to do with our choice: We wanted to do a show that we could give justice to presenting, even if the students all had to stand at microphones 10 feet apart for the whole show, which they do; and we wanted something that was uplifting,” Northrip said. “This show fits the bill perfectly. It’s a song cycle, mostly solos and ensembles of four, around the theme of new beginnings.”
Vignettes include Emily Ives presenting a “Christmas Lullaby” with a pleasing vocal. Initially seen by the audience as an otherworldly silhouette with a somber tone, a contrast is presented to the normally festive holiday season.
Masks were also used throughout the performance, which acted to heighten the mystery of the performances.
Pauline Bonner, too, shone in jazz riffs as an affluent but bored housewife, in which the character contemplates, in the song “Just One Step,” the ease with which she might plunge to her death off an apartment balcony.
A more conventional pop song is found as Drew Miller sang compellingly “I’d Give It All for You.” A more extended story was told, or rather sung, movingly in “The World Was Dancing” featuring Madeline Aldana.
References to New World or American culture abounded, as with Greta Hermann in colonial costume as a flag-maker in 1775, suggestive of Betsy Ross.
A standout performance was Krissy Hornbuckle’s rendition of “Surabaya Santa,” based on Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny” from their musical collaboration “Happy End.”
Instead of a sultry torch song about a love relationship gone cynically awry, however, here we had a sultry Mrs. Santa Claus, planning to leave her husband due to his neglectful ways.
“The students found great joy” in performing this work, noted Northrip.
“We got quite a few thank you notes from parents expressing how the year had been difficult on their students and this opportunity restored their spirits,” he said.
The show featured live music to complement its musical numbers.
“I’m always a fan of live music — I try to put it into everything we do,” Northrip added. “It’s as important to the feel of a show as live singers. Plus, I’m not sure there is even an option to do this show with pre-recorded music from the licensing company, MTI. They provide all performance materials.”
Yet this format allowed George Mason High School to fulfil one of its objectives in drama performance by always striving for a collaboration between the theater, choral, and band resources.
“If we can’t all be involved, we wouldn’t choose the project,” Northrip said.
“Though certainly, this show leaned a little heavier on the actors who could also sing, but we are lucky to have a lot of overlap there,” he continued.
While the 2021 fall productions have not yet been decided, the future Meridian High School knows what’s in store for Spring 2022
A year from now, the drama department will be performing the comedy “Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).”
This show was originally scheduled to be performed in the spring of 2020, but was delayed due to the Coronavirus.
Based on the strength of the production of “Songs for a New World,” the News-Press (and hopefully audiences) eagerly await the 2021-2022 performances!