SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD
background and analysis by Scott Miller
One of the characters in Songs for a New World says "I don't want to philosophize. I just want to tell a story." And that line describes Songs for a New World perfectly; in fact, it tells a whole collection of stories. It's not a book musical – there is no over-arching plot and no consistent characters throughout the evening. In its construction, it owes much to Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and living in Paris and the theatre experiments of the 1960s. It’s a collection of independent scene-songs but it’s also more than that. In a 1998 review in St. Louis’ Riverfront Times, Mike Isaacson wrote, "Songs for a New World is that very rare beast: an abstract musical. There is no specific location other than the natural ambiguity of the human heart and mind." And yet it has a very strong sense of unity about it. Even though many of these songs were actually written for other projects over the span of several years, this show feels like it was planned as a unified whole from the beginning.
It accomplishes this mainly because every song in the show is essentially about the same thing: those moments in life when everything seems perfect and then suddenly disaster strikes, in the form of the loss of a job, an unexpected pregnancy, the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage, imprisonment, even suicide. But it’s even more about surviving those moments. It's about the way we regroup and figure out how to survive in a new set of circumstances – a new world – even against seemingly overwhelming odds. These are songs about that new world, a world in which the definitions of family, distance, money, technology, the very nature of human contact is changing every day, a world in which the rules don’t apply as often as they do, a world in which the solutions our parents found don’t work for us, and a world in which today’s answers probably won’t apply tomorrow. For someone who has lost his job or lost a spouse, our everyday world becomes just as frightening, just as dangerous, just as uncharted as the New World was to Columbus.
The other thing that lends unity to this show is composer Jason Robert Brown's musical habits. There are a handful of rhythmic, melodic, and accompaniment patterns that he obviously likes and that he uses frequently throughout the show. And because he wrote the opening number last, most of these patterns are gathered together in the opening to provide a nice musical framework for the evening. Also, the melody and sometimes the lyric of the opening are used throughout the show as transition pieces and even occasionally show up within other songs.
Creating a New World
Composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown came to New York City at age twenty, determined to write Broadway musicals. Because he had no contacts or connections, he decided to do a cabaret show of songs he had written for various past projects. He had the good fortune to run into Daisy Prince, daughter of the legendary Broadway director/producer Hal Prince, at a piano bar where Brown was working. Out of the blue, Brown asked Daisy Prince to direct this show he was putting together, having no idea if she had ever directed anything before in her life. She agreed immediately. They worked on the material for three years but still had no opening number and no clear idea what the show was about. As they discarded existing songs, Brown wrote new ones. Finally it hit him. In his own words, "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."
They did a workshop of the show in Toronto, and then it was brought to the WPA Theatre in New York where it played a limited run of twenty-eight performances. The score was recorded in 1996 by RCA and released commercially. In 1998, Brown was given his first Big Time assignment – writing the score for the new musical Parade, opening at Lincoln Center in the fall of 1998, with a book by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and directed by Daisy's dad, the legendary Hal Prince. Up until this point, Brown had done a lot of work writing orchestrations and vocal arrangements for other people's musicals (including William Finn's A New Brain) but now it was time for him to get the spotlight and no doubt he will become one of the strongest new musical theatre writers of this generation.
The Opening -- "The New World"
Because the opening number, "Songs for a New World," was written last, it functions as an unusually strong opening, more a prologue than a first song really, a survey of all that is to come for the rest of the evening. The opening stanza conjures images of frontiers, of brave new worlds waiting to be conquered, of those who crossed oceans to find freedom and land, of those who conquered the skies, first with airplanes, then with rockets and space shuttles (and who knows what next?), and of those who explore the inner terrain, both on the atomic and sub-atomic level and within the human mind itself.
As the first verse begins, the lyric tells us explicitly what the show is about: "It's about one moment . . . And just when you're on the verge of success, the sky starts to change and the wind starts to blow." In each song we will meet someone who has reached a defining moment in his or her life. It's a moment almost everyone encounters, when you feel like you've finally made it, you've finally crossed the last mountain and there are only good times ahead. But at this particular moment, suddenly everything changes. The environment (whether physical or emotional) transforms, becoming something new and unknown. Things look different and feel different. Forces beyond your control force you off your safe path, making things more difficult, perhaps making it impossible to continue on the road you'd chosen.
When this happens, you find you’ve become a different person. The woman who just found out she's pregnant redefines who she is. She's no longer a single woman, a person of freedom and opportunity. Now she's an expectant mother, a person of responsibility, of limited choices, of tremendous expectations. The man who finds himself fired after a lifetime in one job finds that he can no longer think of himself as an executive; now he's unemployed. Instead of going to his office everyday, now he goes to the unemployment office once a month. The rich woman who finds out her husband is having an affair no longer defines herself as a woman of privilege and power, but now sees herself as a victim, as a figure of (probable) public ridicule. The song's bridge sums it all up:
But then the earthquake hits
Then the bank closes in
Then you realize you didn't know anything.
Nobody told you the best way to steer
When the wind starts to blow.
You are hurled into foreign terrain, a place in which the rules you've learned all your life no longer apply. Parents, school, friends all taught you how to handle yourself and your life when everything's going well, but nobody ever told you how to navigate the bewildering world you find yourself in when genuine disaster strikes, when your life crumbles beneath you. Now you are in a new world and you must learn – quickly – the new rules, the new dangers, the new route to happiness.
In the songs that follow in this show, we meet people who find themselves in a new world. Some of them triumph in their new landscapes, some of them don't. Some of them see their new worlds as dark and foreboding; others sees them as chances for new beginnings.
As the main part of the show opens with the song "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492," we meet the captain of a ship in 1492. We might assume it's Columbus (which is interesting because there's a reference to him in "The River Won't Flow"), but it's more likely another important group of Spanish sailing ships in 1492, those of the Jews expelled from Spain because of the Spanish Inquisition. Inquisitor General Torquemada's hatred of relapsed Jews was exceeded only by his hostility to the unconverted ones. He wanted badly to expel all Jews from Spain. The Jews, however, not being Christians were outside the jurisdiction of the inquisition. So he used his power of persuasion to convince Queen Isabella to banish them. The story goes that the Jews offered thirty thousand ducats to the Queen to let them remain in Spain. When Torquemada found out about this, he confronted the Queen with a crucifix and exclaimed, "Judas sold his God for thirty pieces of silver - you are about to sell him for thirty thousand!" In 1492 Jews were finally forced to leave Spain. They were given the choice of converting to Christianity or to leave the country within three months. About one hundred and fifty thousand Jews chose exile. Many of them died on the voyage out of Spain; thousands were captured by pirates and sold to slavery; thousands more died of starvation, disease and drowning. Here was a group of outcasts heading for a literal new world, a world of all new rules, freedom from old dangers, but new dangers to replace them, a new world which will become a metaphor for the emotional and intellectual new worlds the other characters will find. And the many references to God are quite powerful for these people exiled because of their religious beliefs. But despite the very specific title of this song, this man stands for all the explorers in all times who've headed out in search of strange lands (or planets) about which they knew nothing.
Like many of the songs in this show, God and faith figure prominently in this song. This is a song about people for whom nothing is more powerful than their faith. They endure the most profound hardships, putting all their faith in the promise of a better place to which God will lead them. These people are not like most people today who attend church – the people on this ship have placed not only their hopes and dreams in God's hands, but also quite literally their lives and the lives of their children. They have no idea what they will find in the New World, but they hope it will be better than what they've left.
This song makes real the metaphors that will drive the rest of the show. The other characters in the show find that the journey is a necessary ordeal, one that teaches them and toughens them, one that is often more important than the destination. It puts them through various kinds of hell and in some cases actually kills them. Here on this Spanish ship, some of these people will die before reaching the New World. The others will be put through the most extreme sickness and discomfort. Some will lose their children and some children will arrive as orphans. The message of the show is we all go through ordeals, we all fail, we all find ourselves beaten down by life, but most of us make it through these ordeals. While most of the other characters in the show go through emotional or spiritual ordeals, the people on this ship go through physical ordeals as well. Here, the metaphor becomes concrete.
Though several numbers in the show were written specifically for Songs for a New World, some were written for other musicals and some were written for cabaret. Yet they have been assembled and programmed (and in some cases, revised) so beautifully, so artfully, that they all appear to have been written together as a unified score. After the opening that describes the main themes of the show, this second song gives us a glimpse of the real events that have become merely metaphors to us, metaphors in fact that may have lost some of the potency. And so that they will have their full dramatic power for the rest of the show, Brown forces us to look once again (or maybe for the first time) at the real thing.
It's interesting how much God shows up in this musical, throughout all of "Christmas Lullaby" and "I'm Flying Home," and as a major theme in "King of the World" and other songs. Perhaps even more interesting is the line in "The River Won't Flow," in which one of the characters sings, "It's not about God and the master plan." In "River," we meet four characters who believe not in God but in the complete randomness of the world, quite a contrast to the people "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship."
Another interesting topic that returns over and over throughout the show is that of parents. With only a few exceptions, mothers are portrayed as nurturing and kind while fathers are irresponsible and destructive. There's the father who burns the family house down while he deposits the kids on the sidewalk and leaves, in "Steam Train." There's the father in "The World Was Dancing," who squanders the family savings on buying his own store and allowing it to be burned to the ground (though we might question the perspective of the singer on this one). There's the father having an affair in "Just One Step." There's the father in "Stars and Moon" who left his wife and kids on a whim. And of course there's the completely absent father of the unborn child in "Christmas Lullaby."
There are two mothers in the show who aren't ideal, but they are the exceptions. In "Just One Step," this woman threatens to jump off the 57th floor, and tells her unresponsive husband that it will be his fault that the mother of his children will be splattered on the pavement. Whether she actually intends to jump is up for debate – perhaps she doesn’t even really know – but she is using her own kids as leverage. She wants him to picture having to explain to them why Mommy threw herself off the ledge to her death. She doesn't think about what she'll be doing to the kids, only how to manipulate her husband. She's an exception. The other possible exception is the woman in "I'm Not Afraid of Anything." She's leaving her husband and her kids. We don't know how old the kids are, but they can't be too old since one is still afraid of the dark. And we don't know the details of the family situation, so perhaps she believes leaving them is what's best for them. But she's certainly not a nurturer. She has shut herself off to both her own mother and apparently to her two daughters as well.
But the other mothers in the show are nurturers. The woman on the Spanish sailing ship pleads for God to save her child even though she knows she may not survive herself. The expectant woman in "Christmas Lullaby" finds self-worth, maybe for the first time ever, in the fact of her motherhood. Though her life has meant little, she intends her child to accomplish great things, and we can guess that she will give that child all the love she didn't get. One of the men in "The River Won't Flow" cites advice from his mother (though it's a bit questionable). The mother in "The Flagmaker" sits at home waiting for news that her husband or her son has been killed in the battlefield, yet she keeps those home fires burning and holds on to hope. And in "Hear My Song," these two mothers give their children the greatest advice they can give, that despite it all, through all the pain of life, it's going to be okay.
"I'm Not Afraid of Anything"
With many of the songs in this show, Brown doesn't tell us explicitly a whole lot about who these people are or exactly what their situations are. There are lots of clues, but they're only sprinkled throughout each song and we have to find them and piece them together. We can't always rely on the characters telling the truth – sometimes they're hiding something, other times they're lying to themselves. That's what makes theses songs so rich and this show so interesting. That’s why every one of these songs takes on greater depth and power each time we hear it. Like many of Stephen Sondheim's theatre songs, Brown's songs become richer the more you hear and think about them.
His original intention for the song "I’m Not Afraid of Anything" was to portray a young woman, maybe twenty years old, complaining about her parents, her friends Jennie and Katie, and her boyfriend David. She sees herself more ready for adventure than them, more hungry for experiences, less complacent, less scared of the unknown. In the original production, the singer was sitting on a swing; Brown wanted to make clear her youth and keep the song and her emotions simple. It’s important to remember that each of the four actors in the show has a kind of over-arching character that spans the evening; not a literal character, as the details vary from song to song, but more an emotional journey for each actor that progresses from the beginning of the evening to the end. For instance, The woman who sings "I’m Not Afraid of Anything" is also the woman who gets dumped in "The World Was Dancing," who finds herself pregnant in "Christmas Lullaby," and who reconciles with her lover in "I’d Give It All for You." And taken together, these songs chart an emotional journey, this woman growing over the course of the show from innocence to understanding and self-knowledge.
But though that was how Brown intended "I’m Not Afraid of Anything," is it the only way to play the song? Is there an equally legitimate, arguably more interesting way to approach the character? In every other song in the show, the character’s world has crumbled and they find themselves in a new world, where the rules have changed and nothing is the same. As described above, in "I’m Not Afraid of Anything" the singer’s world has not crumbled and there is no new world she must navigate. Every other song in the show deals with complicated people with deeply complex emotions and issues; is this the only one that doesn’t? There are lots of questions not answered in this song. Who is this woman, what is the adventure she keeps referring to, why does she keep telling us how she brave she is, and why does she keep telling us how every other person in her life is so afraid? Why is fear such a consuming concept for her at this moment? Most interesting, is the singer telling the truth, about herself and about the others? And if she's not telling the truth, does she know that, or is she saying what she believes is true? Might there be fear in her words, hidden truths behind the false bravado?
She talks about Jennie and Katie first, then her parents, and then David. Could she be married? Could Jennie and Katie be her kids and David her husband? That certainly makes sense with regard to Jennie’s fear of water and Katie’s fear of the dark, not fears you usually find in twenty-somethings. If so, then the song becomes one about family and motherhood, two themes that dominate the show.
The last verse of the song is about trouble between her and David; he’s afraid to touch her, to love her, afraid in fact of her. Perhaps she’s decided this relationship is impossible and she has left her husband and children. She’s clearly planning a change in her life, as she tells us to "watch me fly!" She reassures herself that she is strong, that she can do this, that she can survive the choice she’s making, that she can make it on her own; and she finds solace in the fact that she is fiercer and stronger than those around her. In fact, maybe she sees herself as having always been one of them, one of those who are afraid, but now she has been transformed by her trials and no longer counts herself among their ranks.
But we have to ask, then, if she really is as fearless as she says. If in fact she is leaving David and the kids, might not that be an act of cowardice? As far as we know, David’s greatest (maybe only) crime is in being afraid to get close to her, and from what she tells us in the song, that may well be her fault. She has built a wall around herself and then complains when nobody can penetrate it. She sings:
Not a soul alive can get behind this wall.
So let them call
And watch them fall.
But if she’s so proud that no one can get close, why is she complaining about David? Is it any wonder he’s distant? And are her parents just like her and David? If her mother works so hard at hiding her emotions, has the singer learned to build that wall from her mother? The singer tries to focus on the adventure ahead, but her mind keeps returning to David. In the last two verses, the music repeatedly builds as she gets more and more excited about the new life – the new world – toward which she's heading, but the pounding music keeps getting interrupted, musically and textually, by images of David. She doesn't want to end it; she feels she has to end it.
This is a fascinating, exciting lyric mostly because it does not tell us explicitly what it's about. It doesn't say "I Ain't Down Yet" or "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." It talks around the subject without directly addressing it, and in that act it becomes so much realer and more compelling than many theatre songs. This character acts like real people act. This woman may not understand her motivations and fears herself, and if she does, she certainly doesn't want to talk about them. So a song cataloguing the exact details of her situation would be false. This is a theatre song that speaks completely in the voice of the character singing – the way a good theatre song always should – and it never crosses into the writer's voice. It's as if we've just met her in a diner and she's pulled us into a conversation, but she never learned how to express her feelings. Still, we can guess what's wrong. Even though this woman hasn't directly told us all that much about her, we know her by the time the song is over. It's also interesting that in a show that speaks of God so often, here is a character at a crossroads and she never even mentions him. She also never mentions the kids after the first verse; that also may speak volumes about her. This second, alternate interpretation also sees this woman growing over the course of the show, but from a place of fear, from being scared and judgmental, to a place of balance, peace, and self-acceptance; rather than just from innocence to understanding. Certainly either interpretation works and we should always respect the writer’s intentions; but here, his way isn’t the only way. And because this song has been so beautifully underwritten, because Jason Robert Brown left so much unsaid, he has generously left the interpretation to the actor and director.
This song is an example of how many numbers in the show deal partly or completely with bad marriages or relationships – "Just One Step," "I'm Not Afraid of Anything," "Stars and the Moon," "Surabaya Santa," and maybe (we don't have enough details) also "She Cries" and ""The World Was Dancing." The relationship in "I'd Give It All for You" was bad but may be better now. Still, that's seven out of sixteen, almost half.
"Stars and the Moon"
Here's a new twist on the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for, or you will surely get it." The singer talks about three men in her life, two dreamers she rejects and one rich man she chose. All her life she wanted a glamorous, fairy tale life. But this song isn't about bad choices; it's about misinformation. Her whole story is built on the assumption that being rich is always a good thing. At this point in the show, we've already met the rich lady planning to jump off the 57th floor, and if we didn't know already, we know now that being rich isn't always best. The other misconception is that we always know when we're young what's best for us. Clearly we don't, or the world would be much fuller of astronauts, firemen, and ballerinas. And yet, how many women have done exactly what this woman has done – married for money and security? We can smile knowingly and say, well, maybe that used to happen but not anymore. But we'd be wrong. It still happens. Things have changed, but not entirely. Too many people are still today programmed to believe that they can find happiness only in money. And like the woman in the song, they find out the truth too late.
"The Steam Train"
Like almost every other song in the show, "The Steam Train" operates on several levels at once. The singer, a young man (just how young is unclear) from a poor family dreams of escaping his poverty by becoming a famous basketball player. He sees himself as a steam train, the traditional image of a powerful, unstoppable force, speeding forward to the future. It's interesting that his main metaphor is that of an out-dated kind of train, though. Steam trains have not been the train of choice for a very long time. Still, that's how he sees himself. He has learned from reading the paper, seeing commercials, and watching basketball games that basketball is an instant ticket out of poverty and a world of crime, drugs, violence, and quite possibly death.
So he practices every day, waiting for that day when he will be discovered, offered a contract, taken out of his present circumstances. But early in the song, composer Brown folds into the mixture a hint of cynicism. Though the two women singing back-up clearly worship the basketball player, the one man singing back-up thinks he's a fake. He negates everything the women have been singing. Suddenly we wonder about the lead singer's boasts. Does the back-up singer know more than we do? Is the kid really good enough? Has he really worked hard enough? And really, even if he has, what if he doesn't get discovered?
Midway through the song, the kid tells us the story of how his father burnt down the family home and then walked away, never to return, when the singer was just five years old (another example of a destructive father figure). Immediately after that story, the back-up singers quote a section from the opening number; the kid is instantly living in a new world, with all new rules. But maybe, like many of the other characters in the show, this kid is a survivor. He got through what was apparently a rotten childhood, and it seems nothing can get him down. We soon see that this is not a song about fame and fortune; quite the opposite, this is a song about surviving, both spiritually and also physically.
At the end of the song the singer tells us that of the twelve boys in his fifth grade class, four are in jail and six are dead. This kid does not intend to join their ranks. It's not about the endorsement deals he talks about; it's about making it to his twenty-first birthday alive. At the end, he says, for the third time in the song, "You don't know me, but you will." The song does not tell us the ending of this boy's story. Will he really make it out? Or will we know him only because he’ll become a crime statistic or because we’ll read his obituary? Maybe the dream of basketball stardom is beside the point. The question is whether or not this kid has strength, whether or not he is a survivor. Even if he doesn't become the next basketball star, does he have the drive and ambition and intelligence to make it out anyway? If he only becomes a teacher or a lawyer instead, something far less glamorous, the trick is finding his path, his place in the world.
"The World Was Dancing"
The second act of "Songs for a New World" opens with one of the least direct of the songs in the show, "The World Was Dancing." A young adult man tells us two stories in this song. First he tells about his father, who quit his job, bought his own store, and then hired an old army buddy to run it, who accidentally burned the store to the ground. So the father had to go back to his old job, his dignity sacrificed. The young man also tells us the story of the girl he meets at college, with whom he begins a relationship, eventually gets engaged to, and then leaves at the altar. What's interesting in this song is how the two stories are told at the same time, how the details of the stories parallel each other, and what lesson the young man learns from his father's story. This is a song about risk, or more specifically, the risk of putting your future in someone else's hands. The father takes the risk of quitting his job to open his own store. He takes the risk of hiring an old friend and giving him responsibility for the store. The risks do not pay off. The father's attempt fails. Similarly, the son meets a girl and takes the risk of beginning a relationship with her. But the son does not truly commit himself to this relationship. He meets another girl and has a brief affair. He sees how his father's risk failed, so the son decides he will simply not risk. He runs away, without even telling his fiancée goodbye. The son has learned the wrong lesson.
Throughout the song, we see his memory of the girl, Amy, singing of their happy future together. The idea is that taking risks actually makes a person feel free. But the son can never fully risk, can not give himself over completely to that leap of faith, and so he can never really experience that feeling of freedom that his father and Amy both feel. When his father's venture fails, the son refuses to even come home when his parents send him a plane ticket. He can't face his father because he now sees him as a failure. Notice how he tells the story. The father's store is a "piece of shit." The friend the father hires is "some schmuck that he knew from the war." To take his old job back, the son believes the father "hid his pride and shame." Rather than face the possibility of failure which he believes has turned his father into a loser, the son instead runs away. Rather than have dreams that might get dashed, he chooses not to have dreams at all. Throughout the song, the son has sung that "we were dancing, the world was dancing." But at the end, it's no longer "we;" now it's "I" and "they." He is alone now. There's no one to dance with. Throughout the song, Amy sings, "We'll never be afraid." But at the end, after he's run away, the son can't finish that line, because now he will be afraid. He is alone. He has no dreams. He has no one to risk with.
Here Comes Santa Claus
The second act of the show includes two Christmas-related songs and they couldn't be more different from each other. The title of the first one, "Surabaya Santa," is an insider's joke, a take-off on the song "Surabaya Johnny" from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's 1929 German musical Happy End. Its only New York production was in 1977 and ran less than three months. Still, the song earned some fame over the years as a vehicle for the German torch singer Lotte Lenya (Weill's wife). Surabaya is a coastal city with a naval base in Indonesia, and the song is about a young girl who falls in love with a charming, sweet talking heel who loves her, lies to her, cheats on her, and leaves her; but no matter what he does she can't stop loving him.
In "Surabaya Santa" Brown puts Mrs. Claus in the position of the Woman Done Wrong. It's a brilliant comedy number that takes one of our most entrenched cultural icons and places it in the oddest, most unlikely context possible. How unsettling it is, not only to place Santa in a sexual context, but also to hear Mrs. Claus' bitter accusations of his deviant sexual behavior (involving both reindeer and young boys). To add to the fun, Brown's music is a delicious pastiche of Kurt Weill's decadent, dissonant German nightclub style (which was also borrowed by John Kander for most of the score of Cabaret). Even the song's lyric makes funny references to the lyric of "Surabaya Johnny" and the new song follows the old song’s construction to a point. In the original production of Songs for a New World (and on the cast album), the singer even added a wonderfully funny fake German accent, as Mrs. Claus tries to adopt the tragic Marlene Dietrich torch song posture – and maybe she also thinks jolly old Germanic St. Nicholas might find a German woman more attractive. In the second verse, though, she’s just too depressed to hold on to the Dietrich persona and she drops the accent as she gets more and more desperate, making her charade even funnier and more pathetic. How much of all this is lost on an audience, most of whom probably never heard of "Surabaya Johnny" may well be beside the point. Even without advance knowledge of the Weill song, this number is just plain funny.
Brown's other Christmas-related song is deeply emotional. It's called "Christmas Lullaby" but its lyric never mentions Christmas. Here, a young girl has just discovered she is pregnant, and she seems to be alone in the world. In the emotional through-line of the show, this is the woman who was left at the altar in "The World Was Dancing" but who will reunite with her lover later in the song "I’d Give It All for You." Though an unexpected pregnancy might be a devastating predicament for most girls in her position, this girl finds God in it. For the first time, she has worth because she is bringing into the world another person, maybe someone who will change the world the way she never could. She compares herself to the Virgin Mary and by implication, her child to the Christ child. But it's not just her unborn child who is blessed; she believes that Heaven has finally smiled down on her as well by bestowing this gift upon her.
Handled differently, this song might have been irreverent or even sacrilegious, but this girl's words are so innocent, so guileless and honest, that we cannot object. She has reached one of those moments in life that this show is all about, and instead of choosing panic, instead of choosing to "erase" her mistake, she has chosen to find grace in it instead. She does not see it as an interruption or ruination of her life. To her, as an event in her simple, bleak life, it is a miracle.
"King of the World"
"King of the World" is a song in the show that is hard to figure out on first hearing. It's sung by a man in prison, that much is clear. He is probably a political activist, and the fact that a black man played the role in the original production makes us think perhaps the character is a civil rights activist. But the man also speaks of himself in divine terms, as a kind of god. Perhaps he had a great deal of power – like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X – the trust of many, and the belief that God was on his side, maybe even that God was acting through him. But now, he finds himself in a prison cell, in some ways, impotent. Yet his optimism continues. He realizes as he sits in his cell that his work is bigger than just him, that even when he's locked up, even after he's gone, his work and his legacy will live on, and through that he will live on as well. Like a mountain, he will always be here. In fact, maybe his pleas to be set free are pleas to God to take his life and free him from his earthly chains. (This makes even more sense considering that two of the next three songs are about death.)
There are references to God throughout the song (at one point, as a capitalized Father). There are certainly parallels between the singer and the persecuted Jesus Christ. We have to wonder if the title of the song is a reference to Martin Luther King, Jr. But whoever he is and whatever his cause, this is another survivor. Even in jail, even facing death, this is a man who survives. He has his doubts, to be sure, as we see in his faltering sentences at the end of the song, but his cause is a good one and he believes that it will be carried on, either by him or by others. As an instrument of that cause, as long as it survives, so does he.
"I'd Give it All for You"
Like the musical Company, the song "I'd Give It All for You" has a simple message, but one not often expressed in musicals or pop songs. The message is that relationships, whether marriage or its equivalents, are difficult and frustrating but they are worth it. Sharing your life with someone else is hard but it’s better than being alone. In this song a couple comes back together after having broken up a while ago. (We can wonder if maybe this could be the couple from "I’m Not Afraid of Anything.") These two people have gone off to create lives on their own, and though their lives were good, they soon realized that they weren't as good as when they were together. The song's bridge articulates one of life's great truths, and one of the show's central themes:
God knows it's easy to hide --
Easy to hide from the things that you feel
And harder to blindly trust what you can't understand.
God knows it's easy to run --
Easy to run from the people you love
And harder to stand and fight for the things you believe.
As characters throughout the show have learned, what is easiest is rarely what makes our life the richest or happiest. They now see that their relationship was far from perfect, but it was still the best they'd ever found. Like the young lovers in The Fantasticks, these two went off on adventures and what they discovered was that they'd rather be back home with the one they love. The world is a cold, scary place, one that is much easier to navigate with someone at your side. The last line of the song sums it all up – no matter what happens, no matter how hard it all is, it's about having someone there for you. That's what counts.
Even though most of these songs were written for other projects, it is amazing how well they work together, how perfect they seem for each other. In the beginning of the show, "The New World" and "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship" form a pair of songs about journeys, about their necessity, whether inside or outside of us. "Surabaya Santa" and "Christmas Lullaby" form a wonderful, contrasting pair of meditations on Christmas. It's interesting, and quite in tune with the rest of this very spiritual show, that the secular Christmas song is an unhappy one, and the religious Christmas song is one of hope and joy.
Now almost at the end of the show there is another pair of songs that go together. "The Flagmaker" is about a woman dealing with what war takes from her, and "Flying Home" is about a soldier's death. Once again, the more secular song is a sad one, while the song rooted in spirituality is a song about hope and joy – even though it's about death. Does this tells us something about Jason Robert Brown himself?
The first of these two songs is called "The Flagmaker, 1775," and despite its very specific title, its character transcends time periods. This is a woman whose husband (and son?) is at war. Her house is falling apart, and she cannot sleep at night. To keep her mind occupied, she sews. But this is not just a song about distraction; this woman sews flags. It keeps her mind and her hands busy, but it also allows her to contribute something to the war effort. It is usually agreed that the reason the less trained, less well fed, smaller American army won the Revolutionary War was because they had something to fight for – freedom. Nothing is more inspiring to a soldier, and the symbol of that freedom is the flag. This woman is helping to give the soldiers something to fight for, something to believe in when they are tired and hungry, and most importantly, the inspiration they need to emerge victorious. She knows her contribution is small but it matters. Maybe the flags she makes will help keep morale up, will inspire soldiers to do their best, and maybe the better they fight, the less likely she is to lose her husband and son. This woman is a survivor.
The second song in this pair, "Flying Home," is sung by a soldier who has died in battle, maybe the husband or son of the woman in the previous song. Not only is he flying home to heaven, into the arms of God; his body is also being flown home into the arms of his mother, to be buried. More than that, he reassures her that even though he will be gone from this life, he will live on in her heart and memory ("I'll hear you call me, just like before, and I'll be flying home straight into your arms."). He asks her to carry him on – his memory, his courage, stories of how he fought for his country. As the funeral is of anyone who has died in battle, it is a time of mourning but also a time of pride and a celebration of courage.
Like so much of this score, this is a song about two conflicting emotions co-existing in the same moment. The first two songs in the show describe a mix of excitement and fear. "I'm Not Afraid of Anything" describes a mix of determination and the regret of leaving her family. "Stars and the Moon" describes a mix of satisfaction at attaining all she wanted and regret at not knowing how foolish she was to want that. "The World Was Dancing" describes both relief and regret. "Surabaya Santa" describes both love and anger. As in real life, emotions seldom hit us one at a time. That's what makes life so complicated and it's what makes good theatre so exciting.
"Hear My Song"
Just as "The New World" gives us a wonderful introduction to the evening's topic, "Hear My Song" provides the perfect summing up. "The New World" tells us what to expect and "Hear My Song" tells us why we've been through this series of stories. The message of this song – and of the whole show – is that we all go through these bad times. In a very real sense, none of us is ever really alone. None of us is ever the only person to have ever gone through a particular crisis. And our salvation comes through community. It is through telling our stories and listening to others' stories that we find the strength to go on. The most important lines in the show appear in this final song:
Hear my song --
It was made for the times when you don't know where to go.
Listen to the song that I sing.
You'll be fine.
In other words, look at how these ordinary people all survived their extraordinary ordeals, and know that you can too. We all find ourselves in new worlds from time to time, in situations where the rules we've always lived by no longer apply. We must all know that we can survive and even thrive there. And that's not just the theme of this show. It's the reason for theatre in general. From prehistoric people telling stories around the fire, to the biggest techno-spectacle on Broadway, theatre is about telling stories, stories that unite us, that show us our commonality. It's significant that at the end of the song, the line "You'll be fine" has been changed to "We'll be fine." It's about community. It's about shared experience. And it's about the fact that as humans we are all forced to go on new journeys, into new worlds, over and over again throughout our lives. As Stephen Sondheim wrote in Into the Woods, "Into the woods we go again. We have to, every now and then..."
The cast album for the original production of Songs for a New World is available on CD, and a few of the songs are on other solo CDs as well, but neither the script or score have been published.
Excerpt (expanded and revised) from Rebels with Applause: Broadway's Ground-Breaking Musicals by Scott Miller (Heinemann Publishing, 1999). All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.
But envisioning this process with rock music is harder. Almost anything can be labeled “rock”: Metallica, ABBA, Mannheim Steamroller, a haircut, a muffler. If you’re a successful tax lawyer who owns a hot tub, clients will refer to you as a “rock-star C.P.A.” when describing your business to less-hip neighbors. The defining music of the first half of the 20th century was jazz; the defining music of the second half of the 20th century was rock, but with an ideology and saturation far more pervasive. Only television surpasses its influence.
And pretty much from the moment it came into being, people who liked rock insisted it was dying. The critic Richard Meltzer supposedly claimed that rock was already dead in 1968. And he was wrong to the same degree that he was right. Meltzer’s wrongness is obvious and does not require explanation, unless you honestly think “Purple Rain” is awful. But his rightness is more complicated: Rock is dead, in the sense that its “aliveness” is a subjective assertion based on whatever criteria the listener happens to care about.
This is why the essential significance of rock remains a plausible thing to debate, as does the relative value of major figures within that system (the Doors, R.E.M., Radiohead). It still projects the illusion of a universe containing multitudes. But it won’t seem that way in 300 years.
The symbolic value of rock is conflict-based: It emerged as a byproduct of the post-World War II invention of the teenager, soundtracking a 25-year period when the gap between generations was utterly real and uncommonly vast. That dissonance gave rock music a distinctive, nonmusical importance for a long time. But that period is over. Rock — or at least the anthemic, metaphoric, Hard Rock Cafe version of big rock — has become more socially accessible but less socially essential, synchronously shackled by its own formal limitations. Its cultural recession is intertwined with its cultural absorption. As a result, what we’re left with is a youth-oriented music genre that a) isn’t symbolically important; b) lacks creative potential; and c) has no specific tie to young people. It has completed its historical trajectory. Which means, eventually, it will exist primarily as an academic pursuit. It will exist as something people have to be taught to feel and understand.
I imagine a college classroom in 300 years, in which a hip instructor is leading a tutorial filled with students. These students relate to rock music with no more fluency than they do the music of Mesopotamia: It’s a style they’ve learned to recognize, but just barely (and only because they’ve taken this specific class). Nobody in the room can name more than two rock songs, except the professor. He explains the sonic structure of rock, its origins, the way it served as cultural currency and how it shaped and defined three generations of a global superpower. He shows the class a photo, or perhaps a hologram, of an artist who has been intentionally selected to epitomize the entire concept. For these future students, that singular image defines what rock was.
So what’s the image?
Certainly, there’s one response to this hypothetical that feels immediate and sensible: the Beatles. All logic points to their dominance. They were the most popular band in the world during the period they were active and are only slightly less popular now, five decades later. The Beatles defined the concept of what a “rock group” was supposed to be, and all subsequent rock groups are (consciously or unconsciously) modeled upon the template they naturally embodied. Their 1964 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” is so regularly cited as the genesis for other bands that they arguably invented the culture of the 1970s, a decade when they were no longer together. The Beatles arguably invented everything, including the very notion of a band’s breaking up. There are still things about the Beatles that can’t be explained, almost to the point of the supernatural: the way their music resonates with toddlers, for example, or the way it resonated with Charles Manson. It’s impossible to imagine another rock group where half its members faced unrelated assassination attempts. In any reasonable world, the Beatles are the answer to the question “Who will be the Sousa of rock?”
But our world is not reasonable. And the way this question will be asked tomorrow is (probably) not the same way we would ask it today.
In Western culture, virtually everything is understood through the process of storytelling, often to the detriment of reality. When we recount history, we tend to use the life experience of one person — the “journey” of a particular “hero,” in the lingo of the mythologist Joseph Campbell — as a prism for understanding everything else. That inclination works to the Beatles’ communal detriment. But it buoys two other figures: Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. The Beatles are the most meaningful group, but Elvis and Dylan are the towering individuals, so eminent that I wouldn’t necessarily need to use Elvis’s last name or Dylan’s first.
Still, neither is an ideal manifestation of rock as a concept.
It has been said that Presley invented rock and roll, but he actually staged a form of primordial “prerock” that barely resembles the post-“Rubber Soul” aesthetics that came to define what this music is. He also exited rock culture relatively early; he was pretty much out of the game by 1973. Conversely, Dylan’s career spans the entirety of rock. Yet he never made an album that “rocked” in any conventional way (the live album “Hard Rain” probably comes closest). Still, these people are rock people. Both are integral to the core of the enterprise and influenced everything we have come to understand about the form (including the Beatles themselves, a group that would not have existed without Elvis and would not have pursued introspection without Dylan).
In 300 years, the idea of “rock music” being represented by a two‑pronged combination of Elvis and Dylan would be equitable and oddly accurate. But the passage of time makes this progressively more difficult. It’s always easier for a culture to retain one story instead of two, and the stories of Presley and Dylan barely intersect (they supposedly met only once, in a Las Vegas hotel room). As I write this sentence, the social stature of Elvis and Dylan feels similar, perhaps even identical. But it’s entirely possible one of them will be dropped as time plods forward. And if that happens, the consequence will be huge. If we concede that the “hero’s journey” is the de facto story through which we understand history, the differences between these two heroes would profoundly alter the description of what rock music supposedly was.
If Elvis (minus Dylan) is the definition of rock, then rock is remembered as showbiz. Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis did not write songs; he interpreted songs that were written by other people (and like Sinatra, he did this brilliantly). But removing the centrality of songwriting from the rock equation radically alters it. Rock becomes a performative art form, where the meaning of a song matters less than the person singing it. It becomes personality music, and the dominant qualities of Presley’s persona — his sexuality, his masculinity, his larger‑than‑life charisma — become the dominant signifiers of what rock was. His physical decline and reclusive death become an allegory for the entire culture. The reminiscence of the rock genre adopts a tragic hue, punctuated by gluttony, drugs and the conscious theft of black culture by white opportunists.
But if Dylan (minus Elvis) becomes the definition of rock, everything reverses. In this contingency, lyrical authenticity becomes everything; rock is somehow calcified as an intellectual craft, interlocked with the folk tradition. It would be remembered as far more political than it actually was, and significantly more political than Dylan himself. The fact that Dylan does not have a conventionally “good” singing voice becomes retrospective proof that rock audiences prioritized substance over style, and the portrait of his seven‑decade voyage would align with the most romantic version of how an eclectic collection of autonomous states eventually became a place called “America.”
These are the two best versions of this potential process. And both are flawed.
There is, of course, another way to consider how these things might unspool, and it might be closer to the way histories are actually built. I’m creating a binary reality where Elvis and Dylan start the race to posterity as equals, only to have one runner fall and disappear. The one who remains “wins” by default (and maybe that happens). But it might work in reverse. A more plausible situation is that future people will haphazardly decide how they want to remember rock, and whatever they decide will dictate who is declared its architect. If the constructed memory is a caricature of big‑hair arena rock, the answer is probably Elvis; if it’s a buoyant, unrealistic apparition of punk hagiography, the answer is probably Dylan. But both conclusions direct us back to the same recalcitrant question: What makes us remember the things we remember?
In 2014, the jazz historian Ted Gioia published a short essay about music criticism that outraged a class of perpetually outraged music critics. Gioia’s assertion was that 21st‑century music writing has devolved into a form of lifestyle journalism that willfully ignores the technical details of the music itself. Many critics took this attack personally and accused Gioia of devaluing their vocation. Which is odd, considering the colossal degree of power Gioia ascribes to record reviewers: He believes specialists are the people who galvanize history. Critics have almost no impact on what music is popular at any given time, but they’re extraordinarily well positioned to dictate what music is reintroduced after its popularity has waned.
“Over time, critics and historians will play a larger role in deciding whose fame endures,” Gioia wrote me in an email. “Commercial factors will have less impact. I don’t see why rock and pop will follow any different trajectory from jazz and blues.” He rattled off several illustrative examples: Ben Selvin outsold Louis Armstrong in the 1920s. In 1956, Nelson Riddle and Les Baxter outsold “almost every rock ’n’ roll star not named Elvis,” but they’ve been virtually erased from the public record. A year after that, the closeted gay crooner Tab Hunter was bigger than Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino, “but critics and music historians hate sentimental love songs. They’ve constructed a perspective that emphasizes the rise of rock and pushes everything else into the background. Transgressive rockers, in contrast, enjoy lasting fame.” He points to a contemporary version of that phenomenon: “Right now, electronic dance music probably outsells hip‑hop. This is identical to the punk‑versus‑disco trade‑off of the 1970s. My prediction: edgy hip‑hop music will win the fame game in the long run, while E.D.M. will be seen as another mindless dance craze.”
Gioia is touching on a variety of volatile ideas here, particularly the outsize memory of transgressive art. His example is the adversarial divide between punk and disco: In 1977, the disco soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever” and the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” were both released. The soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever” has sold more than 15 million copies; it took “Never Mind the Bollocks” 15 years to go platinum. Yet virtually all pop historiographers elevate the importance of the Pistols above that of the Bee Gees. The same year the Sex Pistols finally sold the millionth copy of their debut, SPIN magazine placed them on a list of the seven greatest bands of all time. “Never Mind the Bollocks” is part of the White House record library, supposedly inserted by Amy Carter just before her dad lost to Ronald Reagan. The album’s reputation improves by simply existing: In 1985, the British publication NME classified it as the 13th‑greatest album of all time; in 1993, NME made a new list and decided it now deserved to be ranked third. This has as much to do with its transgressive identity as its musical integrity. The album is overtly transgressive (and therefore memorable), while “Saturday Night Fever” has been framed as a prefab totem of a facile culture (and thus forgettable). For more than three decades, that has been the overwhelming consensus.
But I’ve noticed — just in the last four or five years — that this consensus is shifting. Why? Because the definition of “transgressive” is shifting. It’s no longer appropriate to dismiss disco as superficial. More and more, we recognize how disco latently pushed gay, urban culture into white suburbia, which is a more meaningful transgression than going on a British TV talk show and swearing at the host. So is it possible that the punk‑disco polarity will eventually flip? Yes. It’s possible everyone could decide to reverse how we remember 1977. But there’s still another stage here, beyond that hypothetical inversion: the stage in which everybody who was around for punk and disco is dead and buried, and no one is left to contradict how that moment felt. When that happens, the debate over transgressions freezes and all that is left is the music. Which means the Sex Pistols could win again or maybe they lose bigger, depending on the judge.
“There is a justice-driven part of my brain that believes — or needs to believe — that the cream rises to the top, and the best work endures by virtue of its goodness,” argues the music writer Amanda Petrusich, author of “Do Not Sell at Any Price,” a dive into the obsessive world of 78 r.p.m. record collectors. “That music becomes emblematic because it’s the most effective. When I think of rock and who might survive, I immediately think of the Rolling Stones. They’re a band that sounds like what we’ve all decided rock ’n’ roll should sound like: loose and wild. Their story reflects that ethos and sound: loose and wild. And also, they’re good.”
This is true. The Rolling Stones are good, even when they release records like “Bridges to Babylon.” They’ve outlived every band that ever competed against them, with career album sales exceeding the present population of Brazil. From a credibility standpoint, the Rolling Stones are beyond reproach, regardless of how they choose to promote themselves: They’ve performed at the Super Bowl, in a Kellogg’s commercial and on an episode of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” The name of the biggest magazine covering rock music was partly inspired by their sheer existence. The group members have faced arrest on multiple continents, headlined the most disastrous concert in California history and classified themselves (with surprisingly little argument) as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world” since 1969. Working from the premise that the collective memory of rock should dovetail with the artist who most accurately represents what rock music actually was, the Rolling Stones are a strong answer.
But not the final answer.
NASA sent the unmanned craft Voyager I into deep space in 1977. It’s still out there, forever fleeing Earth’s pull. No man‑made object has ever traveled farther; it crossed the orbit of Pluto in 1989 and currently tumbles through the interstellar wasteland. The hope was that this vessel would eventually be discovered by intelligent extraterrestrials, so NASA included a compilation album made of gold, along with a rudimentary sketch of how to play it with a stylus. A team led by Carl Sagan curated the album’s contents. The record, if played by the aliens, is supposed to reflect the diversity and brilliance of earthling life. This, obviously, presupposes a lot of insane hopes: that the craft will somehow be found, that the craft will somehow be intact, that the aliens who find it will be vaguely human, that these vaguely human aliens will absorb stimuli both visually and sonically and that these aliens will not still be listening to eight‑tracks.
But it did guarantee that one rock song will exist even if the earth is spontaneously swallowed by the sun: “Johnny B. Goode,” by Chuck Berry. The song was championed by Ann Druyan (who later become Sagan’s wife) and Timothy Ferris, a science writer and friend of Sagan’s who contributed to Rolling Stone magazine. According to Ferris, who was the album’s de facto producer, the folklorist Alan Lomax was against the selection of Berry, based on the argument that rock music was too childish to represent the highest achievements of the planet. (I’m assuming Lomax wasn’t too heavily engaged with the debate over the Sex Pistols and “Saturday Night Fever” either.) “Johnny B. Goode” is the only rock song on the Voyager disc, although a few other tunes were considered. “Here Comes the Sun” was a candidate, and all four Beatles wanted it to be included, but none of them owned the song’s copyright, so it was killed for legal reasons.
The fact that this happened in 1977 was also relevant to the song’s selection. “Johnny B. Goode” was 19 years old that year, which made it seem distinguished, almost prehistoric, at the time. I suspect the main reason “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen is that it just seemed like a reasonable track to select. But it was more than reasonable. It was, either deliberately or accidentally, the best possible artist for NASA to select. Chuck Berry may very well become the artist society selects when rock music is retroactively reconsidered by the grandchildren of your grandchildren.
Let’s assume all the individual components of rock shatter and dissolve, leaving behind a hazy residue that categorizes rock ’n’ roll as a collection of memorable tropes. If this transpires, historians will reconstitute the genre like a puzzle. They will look at those tropes as a suit and try to decide who fits that suit best. And that theoretical suit was tailored for Chuck Berry’s body.
Rock music is simple, direct, rhythm‑based music. Berry made simple, direct, rhythm‑based music.
Rock music is black music mainstreamed by white musicians, particularly white musicians from England. Berry is a black man who directly influenced Keith Richards and Jimmy Page.
Rock music is preoccupied with sex. Berry was a sex addict whose only American No. 1 single was about playing with his penis.
Rock music is lawless. Berry went to prison twice before he turned 40.
Rock music is tied to myth and legend (so much so that the decline of rock’s prominence coincides with the rise of the Internet and the destruction of anecdotal storytelling). Berry is the subject of multiple urban legends, several of which might actually be true and which often seem to involve cheapness, violence and sexual defecation.
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” John Lennon famously said, “you might call it Chuck Berry.” That quote is as close as we come to a full‑on Sousa scenario, where the person and the thing are ideologically interchangeable. Chuck Berry’s persona is the purest distillation of what we understand rock music to be. The songs he made are essential, but secondary to who he was and why he made them. He is the idea itself.Continue reading the main story