Twenty years after Jason Robert Brown burst onto the American musical theater landscape at age 25, London gets a first-class revival of his breakout show, “Songs for a New World,” with a dream cast. Adam Lenson’s production — featuring an effortless performance by Cynthia Erivo, due on Broadway later this year as the star of “The Color Purple” — isn’t the musical’s UK premiere (which happened at a tiny fringe venue in 2001), but it is easily the highest profile outing here in London, and it’s good enough to make you realize that the Brits have missed a trick. What’s more, it’s an illustration of how wide a gulf the Atlantic is when it comes to musical theater.
Too fragmented for a musical, too unified to count as cabaret, Brown’s song cycle is absolutely its own thing: sixteen self-contained numbers, threaded together by musical and thematic motifs, each a story in itself. Its numbers manage to be both catchy and complex, but they are all character pieces with ample opportunities for actors. In “Just One Step,” for example, a wealthy wife gets her way by threatening to jump from her 57th floor apartment window — and it’s left to us to determine which is emptier, her threat or her life.
Britain doesn’t really have musicals like this. Chamber musicals come around every so often, but they’re rarely this arthouse. Brown asks the audience to do the work, never spoon-feeding us or spelling out a story, but letting us find the connections between these people, their songs and their situations for ourselves. The overall diagnoses is left up to us.
Usually, it’s taken in terms of life-changing moments. As the opening number states, “it’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.” Think of it a collection of shorts, each defined by the epiphany at its heart — the determined young sports star’s realization that the odds are stacked against him in “The Steam Train,” for instance, or the two newly rekindled lovers who swear to one another that “I’d Give It All for You.”
Director Lenson draws out something else as well: He ties the show to New York in particular and cities in general. The stage is a warehouse-style apartment on the edge of New York Harbor. Outside the window, the Statue of Liberty, that famous first glimpse of a new world for so many, has turned her back, perhaps rejecting these lost souls or else protecting them. In the foreground, as we look out from what must be New Jersey, are two clumps of dead tree trunks that recall the charred steel uprights of the toppled World Trade Center. To a London audience, unfamiliar with Manhattan’s geography, this could easily be the view from Ground Zero — fitting for a musical about moving on from those moments that change everything.
Andrew Riley’s design makes that apartment ready for a refurb, with floorboards in need of a sand-down and dry, dead leaves on the floor. The four actors slide a rusted steel door closed as if shutting themselves away, and stare out at the world through huge windows. It works beautifully: Brown’s characters feel detached from the rest of society. They address the world from afar, as something separate, something to be defeated or used and which might very well defeat you or use you back in turn.
Movement director Polly Bennett has them shuffle furniture throughout as if rearranging a flat, adding to the overall feeling of uncertainty behind this chorus of self-doubt. It’s an eloquent and unshowy expression of the whole.
Admittedly the setting does lessen the historical scope of the piece, and songs like “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492” and “The Flagmaker, 1775” don’t carry their stories when sung by contemporary figures.
However, the pleasure is in watching four actors playing the material so deftly. Jenna Russell (“Sunday in the Park with George” on Broadway) catches the ambiguity of these numbers, particularly in “Stars and the Moon,” so that hardness gives way to hope and sadness softens into a shrug. Erivo, excellent throughout, delivers “I’m Not Afraid of Anything’” as if she were alone in her bedroom, looking at herself in the mirror. Damien Humbley, with his resounding bass, finds the self-awareness in various glowering, washed-out men, and Dean John-Wilson, the least established of the four actors, gives a runaway rendition of “The Steam Train.”
Frankly, it’s great to see real acting through song, a rarity given the British musical’s roots in musical hall, which tends to treat songs as set-pieces. The cast’s careful interpretation — the lines they run over, those they snap or swallow — betrays the closeness of their readings.
The St. James Theatre, the London venue where “Songs for a New World” is playing a limited run, hasn’t always made sense since it opened in 2012. Its programming has often resembled a miscellany. But “Songs for a New World” is a perfect fit for a venue that feels like an Off Broadway playhouse in London and, with Britain’s infrastructure lacking a space for small-scale, art-led musicals, the production might point the way to the theater’s true sense of purpose.