'Songs for a New World'

04/15/13

Many stories told in 'Songs'

It might seem that the songs in “Songs for a New World” have nothing in common. For starters, the singers range from a Spanish sailor in 1492 to a jailed civil rights leader—and a fed-up Mrs. Claus with a German accent.

But while it’s true that Bluffton University’s 2013 May Day musical has no continuous plot line—or spoken dialogue—and each song has its own context and characters, there is a common thread, says Dr. Melissa Friesen.

In every song, she explains, the character has reached a moment of truth, of self-understanding, when a revelation is coming into focus. “Each song has a very clear story to tell,” adds the director of the Bluffton production, to be staged at the new curtain time of 7:30 p.m. May 2-4 in Yoder Recital Hall.

Tickets, $13 for adults and $5 for all students, are available online at http://tickets.bluffton.edu or from 4-7 p.m. weekdays at the box office in the Sommer Center for Health and Fitness Education.

The “New World” part of the title refers to personal exploration and discovery, notes Friesen, who says she was attracted to the show by its storytelling as well as its music.

The associate professor and chair of communication and theatre at Bluffton describes the show as a contemporary musical revue—something that hasn’t been done in her 11 years at the university.

Composed by Jason Robert Brown, the music in “Songs for a New World” was written for four performers. Because of the number of solos and songs with backup singers, though, the cast can easily be expanded, Friesen says.

That flexibility is what brought her and Dr. Crystal Sellers Battle, the music director/conductor, back to the show as the May Day musical, which they select together. Alternating between large-cast and small-cast productions, they were looking for something with a small cast this year but initially rejected “Songs for a New World” because of the few performers. The Bluffton student cast, however, has been expanded to 11 members.

While the music incorporates pop and several other genres, Friesen points out it has “a lot of gospel flavor,” which draws on Sellers Battle’s background and strengths. “That’s her wheelhouse,” says Friesen about her collaborator, an assistant professor of music at Bluffton who also directs the university’s gospel choir.

The decision to stage the all-singing, small-cast show led to the choice of Yoder Recital Hall as the venue rather than the traditional Founders Hall, where a smaller cast can “get lost,” she notes.

The staging in a smaller setting is in keeping with the history of “Songs for a New World,” which premiered off-Broadway in 1995.  

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