- James Buck
- The cast of Songs for a New World
(This story has been updated to reflect a time change for the Facebook Live streaming event.)
Going into its spring 2020 season, Vermont's Lyric Theatre had to do something unprecedented: postpone a production. The company was set to present Matilda the Musical, based on the novel by Roald Dahl, when COVID-19 arrived. The esteemed theater group, established in 1974, not only had to cancel for the first time but also to reckon with an uncertain future.
"As it became clear the pandemic wasn't going away anytime soon, we decided to look at new ways of creating art and telling stories," executive director Erin Evarts said. "Because, well, that's what we do."
So she and the nonprofit's board started a conversation about a path forward. They quickly settled on the idea of streaming a show in lieu of their usual production at the Flynn in Burlington. And Evarts knew just the show to get the company back in gear: Songs for a New World, written by Jason Robert Brown in 1995. Closer to a song cycle than a traditional musical, it features a spare four-person cast, with each member playing multiple yet interconnected roles.
"Songs for a New World is perfect," Evarts said. "It's what I call a low-impact production ... We just needed to get the rights."
She contacted licensing company Music Theatre International, which not only granted permission to produce the show but provided a vendor through which to stream it.
"It all came together so fast," Evarts said. "When you talk about taking a step off a cliff and into the unknown, that's sort of where we are now."
The next step was finding someone to direct the production.
Enter Brita Down, who brought some bold ideas to the position of artistic director. The first was to jettison the usual four-member cast in favor of a much bigger one: 16 singers and eight dancers. She also engaged a 13-person crew, including music director Nate Venet.
Following pandemic safety protocol, "They did as much virtually as possible," Evarts said. "They rehearsed in masks when not, and all the cast members recorded their parts at home and sent them to be mixed by [Venet]. So when they were filmed, they're actually lip-synching to their own, original tracks, because, you know, singing is one of those high-risk activities during COVID."
In addition, Down adapted the themes of the original show to fit 2020's unique brand of stress.
"Songs for a New World is about choice," she said. "And change, as well. The story is about what we're calling the 'moment of decision,' when you're faced with something big in your life and you have to decide which way to go."
That tale is told through a series of vignettes. Down has updated most of them to reflect circumstances currently affecting society in general and Lyric Theatre in particular.
"Visually, we tried to represent the pandemic and what's going on," she explained. "One of the songs in the story is sung by first responders and health care workers. We have another vignette with our dancers in black and wearing masks, using a sort of protest type of choreography."
Perhaps the biggest deviation from the source material comes in a moment featuring American flag designer Betsy Ross. In an ode to Lyric itself, Down replaces Ross making flags for soldiers at war with company members making some 24,000 face masks for frontline health workers.
No matter how relevant the show, can a streamed, prerecorded version be as satisfying as a flashy stage production to Lyric's members, volunteers and audience?
"Look, I always have expectations," Evarts said with a laugh. "They're usually wildly high. But my expectation of Lyric and our volunteers is excellence, because that's what they give, every year, show in and show out.
"Do I think we're going to sell 6,000 to 8,000 tickets like we would at the Flynn?" she continued. "That would be great, but I don't know if it's realistic."
Evarts noted that Lyric will return to the Flynn stage as soon as it's safe to do so. In the meantime, she remains excited about the new experience about to unfold, when Songs for a New World is released on Friday, November 20.
"People who watch on opening night, we're telling them to treat this as if you were going to a Lyric show at the Flynn," Down said. "Get takeout from your favorite Burlington restaurant, get home, put on some festive jammies, and watch."
A Facebook Live event will precede the premiere, she added, allowing viewers to connect in a sort of virtual lobby.
No matter how the company's first-ever streamed show fares, Lyric will no doubt persevere, as it has for nearly half a century.
"The fact that Lyric is open, our lights are on and we're putting on shows?" Evarts said. "I couldn't be more proud of this group. And you know we'll keep going, because people need art right now. They need joy, and they need hope."