From Thursday, Oct. 7 through Sunday, Oct. 10, the St. Olaf Theater Department put on the musical “Songs for a New World” with music and lyrics written by Jason Robert Brown. St. Olaf’s performance was directed by Adjunct Instructor in Theater Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha. I had the pleasure of seeing the show three times.
“Songs for a New World” was held in the smaller Haugen Theater on the backside of the classic red-bricked theater building. This smaller space made the show feel intimate, real, and personal. The stage was minimal and gray with a few different step levels. The main stage pieces were four stools that moved around throughout the show and one bench. There were five screens hanging in the back of the stage that displayed various projections and quotes throughout. The stripped-down set allowed each actor, the music, and their voice to stand alone. This made it so that the show felt eye to eye, just you and the person singing, and the emotions that came with it sitting between you.
The musical is more of a string of vignettes or a song cycle as opposed to a cohesive story. It moves through songs with a wide variety of characters portrayed by four actors — Man 1, Man 2, Woman 1, and Woman 2. St. Olaf’s production was double cast with a different combination of actors for each show.
The show began by projecting a sort of “Zoom call” between the actors — chatting casually about if they would be in person, if they were muted, and so forth — the audience watched as they walked or drove to the theatre. This simple touch made the meaning of the show all the clearer to me. It was grounded in healing and coming together in the wake of the pandemic — and not just COVID-19, but every struggle, hardship, and tough moment of these past few long years. We watched actors literally transition from the screen to standing within five feet of us singing their heart out about love, loss, entrapment, and new beginnings.
The show honestly shook me, and I’ve been thinking about it since the first time I saw it. It may sound cliche, but it made me laugh out loud and brought me to tears. The actors were beautifully genuine and intentional in all of their choices — from small gestures to huge belting moments. The show had moments of intense campy and comical spirit, and also had uber quiet moments of devastating, heart-wrenching still.
Woman 1, played by Erin Myhran ’23 and Emily Hensley ’23, was the character that both began and ended the show. This character was reflective, full of life and love, singing songs like “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” and “Christmas Lullaby.” Hensley breathed life into each of her songs. She was an ultimate storyteller with a powerhouse voice that filled the room the second she opened her mouth.
Woman 2, on the other hand, brought the sass, confidence, and range. She went from an angry wife, to unraveling Mrs. Claus, to a woman reckoning with war. Kat Grannis ’23 played the role with determination and defiance—walking the stage as if she owned it.
Mira Davis ’23 also played Woman 2 with power and dexterity. Her unbelievable vocals paired with her utter expressiveness brought out all the layers to each character within Woman 2. She was comfortable on stage and brought me to tears as she broke down the responsibility, burden, fear, and hope in her performance of “The Flagmaker, 1775” as well as “Stars and the Moon.”
Andrew Decker ’23 was gentle and reflective in his portrayal of Man 1. He showed vocal range with sweet and sensitive high moments as well as raspy and real moments of belting desperation. Our other Man 1, Cameron Hubbard ’24, came in with an immense amount of power, voice, and musicality. He truly commanded the stage with grace and beauty as he sang through his character’s moments of both exhaustion and hope. When he entered the stage, there was no option but to listen.
Man 2 was a sweet character with a joyful and carefree presence. Both Collin Krieger ’23 and Ben Schwartz ’24 brought out his layers and beautifully supplemented Woman 1 in their duet moments.
What stuck with me the most was the idea of reckoning — each character and song dealing with a moment of choice and contemplation whether it be about power, love, or liberation. This was all summed up in one of the last scenes. The actors grasped onto Man 1 at the end of the penultimate number “Flying Home,” singing in a jaw-dropping moment of humility, connection, yearning, and hope.
This show displayed an incredible range from eight amazing actors full of beautiful and complicated harmonies and a variety of musical styles. I loved the way that the passion and joy reverberated from the actors. I could feel their commitment to the story they were telling, and they truly sold it to me. I so appreciate their vulnerability and talent in sharing with us. It left me hopeful and reflective as to the truth of humanity, suffering, and how we reach towards hope.