“Songs for a New World” at San Francisco Playhouse Enlivens the Holidays

Jason Robert Brown's First Musical uplifts and inspires

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San Francisco, CA, USA – Dramatic turning points and choices made to move forward in life form the over-arching theme of Songs for a New World, Tony Award winning playwright Jason Robert Brown’s first musical now streaming on demand online from the San Francisco Playhouse. As the playhouse describes the show: “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. These are the stories and characters of today,..this moving collection of powerful songs examines life, love and the choices that we make.”

Now, imagine this together with some of the best uplifting and, alternatingly, tragic and comedic, lyrics and music, combined with a cast that works together incredibly well (especially given the fact that they started preparing separately) and you’ll have an idea of what awaits.

“Its emphasis on breaking past barriers to discover hope and redemption has made me a fan of Songs for a New World since it first appeared,” SF Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English writes in the program notes. “It’s called a song cycle – like a collection of short stories.”

The show’s opening sequence is “The New World” featuring the ensemble performing “Songs for a New World.” This sets the tone: we’ll be witness to people setting out on “spiritual odysseys” and sharing their excitement, fear, and the realization that they can lose everything they have at any given time. The playwright treats us to vignettes that weave the imagined stories of various individuals in history (pilgrims escaping the Spanish Inquisition, imprisoned revolutionaries, a woman stitching a US flag in 1775) as well as timeless over comers (co-dependents, the hopelessly in love, a neglected wife, a man struggling to leave an emotionally manipulative lover). While Songs for a New World is not a “holiday” production, the play does include two numbers that refer to Santa Clause and the Virgin Mary- a humorous sharing from the dissatisfied wife of a “celebrity,” and the exquisite joy of a woman carrying the Savior of the World, respectively. All of these stories are brilliantly woven together with music which rises and swells to inspire the listener. That’s the story about this interesting, uplifting play, but the story behind the production is just as interesting: this is the very first remotely produced show SF Playhouse has undertaken.

Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr.

“Thrilling, demanding, probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” is the way English described this daunting production of a musical at this time in our world. The actors each recorded their numbers solo and in separate locations and then they came together, socially distanced with plexiglass walls between them, otherwise socially distanced, and wearing masks until such time as the cameras were brought in to shoot for the online production stream. “I sat there with the script and watched,” English share during the show’s online opening gala,”trying to to decide how best to bring the actors together.” He would call to his technician to shoot from best angle. Meanwhile, the actors lip-synched to recordings of their own voices- an experience that had mixed reviews from the cast. Three separate cameras were used at the SF Playhouse theater so, as English explained, the best angles could be chosen.

Katrina Lauren McGraw

The show’s live opening night gala included appearances by the full cast- Katrina Lauren McGraw, Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr., Cate Haman, John Paul Gonzalez- who weighed in on their experience making this show. “Everything was different,” McGraw, playing “Woman 2,” said. “We rehearsed online on Zoom which isn’t easy or fun to do. It wasn’t until we came into the space (at SF Playhouse) that we actually sang the first time together, and learning the dances and everything in our homes was ‘insane.’ But the fact that we made it happen and we got it all together was amazing… and in such fast time, too.”

“What we had going for us,” Music Director Dave Dubrusky said, “was that we only had four people in the show. But even with four it was pretty much impossible for us to sing together when we were all in different places.” Dubrusky talked about the technical aspects of trying to get “clean feed.” “One challenge,” he added, “was the lag, that bit of time before one’s voice gets across the internet. It wasn’t until we were finally able to be together that we were able to fine-tune harmony. I think people will be very impressed by how well we did everything remotely.” Indeed!

John Paul Gonzalez

John Paul Gonzalez, playing “Man 1” (who drove ten (10) hours to work on this production), shared that he, too, found the project challenging but very gratifying. “It was a wonderful process,” he said. “It was really strange to be making theater in this way but, in the end, it was pretty wonderful. It’s a true testament to the power of art. It really drew me to want to create something. I’m so glad I got to do this… “ As for SF Playhouse leadership and staff, the show is a smash success, of course, but a representation of just another day in the life in the artistic trenches for this little theater that can.

“It’s just a lot more complex,” English said about remote production, “because we have choreography and music… but as you’ll hear, the cast learned (everything) magnificently. The most thrilling part of it was that it was just a spirit of “yes”… we just kept plugging. I’m so impressed by the bravery, the tenacity, and the courage that went into this.”

“It’s just what we have to do to keep the fire burning,” English said , “to keep bringing uplifting theater to our audience.”

Cate Hayman

Songs for a New World is offered on demand December 12 through December 31. This production is closed captioned for the hearing impaired- and for those who want to sing along. The show runs approximately one (1) hour and 30 minutes- but you can pause it to go and get another glass of eggnog since it’s on-demand streaming!


San Francisco Playhouse Statement: “Our theatre is an empathy gym where we come to practice our powers of compassion. Here, safe in the dark, we risk sharing in the lives of the characters. We feel what they feel, fear what they fear, love what they love. As we walk out the doors, we take with us greater understanding to build a better community. One play at a time…

For tickets and further informaiton: www.sfplayhouse.org


Artistic Direction by Bill English

Music Direction by Dave Dobrusky

Project Design by Teddy Hulsker

Choreography by Nicole Helfer

Lighting Design by Heather Kenyon

Costume Design by Stephanie Dittbern

Live Editor – Bill English

Post Editor – Wolfgang Wachalovsky

Stage Manager – Dani Bae

Executive Producer – Robert Hulteng

Producers – Cynthia & David Bogolub, Margaret Sheehan

Associate Producers – Jan & Howard Oringer, Claire Axelrad & Mark Pahlavan, Elizabeth Werter & Henry Trevor, Tom & Stephanie Lima, Margo Golding


John Paul Gonzalez

Cate Hayman

Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr.

Katrina Lauren McGraw


Production Manager- Maggie Johnson

Asst. Produciton Manager – Angela Knutson

Technical Director – Zach Sigman

Asst. Technical Director – Tish Leung

Master Electrician – Andrea Schwartz

Electrician – Renae Davison

Sound Engineer – Anton Hedman

Camera Operator – Anthony Aranda

Camera Operator – Tiiu Eva Rebane

Camera Operator – Ericka Sokolower-Shain

Health Safety Supervisor – Maggie Johnson

COVID Compliance Officer – Danika Ingraham


Artistic Director – Bill English

Producing Director – Susi Damilano

Production Manager – Maggie Johnson

Asst. Production Manager – Angela Knutson

Resident Playwright – Aaron Loeb

Technical Director – Zach Sigman

Asst. Technical Director – Tish Leung

Marketing Director – Donny Gilliland

Marketing Associate – Wera Von Wulfen

Director of Audience and Donor Relations – Tiiu Eva Rebane

General Manager – Danika Ingaham

Associate Director of Development – Gelareh Esfahlani

General Accountant/Grants Coordinator – Elizabeth Newton

Box Office Manager – Chris Bahara

Box Office Associate – Juliet Hicks

Assistant to the Artistic Director/Events Coordinator – Marie-Claire Erdynast

Production Photography – Jessica Palopoli


Direction for this performance sponsored by Billie & Thomas Horst

Music Direction for this performance sponsored by Betty & Cliff Nakamoto

Set Design for this performance sponsored by David Madfes & Judith Leash

Costume Design for this performance sponsored by Joan Zinner


William Adler, President; Nancy K. Austin; Claire Axelrad; Bobak Bakhtiari; Cynthia Bogolub; Linda Brewer; Andre Glenn Chenoweth; Carolyn Copeland; Susi Damilano; Bill English; William J. Gregory; Robert Hulteng; Geoffrey Jue; Fred L. Karren; Janet McAllister; Samuel Muir; Betty Nakamoto; William O’Keeffe, Louis Parnell; Aurelio Perez; Phyllis Rosenberg; Frances Schendle; Dana Shapiro; Margaret Sheehan; Christian Chadd Taylor; Andrew Teufel; Rowland Weinstein


About Michele Caprario 86 Articles
Michele Caprario is a writer and editor covering great people, places, and projects that bring goodness to the world.

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