Vancouver Re-Imagines 'Songs for a New World' with Immigrant Focused Production

Vancouver Re-Imagines 'Songs for a New World' with Immigrant Focused Production

Chris Peterson

OnStage Editor-in-Chief

With Immigration policy being a hot button issue in this country, one theatre company in Canada is re-imagining a musical theatre icon to focus on the issue directly. 

The Fabulist Theatre Company, located in Vancouver, will be producing Jason Robert Brown's classic, Songs for a New World, with an emphasis on immigrant themes. According to their press release, 

"Audience members will be taken on a journey to new worlds including Ethiopia, Syria, Afghanistan, the North Pole, the Philippines, a Vancouver penthouse, colonial America, the Bronx, the 57th floor of a Manhattan high rise, and the middle of the Pacific Ocean."

Fabulist Theatre is a new company in Vancouver committed to producing shows that promote diversity in all forms and creating opportunities for a wide variety of performers. For Songs For A New World, a show traditionally done with a four-person cast, the directors have expanded the cast to sixteen, ranging in age from 11 - 62. Some are seasoned professionals, many are exceptionally talented amateurs. Some are new to Vancouver’s theatre scene, and some are even new to Canada. 

I had the opportunity to speak with one of the the co-directors of the production, Damon Jang, about not only the inspiration behind this re-imagination but also the process to have it approved by Mr. Brown himself. 

CP What drew you to this piece in the first place? 

DJ: I think for Mary, it was in response to what is happening in the world right now. Child soldiers, the Syrian refugee crisis, poverty and homelessness in our own city, teenagers struggling with sexuality, the pipeline protests, immigrants escaping to a better life; these are all topics we have sewn into the fabric of the piece. At the time we decided to do it, we didn’t know what the election results would be, and now the show (our version at least) is incredibly topical and relevant, even though it was written in the late 1990’s. For me, honestly, it's the music. These are some of the best pieces from the Jason Robert Brown canon and we get to introduce or re-introduce to audience members in a different way. 

CP: Tell me where the inspiration for this re-imagining came from?

Damon Jang

Damon Jang

DJ: Honestly, the idea was pitched to me by my producing partner, Mary Littlejohn. She had some very clear visions on some of the conceptual changes, and through conversations and the audition process, I put forward ideas that would better reflect our community. For example "Just One Step”, which is traditionally done by a woman with a over-the-top New York accent, we have changed to a Filipino woman with an over-the-top Tagalog accent, which is great as we have cast several actors of Filipino descent and wanted to add a bit of humour for them. Other ideas, like the “I’d Give It All For You” duet with 2 gay males rather than the traditional man/woman, and “Flying Home” featuring a female Canadian soldier, were a combination of both of ours.

CP: For this re-imagination, did you have to get approval from Mr. Brown himself? Did you have any contact with him?

DJ: It actually wasn’t, surprisingly. We’re not changing any of the written material (as per laid out in the royalty agreement with MTI) but we have added a larger cast, which isn’t a new concept, and added framework to the scenes. We help the audience see the world we’ve created with the use of set pieces, costumes and projections. Some numbers remain true to their original concepts, while others feature exciting new takes on the show’s songs. We did send Jason Robert Brown a message on his Facebook about the show and to our delight he responded with his blessing. 

CP: What can you tell me about the cast and crew?

DJ: We have a great group of fifteen performers from around the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada, all showcased in a wide variety of roles. They range in age from 12 – 62. We have cast members from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Burundi, and Colombia, and plenty of local talents. Some are seasoned professionals, some are already rising through the theatre scene, and some are making the Vancouver stage debut. Everyone brings something special and unique to their featured numbers. My producing partner and I have been friends for more than a decade and met in theatre school (Capilano University). We’ve worked together on a handful of projects but this is the biggest to date for sure. We tried to look for crew members who fit our mandate about opportunity for newcomers and diversity, so we have a set designer from San Francisco, a Finnish lighting designer, an Indo-Canadian stage manager and so on.

CP: What do you hope audiences take away from the production?

DJ: I think because show exists somewhere between a revue and a full scale musical, most of the numbers stand on their own as powerful vignettes – focusing on one pivotal moment of change in the characters’ lives. And at its core, musical theatre or theatre in general should have the power to move people, and encourage us to think about change and reflect on our own experiences. In this version we are touching on subjects not often covered in musical theatre, but when a character sings about something it always makes it a little easier to process, right? For me, honestly, I hope people appreciate the diversity of our cast - because how can you not? - and that they are moved, maybe even moved to action. I love theatre that has the ability to be used as a platform for social change.

To add to this timely piece, the theatre will be providing free tickets to new immigrants as part of the Welcome Centre Arts Program as well as donating partial profits to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Songs For A New World by Jason Robert Brown. Produced by Fabulist Theatre. Directed by Mary Littlejohn and Damon Jang. Music direction by Angus Kellett, Stage managed by Jasmin Sandu.  March 23 - April 1, 2017 at PAL Studio Theatre, 581 Cardero Street, Vancouver.         Tickets: $28 General Admission, $24 Students/SeniorsMarch 23 (Preview) 2-for-1, March 29 Pay-What-You-Can

Starring: Frankie Cottrell, Michael Czyz, Allison Fligg, Allyson Fournier, Isabella Halladay, Maria Herrera, Damon Jang, Rema Kibayi, Aerhyn Lau, Kate MacColl, Cheryl Mullen, Arta Negahbah, Regi Nevada, Charity Principe, Shina Likasa, Arielle Tuliao


Media Contact: Damn

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