The cast of “Songs for a New World” rehearses the musical number “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492,” which tells a Columbus-era story of a captain praying for mercy as his ship of weary immigrants continues its perilous crossing to a promised land.
Jason Robert Brown, well-known for writing the Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of “The Bridges of Madison County,” wrote the music and lyrics for “Songs for a New World”—an impressive score that traverses multiple genres, including pop, gospel, and contemporary musical theater. Pioneer Productions will present a slightly reimagined production of this contemporary show, the weekends of June 9 and June 16. The performances will take place in the heart of Morristown in Fellowship Hall of the United Methodist Church.
“Songs for a New World" weaves together a collection of powerful songs, each showcasing characters through American history on the brink of a life-altering decisive moment. In the liner notes to the world premiere recording, Brown said, "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."
Brown’s compositions serve as the driving force behind the show's emotional impact.
Andrea Wright and Michael Willis perform the duet “I'd Give it All for You.” (Photo by Penguin Moon Studio)
The show lives at the intersection of traditional musical, cabaret, and song cycle and is usually cast with four performers who do not play the same characters throughout. Under the guidance of producer and director Dan Vissers, Pioneer’s production takes on a fresh perspective, with a modest reimagining of the casting and structure of the show. Vissers, who has previously acted in “Songs,” and appears on stage in this production, brings a wealth of experience in uncovering the emotional depth of characters and emphasizing their personal journeys.
Dan Vissers: “I have always loved this show—it’s a series of vignettes not really connected with each other. What has changed for me—directing it and getting my brain into it—(is that) I’m finding this theme that runs through the whole show, and it is hope. At the center of each song, in its own way, is an obstacle that people have to overcome, and hope is what gets them through—whether it’s hope in faith or hope in relationships. So, I am using that theme throughout the show. Light in the darkness. I never really understood that about the show until I directed it.
“Traditionally the show is cast with four actors who play about ten different parts. What ended up happening was that we had such tremendous talent turn up to the auditions that I simply had to use them. That’s never happened to me before. So, instead of each actor singing three or four songs, we wound up with nine performers as sort of a “Greek Chorus” with a couple of people with two solos. Most have one. There are no leads in this show. We all tell the story together. Creatively we have come up with some neat ways to incorporate everyone.”
Daniel Peter Vissers and cast members perform “King of the World.” (Photo by Penguin Moon Studio)
The cast hails from all over New Jersey. It includes Amber Brown of Montclair, Tracey Lynn Haskell of Lebanon, Sherry Mayce of Little Falls, Connor McDowell of Jersey City, Jazmynn Perez of Metuchen, Shanna Levine Phelps of Livingston, Daniel Peter Vissers of Sparta, Michael Willis of Parsippany and Andrea Wright of North Plainfield. The show is choreographed by Pioneer co-founder Jon Mantes of Whippany, with musical direction by Hannah Comia.
Producer and actress Shanna Levine-Phelps spoke to us about her on-stage work in the show. The song “Stars and the Moon” could be a lament about paths not taken—or maybe she’s thinking of taking a different path.
Shanna Levine-Phelps: “There’s a song I sing in the show—‘Stars and the Moon.’ It’s in my book, I’ve sung it a few times in cabarets and things over the years. That song to me has always been about choices that my particular character has made. But the way Dan has envisioned it, was, for me, not only about my character’s choices, but about other people’s choices, people around me in my life in the time I’m singing about. It has grounded the song for me. I can be ‘in the song’ and really live it, thanks to the way Dan has envisioned it. He has taken the inner life of the song and just added a little bit more to it, with staging and lighting. The music is so intense and beautiful and hard and satisfying. It makes it so pleasing to a lot of different people who may come to see the show. It’s a versatile piece where the performers can really bring something to it in their acting and singing performances. I think the audience is going to get a lot out of it.”
Shanna Levine-Phelps performs “Just One Step.” (Photo by Penguin Moon Studio)
Pioneer Productions focuses on new works and seldom-produced musicals, immersing their “NJ family” in fresh, entertaining theatre. They strive to provide up-and-coming composers and playwrights the opportunity to have their work produced in a creative, passionate environment. Pioneer Productions has used multiple venues in their 20-year history, and they are excited to land in a new venue in the heart of picturesque Morristown.
“We’ve been a nomadic company since the beginning,” says Vissers. “After we did our last show in Fairlawn, I started looking around for a venue that was convenient for the whole company, and Morristown is ‘25 minutes away’ for all of us. We found the Fellowship Hall of the Morristown Methodist Church on the historic Morristown Green—right in the heart of everything—restaurants, live music in the park—it’s perfect. Pioneer Productions is thrilled to be in Morristown!”
With its innovative casting and ensemble work, this production of "Songs for a New World" is poised to captivate audiences with the enduring power of music and storytelling. Whether you are a longtime fan of the show or seeing it for the first time, this production promises to leave you with a renewed sense of hope and an appreciation for the importance of choices and how they define character.