MH Musical Offers Audiences Entertainment and Hope

Miranda Kawiecki and Melinda Reed

“A new world shattering the silence. There’s a new world I’m afraid to see. A new world louder every moment. Come to me, come to me!”

The Morris Hills musical theater department presented “Songs for a New World,” a fitting musical for a year of uncertainty and new beginnings. Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, the contemporary musical centers around a broad cast of characters, each of whom possesses a dream. Brown weaves their stories together across time with a powerful score that encapsulates today’s music, blending elements of pop, gospel, and jazz. The pit band is small, much like the cast. Composed of a piano, guitar, and drums/auxiliary percussion, the band keeps the soulful groove moving throughout the show as the cast sings tight harmonies.

The Spring Musical premiered on March 18th and was available for 48-hour rental until March 21st. With the purpose of adhering to Covid-19 restrictions, the musical was pre-recorded and made available on-demand through showtix4u.com. While the thrill of live musical performances is nearly incomparable, the MH cast and crew put on an energetic performance that brought the pure joy of theatre to the homes of MH students, faculty, and families. 

 “Songs for a New World” has the feel of “Godspell” as the plot progresses through, essentially, a collection of stories. The musical opens on the deck of a Spanish ship, as the song is fittingly titled. A captain prays for the safety of their passengers as they travel to the New World. The scene shifts to an attention-starved wife who threatens to jump off a window ledge. Other stories include those of a wanna-be basketball star, a misfortunate pair of vagabonds, a Revolutionary War flagmaker, a prisoner, a soldier, two reuniting former lovers, and surprisingly, Mrs. Claus. 

Much like the diverse music and plot, the dance styles used within the choreography made the show all the more engaging. Rhythmic tap dancing, lyrical, and modern jazz dancing accompanied the piano-heavy music to further engross the audience in the emotion. 

The musical could not have been possible without the cast, crew, and directors’ vigor and spirit. The theater department consists of a dedicated group of individuals. It is evident through their recent performance that a pandemic won’t stop them from doing what they love.

. . . . . . . . .

The inner workings of the theater department look a lot like the quintessential musical theatre experience in movies. Yes, there is drama. Kind of like Kelsey from High School Musical, those working behind the scenes don’t have as much screen time or dialogue. So that’s why we spoke directly to the stage crew to see the musical from the other side of the curtains. 

No second is wasted as part of the crew— as we sit down for an interview, they continue to work on the steam train set-piece that plays a significant role in the musical.

“It’s a lot of fun to be in the crew,” says one member. “You make friends very easily… we become a family, pretty much.”

This is, in part, due to the many hours the crew spends together toiling away for the musical. They set up the stage; they take it down. They handle the lights, create and manage the props, and work every part of the production that most people in the audience do not even think to wonder about. It is not always easy being behind the scenes, away from the spotlight and recognition, but the stage crew does it because they love the work and each other.

This year’s peculiar circumstances offer new challenges. While “Songs for a New World” does not require the elaborate sets of last year’s “The Little Mermaid”, there are difficulties with following CDC guidelines and doing a job that can be physically demanding. 

But for the stage crew, difficulties are all par for the course.

“Anyone who is doing crew is doing it because they enjoy it,” the same student says. “They’re not being forced to.”

 . . . . . . . . .

The cast of “Songs for a New World” makes a colorful scene as they sit on the chairs and floor of the choir room. Each actor wears this year’s costume— a bright, bold-colored shirt or dress, and black pants. It’s because of these comfortable outfits, as well as the cast’s close bond, that they are all relaxed as we sit down for an interview.

Through the door to the choir room, we can hear the faint strains of music as the dress rehearsal goes on— the students sitting down are either waiting for their scene or have already performed it. Unlike the musicals of years past, the actors will not appear on stage for more than one song, to limit exposure. 

“[The songs] don’t really relate to each other, but they all have the theme of hope,” one student explains. 

The group takes it upon itself to explain the plotlines within each song.

“I’m on a Spanish sailing ship—” 

“Ella’s a flagmaker praying for her son—” 

“I’m Mrs. Claus, for some reason—” 

The one common denominator is a message of hope.

The theme was just as important as the unique structure of the musical itself, given that the show took place almost a year after the pandemic shutdown first began mid-March. By then, the Morris Hills production of “The Little Mermaid” had already gone off without a hitch. However, the theater students still missed the opportunity to put on student productions. When they returned this year, their usual activities looked different: hybrid theater classes, a recorded fall play, and performing in masks.

“It’s changed my mindset,” one student says. “I’m more aware of how I have to breathe in.”

Unlike the fall play, in which the actors wore surgical masks, the students in the musical wear clear masks. They are the first to admit that it is an unusual experience, given the year they have spent with the bottom halves of their faces hidden.

“I feel vulnerable,” one member of the cast says, laughing.

Even stranger for the group of expressive, close actors is not being allowed to touch one another. Acting is a social and kinetic art, as much about reading lines as it is about connecting with the audience and other actors. The guidelines in place for public health limit this aspect of the production, with students performing for cameras as opposed to a live audience. It’s strange, they say, but worth it if it means having a show at all.

For many of this year’s performers, “Songs for a New World” will be the last spring musical they will participate in during their high school years. The Class of 2021 is large and will be leaving behind about eight underclassmen to take over next year.

Since the establishment of the Academy for the Performing Arts at Morris Knolls, students with an interest in theater tend to flock to Knolls instead of Hills, leaving a dearth of performers on this side of Route 46.  

“Anyone who’s not a senior, please join the theater program,” says ITS President Zoe Tweedie.

“We’re a very accepting community,” adds another member of the cast. “No one judges.”

The theater program is in a difficult situation this year. However, if “Songs for a New World” has taught the cast anything, it is to hope for a better tomorrow.