One might call the cast and crew of Songs for a New World USC’s version of the Ringling Bros., a traveling troupe of diverse acrobats and entertainers known for their collaborations and immortalized in film as The Greatest Show on Earth. Like the greatest show, the actors, musicians and producers of the USC Musical Theatre Repertory are collaborating for a final time this year for their spring musical. The first show is Wednesday at 10:30 p.m., followed by two more performances on Thursday at 11 p.m. and Friday at 9:30 p.m.
The play, with music and lyrics written by Jason Robert Brown, debuts at the Massman Theatre and promises to be a fun and unconventional departure from the traditional musical, which usually intermixes stage-based dialogue with musical performances.
Instead, Songs for a New World will treat viewers to a very different experience. The performance, in the style of a “song cycle,” will tell more than just one story; each of the play’s five leads will act out a series of vignette-style scenes centered around a different song (but with a common theme). Their characters don’t have names because they play a different character each scene, and true to the style of a song cycle, the characters sing every line in the play.
Myles Nuzzi, one of the five leads, said each scene weaves together stories of critical decisions regarding love, regret and loss.
“The main theme of the entire musical is the idea of the moment before you have to make a decision,” said Nuzzi, a sophomore majoring in music industry. “There’s a moment in your life when you reach that impulse decision — that’s what all the songs are about.”
Nuzzi especially likes the scenes that begin and end the play.
“The very opening and the very closing numbers, [are his favorite] because they are the two songs where all of us are on stage together,” he said. “Both songs are very similar, and they both encompass the entire musical — the first song is about what is to come, and the end song is a conclusion, so it’s really cool to see the whole arc of the show in those two songs.”
Vicki Pearlman, a sophomore majoring in theatre who is directing the play, has produced several shows for the Musical Theatre Repertory and has worked with some of the play’s actors in previous productions.
One of those actors is Nuzzi, who acted in MTR’s production of Merrily We Roll Along, a show Pearlman produced. Nuzzi said Pearlman’s experience with every aspect of play production made her transition to a directorial role seamless.
“Because she has done so much behind-the-scenes work in the past, she knows every facet of how rehearsals should be run, how the production team should focus, and how involved they should be,” he said. “Her strength is as a leader combining the strengths and duties of all the other people on her team.”
Pearlman said that she has enjoyed the challenge of directing, especially on such a unique project.
“To be doing a show that has no dialogue, just song, has been difficult,” said Pearlman, the president of the Musical Theatre Repertory. “The best part of MTR is you are collaborating so much with the choreography director and the music director — my favorite part about it is it’s a collective vision of multiple people.”
One of the people sharing that collective vision is Nathan Heldman, one of the musical directors. Heldman is responsible for coaching the actors on singing and performing the music, as well as playing the music live during the performance with a few other musicians. Pearlman, who worked with his when she produced Merrily We Roll Along, said Heldman’s work with the actors is exemplary. Nuzzi went to “GRAMMY Camp,” a musical program for young singers, with Heldman in high school.”
“He is always giving insight into the music and what certain things imply in the story,” Nuzzi said. “What’s great about him is that while he is a piano major, he has knowledge in vocal performance so he knows exactly what to say to get people to produce the sound that he wants to hear and that the audiences want to hear.”
Unilke Nuzzi, Heldman doesn’t have a favorite scene.
“That’s impossible,” Heldman said. “My favorite number switches every day because the singers bring a new thing to a number every single day.”
You can tell from listening to the cast talk about each other that they have prepared for the play not just as actors, producers and directors, but as friends. Bella Hicks, an actress in the play who has worked with Nuzzi before and a freshman majoring in theatre, put it best:
“They call it ‘the MTR family,’ because once you’re in a show with them, they become a family.”