Thursday, October 22, 2009

Heart and Music

I know my MANY followers (Hi Mom!) are thrilled that I'm writing on this blog again. Finishing up the season with my theatre company has made me busy and a bit exhausted of musical theatre. My recent decision to take a new direction in my life and think about everything differently got me thinking about a wonderful unsung musical that I've been a fan of since it came out. It is appropriately (for my current mindset anyway) titled A New Brain.

A New Brain premiered in 1998 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. (For those who don't know, Lincoln Center theatre has two spaces: A larger "upstairs" theatre and the very intimate blackbox downstairs.) Directed by Graciela Danielle, the show boasted the talents of Malcolm Gets (a wonderful stage actor but also familiar from his film and TV work), Mary Testa, Penny Fuller, and a young and undiscovered Kristen Chenoweth (Tony winner for You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, who is now a nationally known recording artist and film and TV star-you may have seen her in Bewitched or on Pushing Daisies). The peppy and inspiring score is by William Finn, the composer of the popular and Tony winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

The story is quite autobiographical. Many of Finn's shows have been drawn from his life experience, but A New Brain was the first to really tell Finn's story. The main character and personification of Finn is Gordon Schwinn, a writer for a children's TV show. He is increasingly frustrated and feels creatively stifled by his boss, Mr. Bungee (played by Chip Zien, famous for Into the Woods). During a lunch with his friend Rhoda, Gordon passes out and is immediately taken to the hospital where he is diagnosed with a deadly brain condition called arteriovenous malformation. If this disease doesn't kill him, he might never be fully functional again, and therefore may not ever get to realize his most beautiful songs, which would be trapped forever in his useless brain.

As Gordon goes through the process of coping with his loved ones and contemplating his fate, the action alternates between reality and halucinations, during which he pours out songs so he can get them on paper before its too late.

Luckily, this one has a happy ending: Gordon recovers completely and rediscovers his creative energies and the beautiful things in his life. Sounds sappy, but really its not. Finn handles it with the awkward humor that tends to make his work so poignant.

A New Brain is the unsung musical for a less musically inclined audience. The songs are "hummable" in the best way possible: They are catchy and memorable but the musical patterns and melodies used in them are very unusual. Finn's lyrics are often silly and odd, but also in a fun and appropriate way. When a waitress takes Gordon's order at a restaurant early on, she sings "First the fish of the day, calimari! Which isn't a fish, but lives in the sea, as set in a dish, it happens to be the fish of the day...okay..." A sassy nurse sings "I am the nice nurse. If I can help you please let me help you, 'cause the others won't help you...those bitches!" Perhaps the best wacky moment comes in a montage of songs Gordo experiences during his surgery, where Rhoda, as a ventriloquist dummy, sings "Whenever I dream I dream pornographically explicit..." and the silly male nurse sings "I'm eating myself up alive." The oddities go on and on but they are what make A New Brain such a scrambled delight and a clever mirror for the chaos occurring in Gordo's brain.

Even more wonderful are the perfect amount of interspersed touching songs. "Sailing" is a stunning duet between Gordo and his lover Roger; the heartbreaking "Just Go" is Gordo telling Roger to leave and forget it, "I can't even walk across the room unassisted." and Roger responding with his insistence that he'll stay. Gordo's mother sings a beautiful song called "The Music Still Plays On," which is Gordon imagining how she'll be when he's gone.

Colleges often perform A New Brain, usually with student groups. The show is daunting to cast properly and so a fully student production can potentially miss much of what makes the show work. Gordo should be at least in his late thirties, disillusioned with his job and reflecting on his dreams. Mimi, his mother, needs a worldly sophistication and an understanding of what it means to be a parent. These problems are not unique to casting shows but the idea of age and life experience really are necessary here (as they are in a show I DON'T like, Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along-also often performed by students. ) The male nurse is often the most difficult to cast, as ideally he needs to be large, flaming, and able to carry the phenomenal eleven o'clock number (the song that comes towards the end of the show that is meant to renergize the audience for the finale.) So a student cast has the potential for problems. On the other hand with a number like "Heart and Music", the show's main theme, it is hard not to give your audience goosebumps through the pure love of art that is exuded.

I would love to see more productions of A New Brain with casts who can realize its full potential. I recommend this one to anyone who likes to laugh and cry at the same time. The cast recording is available. A fun fact about it: Christopher Invar, the original title role in Floyd Collins, played Roger, but the recording features Norm Lewis (whom I have raved about for his "like buttah" voice in this blog) as Roger. So give A New Brain a's an emotional rollercoaster ride with a fantastic payoff.