Belleville HS brings ‘Songs for a New World’ to our new world

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BELLEVILLE, NJ — Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, residents have been forced to adapt to a new world. While this may not have been the “new world” Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown meant when he wrote “Songs for a New World,” it is certainly apt. Embracing this new world of social distance and virtual events, the Belleville High School Theatre Arts Company has brought “Songs for a New World” to life and to the high school’s stage.

The show will be broadcast Friday, June 4, and Saturday, June 5, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 6, at 3 p.m. To purchase tickets, visit https://tinyurl.com/ebz7t2e9

“‘Songs for a New World’ is not your typical or traditional musical, which is what makes it a perfect choice for an anything-but-typical year,” director Carol Lombardi, a BHS teacher, told the Belleville Post on May 11. “This show is actually what is called a ‘song cycle.’ Rather than one story focusing on the same characters throughout, punctuated with musical numbers that progress that plot, each scene and song in this show is its own short story. The settings, plots and characters of these stories are unrelated and do not intersect, but, ultimately, they all relate back to a central, unifying theme: the theme of change and the choices we make when confronted with that moment of change. This theme is extremely relevant and relatable after the year we have all experienced. 

“I have actually always wanted to take on this show — the music is challenging and energetic, and the stories compelling; but because of its unorthodox nature, I always wound up selecting a more traditional show year after year,” Lombardi continued. “But because this year was a year like no other and because I was not even sure if a theatrical production would be possible given the circumstances, restrictions and limitations as a result of the pandemic, I knew I had to think out of the box. I knew what I did not want, and that was to just try and cram our traditional show into a virtual platform. I didn’t want my students to feel that they got ‘less than’ a normal year; I wanted them to feel they instead got something unique. So the idea of doing a song cycle and filming it like a movie to stream to the public sounded like not only the safest and most feasible idea, it certainly was unique and new for us.”

Rather than performing the show live for each streaming, the student actors went through a rigorous filming process to create a movie. Like working on a traditional school play, the students did character research, had rehearsals and learned the music — sometimes together and sometimes on their own. Once they knew their parts inside and out, though, it was lights, camera, action!

“We filmed each student individually — even if they are interacting with their castmates in the scene,” Lombardi said. “We would rehearse together — but distanced — and then film each student solo on stage. This allowed for them to safely remove their mask and express the full range of emotions the scene demands. It was also very different for us to prepare for a filmed/recorded performance rather than a live stage performance. Rather than exaggerate our body language and facial expressions as you would for the stage, students could be more subtle, since the camera films them close up. We had the luxury of taking more risks, because we knew we could always refilm if certain choices didn’t work out the first time we tried them — some of these choices we wouldn’t necessarily make if we had to be sure we could replicate them night after night in front of an audience. 

“And, of course, the biggest difference was all the new technology utilized to make all of this possible,” she continued. “The lights, recording equipment, video editing software, sound mixing applications, camera, etc., were all new to us, and I am very fortunate to have a brother, Chris Lombardi, who is an audio and video producer. Without him producing the audio and video elements, we would have been dead in the water.”

For actor Ryan Nguyen, the biggest adjustment for a virtual performance was becoming comfortable with having audio booth sessions for each song.

“Usually, when we perform, the audio and visuals are lined up since it is live. With the new virtual format, in order to have the best audio, we recorded our vocals separately and created our own soundtrack,” Nguyen told the Belleville Post on May 16. “Listening to myself in the booth was uncomfortable at first, but as time went on I started looking forward to hearing my vocal part come to life. Along with this, the visual recording sessions were different as well. Instead of looking at my peers or getting into the moment, I had to constantly be aware of the position of the camera in front of me. Each person had to record one at a time, and it was initially daunting to stand in front of a camera all alone. Since there was no need to fully perform the entire musical in one take since it wasn’t live, days like the sitzprobe — where the actors and musicians play through the music together — and dress rehearsals — days where we performed the entire show as practice — were taken out of the usual theater schedule.”

Despite the differences, Nguyen is having a great time, having moved from the role of percussionist to actor.

“Interests changed, some peer pressure was involved, and I decided to just take a leap of faith and join the cast instead — mind you, I had never sung or danced or acted ever in my life,” Nguyen said. “Right now, my favorite aspect now has to be practicing and performing alongside the friends that I have made. There is something magical about being in the moment completely in sync with one another, bringing what we practiced for months to life on the stage.”

Student director Sofia Asali, who is also an actor in the show, admitted that she had difficulty acting in front of the camera at first, but is ultimately pleased with her and her peers’ performances.

“It was definitely a challenge, because being in front of a camera was the total opposite of doing it live,” Asali said May 16. “There were times when I would tense up at the fact that the camera was recording me and I felt like I had to be perfect. It felt different to perform without a live audience and hearing them applaud after each scene.”

Senior Jiana Mojica, an actor in the play, was thrilled to push the boundaries of live theater with this production.

“My favorite aspect of being a part of these productions is always having something to do and something to work toward,” Mojica said May 15. “That way, no matter what goes on elsewhere, you can get on that stage for practice and forget all about it. Although this year’s production is very different from previous years, it is probably the most special piece I have been a part of. Regardless of the guidelines we have to follow in order to keep everyone safe and the changes we’ve had to make, we were still able to put on a production that the public can view from the safety of their home! It’s different, new and exciting, considering the challenges we all have faced during this pandemic.”

Actor Chandra David sees this show as a testament to her and her classmates’ hard work, dedication and theatrical skill.

“Putting this show together varies tremendously from anything we have done in the past years when we weren’t in a pandemic. The fact that we were able to persevere through this tough year and still put on an amazing performance says a lot,” David said May 14. “We are all so used to the traditional onstage performance in front of hundreds of family, friends and loved ones. When doing a play you get to interact with one another, help each other out with the process. If there’s a dance move you’re struggling with, you can pull someone to the side and ask them to show you how it’s done. We couldn’t have much of that this year. Even though it was tough, I do believe that this year has been extremely beneficial. We had to work twice as hard, and I truly believe that it has completely paid off in the end.”

Despite various struggles, the students expressed feeling connected to their characters and their fellow actors.

“Although I play many roles in ‘Songs for a New World,’ the role that I particularly relate to is my character in ‘I’m Not Afraid of Anything,’ because she is overcome by this feeling of excitement and hope, but is brought down by her fear of failure,” actor Rachel Cabrera, who is also vice president of the theater club, said May 13.

While Cabrera enjoys her characters on the stage, nothing can compare to the character of her fellow actors.

“My favorite aspect of this club is the genuine hospitality that my peers and I have for one another,” she said. “I have been doing theater for around five years now, and I have come across a lot of individuals with diva attitudes, looking to outshine their castmates and put them down. But our club puts pride in making a comfortable environment for everyone who joins, and through these efforts we have truly created a family who looks out for each other, which is so important, especially right now. I believe that our love for one another truly reflects in how our show turned out.”

Club President Dev B. Choksi pointed out that there is much more to do in theater than just act onstage. Choksi is the show’s stage manager.

“In the past years, being a part of Stage Tech, I was in charge of lights. I would have cues turn on/off, change colors, direction, etc., of different lights. However, this year, I volunteered to record videos of each performance and help set the scene,” Choksi said May 13. “My sophomore year I had a misconception that I could not participate in the play because I didn’t know how to sing or dance, so I ended up joining Stage Tech. However, I soon fell in love with the job and responsibilities I was given. Stage Tech is not just a part of the Theatre Arts Company; instead, it is an entirely different club that is active in other school events, such as the Mr. and Miss Belleville Pageant and the Belleville’s Got Talent show. In addition, I can be a part of the cast while also being in Stage Tech — I even have a cameo in the opening song this year!

“I would like to add that the play does not require anyone to be a singer or a dancer, however; instead, what is required is dedication and willingness to perform,” Choksi continued. “There are plenty of new people every year who have never been a part of a theatrical production; however, Miss Lombardi and other teachers do such an incredible job teaching everyone about singing, dancing, set design or stage technology. In fact, this experience did land me a fairly high-paying job my junior year, since the professional light manager that Belleville High School hires was impressed by my work.”

Asali took up the challenge of student director because she enjoys pushing herself to earn new skills and learn the various roles needed to make a stage production a success.

“Student director entails bringing new or different ideas to the table and helping the director with a certain scene. Student directors also make sure that whoever is in the scene knows that they are there to help them,” Asali said. “What drew me to this position was that because I love theater so much; I love the different aspects of just directing a scene (more) than being in it. Since the show was different this year, I definitely made sure to experience the position of being a student director.”

For the students putting on this show, trying new things and adjusting to changes is not only part of theater, but part of life.

“I play the main character in the song ‘The World Was Dancing,’ and I act as a privileged undergraduate college student. In my song, I am sort of lost with what I want in life, and I ultimately do actions that hurt the ones that love me,” Nguyen said. “While I do not connect with the aspect about being unfaithful to my lover, I understand the feeling of just drifting by and acting on emotion. I am about to attend college this fall as a freshman, and the idea of going into a new world is definitely intimidating and daunting. There is an urge to just let the world carry me to wherever and just focus on the pleasures in life. However, as nice as following the footsteps of this character sounds, I know that I want to do everything in my power to reach my goals, even if it means going against the current and making sacrifices.”

David also learned lessons from the show, specifically from the vignette “Steam Train.”

“It is about a young man who was willing and wanted more than the situations and environment that he was born into. Even though what he had as a child was bleak, he was determined to make something of himself,” David said. “The young man shows that you’re sometimes born into dark worlds that you seem stuck in, but there’s always a way to step out of it, and it starts with your attitude. You can be in the worst place ever, but your mindset and changing the world that you’re in starts with you and your outlook on life.”

It is these lessons and more that Lombardi hopes the audience takes away from “Songs for a New World.”

“First, I hope they take away how incredible the students of Belleville are. There is so much negativity surrounding education and ‘lost time’ during this pandemic. But this show is a testament not only to Belleville talent — which is second to none in my entirely unbiased opinion! — but to what could be and was accomplished during this time. Students put in such hard work, learned new skills, stepped out of their comfort zones, and excelled learning very difficult material during a challenging time. This year was absolutely not a loss in any respect. We in fact gained a great deal,” Lombardi said. “Artistically, I hope that the themes of the show bring people comfort. While yes, what we’ve been through this year is unprecedented in our lifetimes, sudden change, difficult dilemmas and unfortunate circumstances befall us all consistently throughout our lives. It’s how we deal with those moments that makes our lives what they are. And if through music and storytelling, we can all cling to that hope that ‘we’ll be fine’ — as the last lyrics of the show state — that is a beautiful thing.”

Choksi reflected on how apropos “Songs for a New World” is now, as we have begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“‘Songs for a New World’ is about a fresh new world, as the title suggests, and I think it is super fitting for today,” Choksi said. “The CDC just updated their guidelines announcing that fully vaccinated people will not be required to wear masks in public settings and gatherings. Although it seems like America will be returning to old times, the reality will be more of a brand new world. And I think the overall message of the musical is super inspiring and uplifting, which I think everyone needs nowadays.”

Mojica sees the show as an optimistic missive to the audience.

“The message I hope the audience will capture from ‘Songs for a New World’ is that, no matter what hardships you might be going through, that there is always a way,” Mojica said. “You can always find a way to be positive in any outcome, no matter the circumstance. I love the message this production sends out.”

The biggest message from the show, though: Despite many obstacles, Belleville High School pulled it off, creating a show that is not only enjoyable, but deeply meaningful.

“Putting on any theatrical production is a huge, complex undertaking, and it is challenging each and every year. But honestly, this year, given all the setbacks, restrictions, inconsistencies and uncharted territory, it should have been darn near impossible to pull this off. But not only did the BHS students pull it off, they excelled. Under these most difficult of circumstances, they behaved with the utmost professionalism,” Lombardi said. “A better bunch of students does not exist, I assure you.”

Photos Courtesy of Carol Lombardi

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