Broadway veteran from Kalamazoo leads Farmers Alley's 'Songs for a New World' to heal hurting souls

"Songs for a New World" will be at Farmers Alley Theatre Oct. 8-24.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Director Jerry Dixon has a big task ahead of him and his actors.
For Farmers Alley Theatre's production of "Songs for a New World," the director gave his usual pre-rehearsal talk to the cast. 
Speaking from his home in New York City, Dixon says he told the cast, "Whenever anything's getting tense, take a breath, we're only doing theater here, we're not solving world peace or curing cancer.”
Then he added a twist for Farmers Alley's first in-theater production in the pandemic era. "But, you know what we will be doing that first day?... We will be healing people. The world is hurting and I'm sure many people in the audience have felt that hurt, and even if we can just heal their souls for an hour and a half, that'd be worth it." 
"Songs for a New World" is a song-cycle by writer/composer Jason Robert Brown. Dixon, a 1979 Kalamazoo Central grad who went on to become a Broadway actor, then director, will return to his hometown to turn "Songs"  into a healing, cathartic experience for people trying to create a new new-normal for themselves.

The cast of "Songs for a New World," from left, Cara Palombo, Jos N. Banks, Matthew Stoke, and Nattalyee Randall.
'The New World'
"Songs for a New World" was originally produced in 1995. It's been presented as an abstract musical for four performers, or a song-cycle that works in cabaret form. It can be about whatever a director, cast, and audience hear in its lyrics.
"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," its author Brown said in 1996.
"Songs" is a bit of a blank slate that allows Dixon to be creative. "Each director who does a production of it gets carte-blanch from Jason. He's not precious about it," Dixon, a friend of Brown, says. "For this song-cycle, he wants people to put their stamp on it. He wants them to make it relevant for their communities, and their time, and the times we're in," he says.
"That freedom also gives us a huge responsibility to find out what the community needs, what they need to hear, what they need to feel."
The opening number, "The New World," talks about lives upended by calamity: "All of a sudden/Your life is different than you planned... A new world crashes down like thunder/A new world charging through the air...." 
Dixon thinks the themes will resonate with all who've faced the changes caused by the pandemic. So he's setting the musical in a 2021 workplace.
"We're starting to go back into our buildings, and people are starting to go back to work... And it's a little daunting," he says. "You might not feel as safe as you did, or you might feel disoriented, or might just miss being (at home) with your pod, your family, your one friend or spouse, your partner. All of a sudden you're back in your workspace, and people are finding it hard to reacclimate." 
The four actors -- Jos N. Banks, Cara Polombo, Nattalyee Randall, Mathew Stoke -- will play unnamed figures such as "Woman 1" or "Man 2," people "just trying to figure out, okay, I'm here today. What's tomorrow? What's the next day, how do I do this, how do I go back to work with all of the challenges that I've been through for the past 18 months?"
'I'm Not Afraid of Anything'
Its songs do sound relevant for the COVID-era listener. Like "I'm Not Afraid of Anything," in which Woman 1 sings of people in her life who are afraid of water, darkness, crying. But she insistently sings "I'm not afraid of anything!" 
The cast of "Songs for a New World," from left, Matthew Stoke, Jos N. Banks, Cara Palombo, and Nattalyee Randall.We've all been afraid the past year and a half. And in the song, she sounds like maybe she might be terrified of something. 
"It's really nice to convince yourself that you're not (afraid). It's a really nice mantra, but in the end -- we'll just have to see what happens" to Woman 1, Dixon says. "I think it's basically a way of self-medicating, or self-soothing. Just keep saying, 'I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid!' It's like the Cowardly Lion in 'The Wizard of Oz.'... You know that they are afraid," Dixon says.
Woman 1 dismisses other people's fears in the song, showing "that, if you're not afraid and you're completely in the dark about why other people are afraid, maybe you have an empathy problem and not a fear problem," he says.
"Hopefully, fingers crossed, she will gain that empathy throughout the evening and you'll see her evolve. She doesn't need to be afraid of everything, but she does need to realize that there is fear in the world." 
Could she be the person saying that they aren't afraid of the virus, so they aren't masking or getting any vaccines? Someone who's actually frightened, but insisting they have no fear?
Some may fear the vaccine more than the disease. Dixon wants to say to them, "I've just seen so much loss and misery and pain from it, and even people who are really strong -- I have a very dear friend who has the worst long-haul symptoms... It's not something that you want to play around with. I get people's fears. I do. I get it. But also I've seen too much of the devastating effects of it."
He adds, "And I'm very proud of my cousin." She's Sylvia Brooks, whose work involves vaccines. She wrote and managed the validation of the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine. "Very proud of her, she's a scientist and one of the heroes," he says.
She's also, "an ambassador for black and brown people who are hesitant. When they see someone like her, and she's a scientist, she can tell them, 'you need to get this vaccine.' They listen to her more than they listen to me, which is fine, she's a scientist, she knows what she's talking about," he says.
He recalls people in the '80s NYC theater community who also thought they could dismiss a disease. "This is my second major pandemic. I was also here in New York for the AIDS crisis. One of the things I was trying to impress upon gay young men is that -- when people are young, they're very cavalier about death. 'Oh, I'm not afraid of death!'"
The cast, musical director, and director of "Songs for a New World.""You might not be afraid of dying from HIV, but the misery of this sickness is something you would not wish upon yourself. Just the day-in, day-out of your body giving up and betraying you, and one day you can lift your fork, and the next day you can't." 
It's the same with COVID, he says, "just a terrible disease to get." 
Celebrate perseverance
Dixon says he's been listening to the songs repeatedly -- as he's been connecting the lyrics with all that we've been through in 2020, he gets a bit too emotional.
"My job as a director is to be analytical." He listens every day, "so I can stop reacting emotionally to it because... as a director you'll miss it if you're overly emotional. The body can only do one thing, it can either be crying or it can be fixing the show!" he says, laughing. "Get all the cry out of my body before that first day.... Man, it's hard when you listen to those lyrics and how they're so attached to what's happening today."
Dixon's goal is to create a "Songs" for Farmer's Alley to "celebrate the perseverance that we as human beings have. That we push through. And we're most successful at perseverance when we do it together."
"It'll be a catharsis for people who've been through so much, releasing good spirits and endorphins that people are so in need of, laughter and healing and the thing that music does that nothing else does."

"Songs for a New World" will be at Farmers Alley Theatre Oct. 8-24.
The theatre requires proof of vaccination to enter, and all guests to wear masks inside.
For more information, see the Farmers Alley Theatre website

Director Jerry Dixon is in town for "Songs for a New World" is a song-cycle by writer/composer Jason Robert Brown.
A career launched with a fall

Jerry Dixon says his first big stage moment was with Kalamazoo actor Gina Maria Chimner when as high-school students they costarred in Kalamazoo Central's production of "Anything Goes."
"I was Billy Crocker and she was Reno Sweeney," he says. They were doing the big "You're the Top" duet on a ship. "I was choreographed to start at the very top of the ship and slide down the pole. Sing 'You're the top' and zzzip 'you're the Coliseum.'"
"And I forgot to rosin my hands. It just slipped my mind." Rosin, the same product that gymnasts use, would've allowed him to glide down gracefully.
"My hands just stuck, and I flipped off of the boat a good 8 feet, and landed flat on my back. But Gina just sang my lines while picking me up, so the audience had no idea that wasn't planned. My mother came back after, said, 'Oh my god! That was a great pratfall!' It was more scary than injurious, but I was dazed and confused, and Gina just kept goin'. From then on she was my hero."
While still in high school, Dixon went professional at the Kalamazoo Center Theatre, "a little basement blackbox theater" that used to operate in the Kalamazoo Center in the late '70s. He noticed that the same passion that high school theater kids have was shared by adults who'd made theater their lives.
He soon left for NYC to live a life in theater. "I tell everyone proudly that I left Kalamazoo and really was able to compete in the competitive pool of New York actors," Dixon says. "I didn't even have enough sense to be nervous about it. I just kind of walked into New York and went 'Sure! I can do this! I did this in Kalamazoo, it's the same thing,'" he says, laughing. 
His career highlights range from starring in his 1990 Broadway debut, "Once on this Island," to directing "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime" as the artistic director of the Village Theatre in Seattle, Wash., in 2019.
"I knew pretty early on it was going to have to go beyond performing or acting," he said. When Dixon started directing, he discovered an "utter joy, it's so collaborative.... You get to help shape a new work from the page to the stage."


Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.