Arts and Humanities
3:42 pm
Wed August 14, 2013

Musical Brings Songs to Life After Near-Death Experience

CenterStage at the Jewish Community Center opens a musical about creativity, legacy and brain surgery this week. "A New Brain," by the Tony Award-winning creative team behind "Falsettos," chronicles the creative struggles of a composer diagnosed with a terminal brain disorder.

“It is an obscure musical," says artistic director John Leffert, who also directs. "I think the subject matter scares people away.” 

Not Leffert. The director embraces rarely-seen shows like "A New Brain" as much as he gravitates to classic heavy hitters like "The Sound of Music" and newer blockbusters like "Legally Blonde," which sold out its run at the JCC last month. 

"Our audience is diverse," says Leffert. "We’re doing 'The Color Purple' this year, and we’re hoping to bring a community into the Jewish Community Center that may not know we exist. I think in turn, we do a service to the Jewish community. When I drove by this building my entire life, I thought you had to be Jewish to even walk through the door. So we’re getting people into the building and knowing what kind of open center this is."

"A New Brain" might be obscure, but composer William Finn isn't – he wrote the music and lyrics for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "Falsettos" and the musical adaptation of "Little Miss Sunshine," which opens at new play incubator Second Stage Theatre in October.  But “A New Brain,” Finn's 1998 semi-autobiographical musical (book also by James Lapine, a frequent collaborator) about his brush with death when diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder, is less well-known. 

In "A New Brain," Gordon ( a stand-in for Finn) is a talented young writer working on a song for a children’s television show. When he collapses at work, he is haunted by the songs he has left unfinished. Diagnosed with a terminal brain condition, he heads into surgery, afraid he will die before he can write a hit Broadway show. The musical then brings to life the songs the composer still has inside him. Finn used his own experiences fighting and recovering from a rare brain disorder when writing the show. 

Leffert says that while Finn’s story is rooted in a true-life near-death experience, the show’s message is ultimately uplifting.

“People think it’s dark and it’s not at all," he says. "To not take life for granted, and to do everything for today because you don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s the theme of the show.”

Gordon goes into surgery a cynic and comes out with a renewed sense of purpose. Leffert praises Finn's skill at telling stories through music. Originally conceived as  a song cycle, "A New Brain" is mostly music with very few spoken lines. 

"I think [Finn] tells great stories, honest, real-life stories, and he tells them in a real way," says Leffert. "I think that’s what I love about this piece. All of these characters are flawed, no one’s perfect."

The production opens Thursday in the JCC’s Linker Auditorium and runs through August 25. The next show to open in CenterStage's season is "Les Miserables" in October.