Natalie O’Donnell talks Songs for a New World

Update (25/8/16): Natalie O’Donnell will replace Sophie Carter (who is unable to perform due to illness) in Songs For a New World at the Hayes Theatre, reprising her role from the recent Melbourne season.

Mere months after their critically acclaimed production of Violet closed following engagements in Sydney and Melbourne, Blue Saint Productions have launched their production of Songs for a New World. A popular theatre piece in the style of a song cycle, Songs features only four performers, and Natalie O’Donnell is one of them.

Natalie O'Donnell. Image by Ben Fon
Natalie O’Donnell in Songs for a New World. Image by Ben Fon

Speaking to her before opening night a week ago, O’Donnell was looking forward to the challenge of performing a musical theatre favourite for Melbourne audiences, and was enjoying getting to re-learn a score that she loved during her university days. Known amongst theatre fans as “a massive sing”, with vocally and orchestrally complicated music written by Jason Robert Brown, O’Donnell did not underestimate the work the cast and creative team had to put in to make sense of the loosely-structured narrative of Songs.

Songs was basically on repeat during my time at WAAPA, so I was very familiar with it. In saying that, I deliberately haven’t gone back and listened to the soundtrack since coming on board with the show. It’s such a well-known recording and I spent so much time with it when I was younger, so I felt it was important to approach it with fresh ears and ideas and find my own way through it which I’ve really enjoyed.”

“It’s without a doubt the most vocally challenging show I’ve ever done, and to be honest, I have loved that challenge. We were really lucky early on that Geoff [Castles, musical director] and Luke [Joslin, director] kept reminding us not to get overwhelmed by the dots and to keep the story of the utmost importance. As always when you go back to story, the big notes never seem nearly as daunting… Especially with someone like JRB, who is so good with the synergy of music and the emotional state of his characters. It truly is one of the most satisfying scores I’ve worked on. Jason Robert Brown’s work is just so intricate and layered and story driven and to see his work collected into one evening is something special.”

Described as a collection of songs and scenarios that are about “one moment”, about making a choice, taking a stand, or turning around and starting again, O’Donnell says that running the show from start to finish has been an incredibly important tool in preparing the piece for audiences.

“Because the show doesn’t have a through narrative we are finding it’s so important to run it so we can find how each moment segues into the next and where we are placed emotionally from one song to the next.”

Related: read our review of Songs for a New World.

Although characters change depending on the scene they are playing and don’t necessarily have a story arc, O’Donnell says she has had no difficulty in identifying with them. According to O’Donnell, this is because of Jason Robert Brown’s masterful ability to capture a moment through song, as seen in Songs and following works such as The Last Five Years and Parade. She cites Francesca Johnson from The Bridges of Madison County as a future dream role.

“[…] I identify with [the songs and scenes] all the time, as I’m sure we all do. Especially in our industry which is filled with high pressured fight or flight scenarios. On a personal level it’s been so interesting to look back on the times I’ve found myself facing crossroads, and to see how the choices I’ve made have shaped the course of life so far. I’ve also reflected on the stories friends have shared with me or advice I’ve been given over time and all of that has helped inform each story I tell in the show.”

“I think the show’s appeal is very broad. [Songs] deals with life and the choices we make. Whether you’re 20 or 80, that’s something we all can relate to.”

Songs For a New World runs at Melbourne’s Chapel off Chapel until 12 June, with tickets to be purchased at this link. Blue Saint Productions have announced that the show will open at the Hayes Theatre in Sydney on 12 August. 

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Maddi is a performer who has been too scared to stand in the spotlight for the last few years, so she channels her need for love and appreciation into writing about the theatre instead. An energetic consumer of musical theatre, she is currently earning a degree in journalism and teaches voice in her small hometown. Maddi is normally covered in cat fur, has an opinion on everything, and in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, is not throwing away her shot.

Maddi has written 81 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by

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Natalie O’Donnell talks Songs for a New World
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