A New Brain, written by the brilliant duo of William Finn and James Lapine, gives audiences life – even when telling a story that is mostly centered around death. As a fan of the authors’ previous collaboration, Falsettos, I desperately wanted to see this show; so naturally when it was announced that the Gallery Players in Brooklyn were putting it on, I couldn’t resist. While it can be difficult to relate to the main character, Gordon Michael Schwinn’s life in specific ways (ex. I have never woken up in a hospital with a tumor, I have never felt stressed to write an award-winning song for an animated frog, etc.), the broader message of the show hits home. Through the love felt between Gordon and his mother, boyfriend, friends and even hospital nurses, I found myself smiling through the tears all the way through.
As a college student, I am filled with hopes and dreams for the future, much like Gordon. And it can be incredibly frustrating when you can’t fulfill those dreams at the drop of a hat. While going through trials and tribulations of growing up is sort of the prerequisite to leading a full life, it’s tempting not to wish for a remote control so you can press that lightning fast forward button. When something creates a barrier between you and those aspirations, I can only imagine that the exhaustion of wanting and needing to carry out your destiny before said ‘something’ breaks you is intense. In Gordon’s case, it’s practically impossible for him to think up lyrics for this ridiculous children’s show he has been hired to write for – and yes, it might seem like it’s not the end-all-be-all of his career, but he is quite literally on his death bed as he tries over and over again to get it done. To him, this is his last chance at proving to the world that he has been good enough this entire time; that’s a lot of pressure to be under for someone in his condition.
Not only does the audience see Gordon’s perspective of his dire situation, but also Roger (his lover), Mimi (his mother), a homeless woman, Dr. Berensteiner, the nice and not-so-nice nurses, Rhoda (his friend and coworker) and even Mr. Bungee (the frog from the children’s show) himself. Each of these individuals give a slightly different take on the matter; for example, while his loved ones feel a sense of worry and panic, the doctor gives off a ‘let’s get this over with’ vibe. Mr. Bungee is a figment of Gordon’s imagination who torments him throughout his medical (and emotional) journey, simultaneously being the comic relief of the play but also a looming dark cloud in Gordon’s mind. I found the frog character to be especially intriguing, only because all of us as people have that looming dark cloud in our minds as well. Maybe not in the image of a frog, per se, but there is always a voice in the back of our heads trying to tear us down, and it is our job to overcome it. Every character’s personality is unique and no matter who is watching, there are qualities in all of them to be related to. This is carried out beautifully in Finn’s lyrics and score.
The reason I fell so deeply in love with Falsettos was because of the music that both hurt and healed my heart, and the same went for this production of A New Brain. The hilarity ensued right from the start during the opening number of “Frogs Have so Much Spring,” and I found myself tapping my toes and giggling up until the number that greatly caught my attention – “Heart and Music.” Not only was this song rhythmic and catchy, but it made me think about the beautiful moments in my own life. As this dream sequence occurs when Gordon shockingly falls ill, he reminisces on how many great songs he could write and how music makes life worth living. The show then moves forward with a more serious and enchanting ballad, one of the most well-known songs from the piece, “I’d Rather Be Sailing.” It had goosebumps running up my spine and tears falling down my cheeks. That was the trend throughout the rest of the show; it would travel back and forth from upbeat to slower tunes (see: “And They’re Off” vs. “An Invitation to Sleep in My Arms”), creating a nice balance for the audience.
At the end of the show, there is a large sense of hope that I could feel in my bones. It left me remembering that even in the worst and lowest points of my life, it is possible to come out on the other side as a stronger person because of these experiences. As spring represents new beginnings, it is clear that Gordon’s newfound optimism ends the musical on a high note as he sings “I Feel so Much Spring.” The story is fully human, and I think that’s what makes it so special. You can look at the story and feel what the characters are feeling; you can get into their minds as if you are a part of the story yourself. That is the key to Finn and Lapine’s writing – they know how to connect, and that is such a meaningful and vital aspect of theatre. Its “heart and music” made my own heart feel so full, and for that I am grateful.