‘A New Brain’ musical, with a weekend run in Marietta, is full of heart

The comical show about a gay composer with a medical emergency premiered off-Broadway in 1998.

Credit: Jono Davis

Credit: Jono Davis

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

The musical “A New Brain” is something of an anomaly. It’s a work many people love, but also one a lot of folks have never seen.

Jennie T. Anderson Theater gives audiences that chance this weekend.

Running Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 16 and 17, “A New Brain” features music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Finn and James Lapine. While Finn is best known for his “Falsettos” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Lapine has taken home the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical three times for “Into the Woods,” “Falsettos” and “Passion.”

According to Jono Davis, Anderson Theater’s artistic director, the highly autobiographical work is about how art can help heal.

Lead character Gordon Michael Schwinn is a composer for a children’s television show who is overworked, highly stressed and anxious — and always under pressure from his boss from the corporate world. Although he is in a loving relationship with his boyfriend and has a strong circle of family and friends, he eventually develops a brain aneurysm and is admitted to the hospital.

Credit: Jono Davis

Credit: Jono Davis

“It’s a reflection of how tragedy can affect various people and what can come of that, whether it be love or change,” said Davis. “It’s a universal theme. It’s a whimsical, funny musical with a charade of tragedy, but it’s not a tragedy. It’s a giant love story and a story of survival.”

“A New Brain” has always been a favorite of Davis; he even has a tattoo of the show. He calls it an ensemble piece where everyone has an integral part, from Gordon’s boyfriend and his mother to the hospital staff — even to a homeless lady who asks for change.

Credit: Courtesy of Anderson Theater

Credit: Courtesy of Anderson Theater

Davis also likes that the show put a queer relationship front and center in the mid ‘90s, and Gordon is hospitalized but not because of HIV/AIDS. “That was such a central theme to musicals during that time,” he said.

Davis started working for Cobb County in 2015 and took over as the manager and artistic director of the theater in 2018. As part of the Cobb Parks program in Marietta, the theater presents four to six productions a year, starting with “Guys and Dolls” in early 2020 before the pandemic. Its work is part of the Overture Series, the Southeast’s only musicals-in-concert series, with the goal of producing rarely staged shows.

“A New Brain” fits that mold. The musical premiered off-Broadway in 1998 and developed a following, prompting productions around the world. It was later remounted as part of a 2015 City Center Encores series at the New York City Center with higher-profile performers Jonathan Groff and Ana Gasteyer in its cast.

Credit: Jono Davis

Credit: Jono Davis

This version is the company’s 16th concert series offering and features new and veteran performers. Besides James Allen McCune, who plays Gordon, the production also stars Mary Nye Bennett and Jeff McKerley.

Davis likes to make the company’s work collaborative. He doesn’t like the concept of picking a show and assigning it to a random person. He prefers the personal touch of having his director and music director have a knowledge and passion of the work before. “Because they are involved, it yields better results,” Davis said.

Music director John-Michael d’Haviland calls the score dense, with 10 characters in the ensemble and moments where they are singing at the same time about different topics.

“The harmonies, the rhythmic complexity and all the storytelling makes it a little challenging,” he said.

Credit: Courtesy of Anderson Theater

Credit: Courtesy of Anderson Theater

Directing the project is Justin Anderson, formerly the associate artistic director at Aurora Theatre. Davis worked with Anderson on Aurora’s “Les Miserables” and calls him one of the area’s most dependable directors as well as someone actors love working with.

Although he took some time off during COVID-19, Anderson is now back with a busy fall season, also currently directing Horizon Theatre’s “Rooted.”

Furthermore, Anderson has much respect for Finn and his songwriting and storytelling abilities.

“It’s the right marriage of quirk and heart,” he said. “He is always going to explore things in very curious ways and look at things with a sense of wonder, finding organic humor. Yet everything is still laced with humanity. He is not Sondheim. They are two different composers, but, like Sondheim, he has an ability to craft masterful music with very smart, curious, inventive lyrics that create wonderful vehicles for actors.”

Like Davis, Anderson realizes “A New Brain” is not as known as some of Finn’s other works.

“Theater-philes would know it, but the general consumer will be more familiar with ‘Spelling Bee,’ which was a large commercial success. But this is his most personal work,” Anderson said. “It’s not point-for-point autobiographical but is the closest reflection of his own life. It’s a shame to me because it deserves a larger audience. There seems to be a slight rediscovery of the piece now. My hope is that people seeing this will want to revisit it again — or dig deeper into his catalog.”


“A New Brain”

8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17. $30. Jennie T. Anderson Theatre, 548 South Marietta Parkway SE, Marietta. 770-528-8490, andersontheatre.org.


Jim Farmer is the recipient of the 2022 National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Award for Best Theatre Feature and a nominee for Online Journalist of the Year. A member of five national critics’ organizations, he covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival, and lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog, Douglas.

Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL


ArtsATL (www.artsatl.org), is a nonprofit organization that plays a critical role in educating and informing audiences about metro Atlanta’s arts and culture. Founded in 2009, ArtsATL’s goal is to help build a sustainable arts community contributing to the economic and cultural health of the city.If you have any questions about this partnership or others, please contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams at nicole.williams@ajc.com.