Posted on November 1, 1999 at 12:00 pm
Interview for THE DRAMATIST magazine, November 1999
by Gregory Bossler
Jason Robert Brown made his Broadway debut as a composer with Parade and received the 1999 Tony Award for Best Score. His first musical, Songs for a New World, debuted Off-Broadway at the WPA Theatre in 1995. For his work on that show and others in progress, Brown received the 1996 Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla Musical Theatre Award. He also has worked as arranger for William Finn’s A New Brain (Lincoln Center), as orchestrator for Andrew Lippa’s john and jen (Lamb’s) and Yoko Ono’s New York Rock (WPA), and as musical director for Michael John LaChiusa’s The Petrified Prince (Public) and Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly. Upcoming projects include The Moneyman Dances, a musical about Michael Milkmen, and the national tour of Parade, which will begin in Atlanta and play Pittsburgh, Denver, Chicago, and Seattle, among other stops.
GREGORY BOSSLER: I’ve read that, when you were 7 years old, you asked for a piano.
JASON ROBERT BROWN: Yes, something told me I wanted to play the piano. I don’t know what it was. It sounds clichéd and mystical, but I thought, “I really want to be sitting at a piano and playing. They seem fun and cool.” My grandfather had one, so my folks dragged it out of his basement in Brooklyn and put it in our living room.
BOSSLER: Had your grandfather played for you?
BROWN: No, I don’t have a very musical family. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was a klezmer violinist, back in the old country who played for village weddings. That’s about all my musical background, though I am very distantly related through marriage to Yip Harburg.
BOSSLER: Did your family support your interest?
BROWN: They didn’t actively discourage it, but for a long time, I wasn’t any good. I don’t want to give the impression that I sat down at the piano at 7 years old and started playing Mozart. I wasn’t any good for a very long time. I’d say, “Oh, I’ll play! I’ll play!” and my family would roll their eyes, “All right, Jason, you can play something, if you want.” [laughs]
BOSSLER: I’ve read that Billy Joel was your role model.
BROWN: That’s what I heard on the radio. That sounded like something I wanted to do. That sounded like me. I wanted to be a guy who played the piano and sang, while people screamed. That sounded like fun. I loved the pop music I heard on the radio. In 1979 I could name any song within the first two beats: “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls, ” “Born to Be Alive.” I wasn’t doing my homework. so I had time to listen to WABC. At a certain point, I started listening to everything. I started exploring show music and classical music.
I began playing the piano also because I wanted to show off. I was a ham. I wanted to be an actor. I was a brilliant Banquo in sixth grade. I tore down the house! I wanted to be an actor, and I wanted to be a songwriter. They fused into musical theater. I began writing musicals, fifteen-minute things about a high school kid who has a crush on this girl, dumb stuff like that.
BOSSLER: Were any of those done at school?
BROWN: No, my first produced piece of theater was Innovations, about the transition from silent movies to talking movies. It was done at my summer camp, French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts, when I was 16. I thought it was the greatest thing, and I expected David Merrick to be knocking on my door the next morning saying, “I heard about this great show.” Looking back on it, it’s almost unrelentingly terrible, but that’s a relief, in a sense. It’s nice to think I’ve grown in the past twelve years.
BOSSLER: You then went to Eastman School of Music.
BROWN: I went to Eastman as a composition major. I didn’t know what else to do. My grades were terrible in high school, and that didn’t make my mother very happy. She’s an English teacher. I wasn’t into anything about school, except music. Once I got to Eastman, I realized I wasn’t into anything about school, period. Grades never seemed enough of an incentive. A degree never seemed enough of an incentive. I never expected to go into a career that required a degree, so college never really mattered to me.
BOSSLER: You left Eastman after two years.
BROWN: Yes, two years at Eastman is long enough to learn a great deal. Whether I learned all the intricacies of theory I don’t know, but if I ever need to analyze Stockhausen, I guess I could go back to school. In those two years at Eastman, I had some wonderful teachers who opened me as a composer, opened my ears to many things. That was most important, being exposed to a lot of music, listening to things I wouldn’t have heard elsewhere. Sydney Hodkinson, the conductor of Musica Nova, was very helpful. I had orchestration classes with Christopher Rouse and Joseph Schwantner, the cream of the crop at Eastman. I learned a lot, but after two years, I felt, “It‘s time for me to do what I want to do.”
BOSSLER: Did you write any shows for Eastman ?
BROWN: No, it was real classical composition. I’ve always liked vocal music, so I wrote song cycles from Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In my first composition lesson, Samuel Adler, this imposing strict German, asked, “What work do you want to do?” I said, “I think I’d like to do musical theater work.” He said, “Ach! Musical theater! I’ll tell you something. You want to write a musical? You sit down one afternoon, you write a musical.” However, Eastman was a good place to sharpen my chops. Those two years help me enormously, when I’m now called to orchestrate, vocal arrange, or play here in New York.
BOSSLER: Did you come to New York right after Eastman?
BROWN: No, I was determined to leave Eastman, but I didn’t have a plan for what I wanted to do. I lived in Boston for a couple of months, then ended up in Miami at New World School of the Arts. I spent a year teaching and accompanying classes. There are many theater people in Miami, many people who retired there from New York. I talked to them about what the theater scene was like, what to expect. I also continued to compose, to build up my writing chops. After a year, I thought, “It’s time.”
BOSSLER: What did you do first when you came to New York?
BROWN: Starved. [laughs] I got an apartment in Greenwich Village and started playing at Eighty-Eights. For three years, I did the piano bar and cabaret scene. I was just a kid who played show tunes to pay the rent, while I wrote. I also played for the vocal group The Tonics. Through them, I met Daisy Prince. I told her, “Do you want to help me do something with these songs I’m writing?” She helped me pull the songs into a show. Over the years, we put in songs, took out songs, until we had Songs for a New World. A couple of years earlier, I realized that what I thought were pop songs, the songs I wrote in college, didn’t belong on the radio. I told myself, “Stop trying to be what you’re not. You’re not going to write for Paula Abdul.” If anything, my model was Jimmy Webb or Randy Newman, people who write story songs. I thought, “I’ll do that and see where it takes me.” That was the impetus to start writing what became Songs for a New World. From the time I approached Daisy until the production at WPA, it was about four years. That’s a long time for a revue, but it was a hard show to sell, because who was I? Nobody knew who I was.
BOSSLER: While you were writing that show, you were also arranging and orchestrating for many other people’s shows.
BROWN: When you’re trying to pay the rent, you do whatever you can. I had met Dick Gallagher in the piano bar, and he recommended me to the WPA. They needed a pianist for a Yoko Ono musical. I came to play auditions, and they asked me to play the show. I also did arranging and orchestrating for that. I met Hal [Prince] through Daisy, and he asked if I wanted to music direct The Petrified Prince, Michael John LaChiusa’s piece. That was another great opportunity. I worked on New Brain, Muscle, and the Brave Little Toaster movies with Bill Finn, and I orchestrated john and jen for Andrew Lippa. I learned a lot working with these people. The more you’re exposed to and the more different things you hear, you think, “That’s something I’ve never tried, but that could be fun.” I’m aggressively competitive with everybody on the entire planet. Every time I hear Adam Guettel do something, I think, “Oh, I hate him! He did something I don’t know how to do. He did something better than I would’ve done it.” I think we all listen to each other and raise the bar for each other. I love that competition. I love that sense of community. So many people say there’s no musical theater today, but there is. We all aren’t produced on Broadway, but God knows there are many of us out there.
BOSSLER: It seems there aren’t many producers like Hal Prince out there, producers that are giving young voices the exposure and opportunities.
BROWN: It’s not that Hal is the only person willing to take a chance on writers. It’s that Hal is the only person willing to take a chance on material. Broadway producers want saleable material. I can’t blame them for hearing Parade and saying “It’s very talented, but I can’t do anything with it.” It’s short- sighted, but they want a sure thing. They want what sounds most accessible and most obvious. That’s not me. I think what I do is accessible, but the obvious doesn’t intrigue me. All I can do is write what intrigues me.
I think Parade didn’t attract a larger audience because it was about a tough subject. We didn’t try to beat that. At no point did any of the producers or writers say, “Let’s giggle our way out of a tough subject.” I think if we had written about a more saleable subject, there wouldn’t be any questions about whether the music was accessible or not. I don’t think that the music in Parade is any less accessible than in Ragtime. I’m not trying to write something alien. I don’t write twelve-tone, minimalist music. What I write is obviously familiar to me, not only because I’m writing it but also because my influences are not that different from those of most theatergoers.
BOSSLER: You credit Charles Ives as one of your influences.
BROWN: All right, that one’s a little different. I’ve loved his music my whole life. Ives pushed the frontiers of American symphonic music. He was at the forefront of the rebirth of intellectual culture after the Civil War. Until about 1890 to 1910, there was very little progress in American culture. Eu- rope was going crazy, but America had settled into nostalgia for life before the war. I think that’s what Ives and others, like Henry Cowell, were reacting to.
When I looked at the period of Parade, Ives seemed right, though he was from the wrong milieu. Ives is Massachusetts, and Parade is Georgia. I knew I had to adapt his music and make it more Southern, but the stylistic impulse was right, his impulse of all this music happening at the same time: marching bands, rags, and waltzes playing against more sinister, symphonic sounds. I thought that, at heart, the texture of the show should be collisions, many things jumping on top of each other and never really ending. Keys abruptly change, and there are no buttons on any of the songs in the show. Well, maybe two songs have buttons, but it’s a show about transitions from one thing to another. There’s all this overlapping. There’s all this cacophony. I don’t think you can put Ives in the theater and have it hold interest the same way that I hope Parade does, but I wanted the impulse to be theatrically viable.
BOSSLER: When Alfred Uhry talked to The Dramatist, he said that the book was structured cinematically, that things came on top of each other. The music, you’re saying, is also structured that way?
BROWN: Absolutely. I didn’t think of the songs and the book as separate. I thought of the whole show as one large structure. We were all thinking cinematically. That’s why there aren’t many spaces for applause, and there aren’t many blackouts. It moves fast. We all wanted that. The Alfred Hitchcock movie The Wrong Man, with Henry Fonda, seemed appropriate to me. The structure of that movie informed the structure of my music. The movie also has a Bernard Herrmann score, and there’s a theatrical structure to his music. I always thought of Parade as a Hitchcock musical. Hal says his instinct was Citizen Kane.
BOSSLER: In the liner notes to the Parade CD, you wrote that you dreamed your first Broadway show would be with “one of the great theatrical titans, maybe that Harold Prince guy,” and it came true.
BROWN: I also wrote that I didn’t have time to notice that my dream was coming true. I had too much work to do. I didn’t sit around and think, “Wow, this is the coolest thing in the world!” It was more nerve-wracking than exhilarating. Some nights I would wake up sweating, because I had a show coming into Broadway, a show being directed by Hal Prince. I felt a lot of pressure, but jumping around, dancing on my rooftop… I never really did that. I was too busy writing, which is probably for the best. No one needs to hear me jumping around saying, “Hal Prince is doing my show!”
BOSSLER: I understand that Hal first mentioned Parade, while you were working on Petrified Prince?
BROWN: Yes, in the hiatus between the workshop and the production of Petrified Prince, Hal first talked to me about Parade. Stephen Sondheim had dropped out. I think Hal and Alfred really wanted to get moving, so they said, “Let’s give the brat a chance.” I thought, “I’m not going to wait on this,” so I wrote a song right away to show them. I looked at the research and thought, “Maybe this is what I should do.” It was terrible, but terrible in all the right ways. I think it showed them that I knew what I was doing theatrically, but it was terrible because it didn’t come from any book.
BOSSLER: How did the book take shape?
BROWN: Alfred and I would talk about what each scene involved. We’d summarize it on paper, and Alfred would go home to write the scene. Where the song would be, he’d write a monologue. Sometimes he’d write a lyric, since he’s also a lyricist. I wouldn’t use his lyrics, but it gave me a sense of the shape of the scene. He also structured his monologues like songs. I tended to use his structures. Then I’d play him what I wrote, and he would say, “That’s not exactly what I had in mind.” I’d say, “Good, because the dialogue you wrote wasn’t what I had in mind, either,” and we’d all throw it away and start over again. It was all about getting the right shape and the right structure. Then we’d show it to Hal, and he’d tell us to go back to the drawing board! [laugh] From the beginning, Alfred and Hal treated me as an equal partner. When people ask what it was like to work with them, I always say it was like working with two people who were doing the same work I was. It wasn’t scary. It was like going to work. They were great guys. They wanted to write the same show that I wanted to write. That made it easy.
BOSSLER: Did you write straight from beginning to end, or did you go back to rewrite scenes?
BROWN: We did the first draft from beginning to end, scene by scene, and didn’t go back. Actually, we went back for one scene, what is now “You Don’t Know This Man.” Other than that, we kept moving forward. After we had the first draft, we did a reading in Philadelphia, and that really told us most of what we needed to know. A year later, we did another reading in New York and then a workshop in Toronto.
BOSSLER: I’ve read that it took some time to discover the characters of Leo and Lucille Frank.
BROWN: Yes, we didn’t have them right away. Leo was very hard to find musically, to figure out how he sang. I think the problem with our first draft was that Leo never sang. Some people suggest a problem with the show now is that Leo still doesn’t sing enough, but I can’t imagine him singing more than he does. He always seemed to me to be a very buttoned-up, closed person, someone who doesn’t naturally sing. We gave him “Come Up to My Office” and “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart” in the first act and “All the Wasted Time” in the second act. Then his character changed a lot when we put in “This Is Not Over Yet” and, especially, “How Can I Call This Home.” Lucille was much easier, because she’s someone who naturally sings. We just didn’t write her enough songs initially. We quickly figured that out and wrote her two more songs, which really opened her character. Alfred’s book also opened her a lot.
BOSSLER: How does your background in orchestrating and arranging affect your composing?
BROWN: I don’t treat composing as separate from orchestrating. I wrote a lot of the Parade score on five staves, which no pianist could actually play, but it showed everything going on. I think texturally, not pianistically. I don’t think of music as separate elements that are put together. In old-time show biz, the composer wrote a song and gave it to the arranger, who then gave it to the orchestrator. I’m very uncomfortable with that, because the music is out of my control too long. I’d rather know how it’s all going to work, so that I can say it’s my complete artistic statement. That may sound pretentious, but it’s important to me that what I write is a whole. In the entire score of Parade, nobody [else] wrote any dance music, nobody wrote any underscoring, nobody wrote anything but me. The point was to make something that sounds like a whole.
BOSSLER: If you don’t think pianistically, do you compose on the piano or away from the piano?
BROWN: It depends. For example, I wanted “Big News!” to be a barrelhouse number, so I wrote it at the piano and let my fingers have fun. For “Do It Alone,” I was at the piano a bit, but I did most of the work away from the keyboard. I think of my songs primarily as vocal lines. I’ll begin with the vocal line, the chords, and an idea of the feeling underneath. I don’t write down the piano part until the last possible second. When I finally do, it may not bear much resemblance to what I’ve been playing. The process of putting down the piano part, codifying the song, often leads to places that my fingers don’t necessarily go on the keyboard. Deciding the piano part, the written representation of a song, is a very long process, but the vocal lines are what the song is about. Those I have from the beginning, but I leave the piano part unspecific. I was the only one who played the Parade score at the first three readings. It wasn’t until the workshop in Toronto that somebody else had their hands on the music, because I wanted it in my hands. I wanted to know the score wasn’t generic and obvious. I wanted to know that I didn’t make the first choices but the best choices I could.
BOSSLER: Is it hard to be objective about the music when you’re at the piano for so much of the process? With Songs for a New World, you were even at the piano performing onstage.
BROWN: It’s hard, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way on Songs for a New World, though I regretted not having someone take over in rehearsals, so I could watch the show. With Parade, the intention always was that I would eventually get away from the piano. In the early stages, Hal and Alfred made the decisions about book and structure, because they watched the show. If I had watched the show, I probably would’ve focused too much on what was happening musically, so it was just as well that I was at the piano, because that’s where my mind was.
BOSSLER: What was running though your mind after the Tony Awards? Was it contentment about what you’d done, anxiety about what you’d do next, or both?
BROWN: I thought all of that. Before the show opened, I worried, “People are going to hear Parade, and they’ll wonder how I can follow it.” Unfortunately, it turned out to be anticlimactic. So few people actually heard Parade that it hasn’t been an issue. Winning the Tony Award was wonderful, and I’m certainly not giving it back, but producers aren’t calling me everyday, “You won a Tony Award! We want you to work for us!” That hasn’t happened at all. I had a wonderful opportunity, and I’m very grateful for it. It’s a great show and I’m very proud of it. However, it hasn’t been a rocket launch to stardom.
BOSSLER: At the Tonys, Alfred announced that Parade might go on tour and even return to Broad- way.
BROWN: It seems somewhat certain that we’ll open in Atlanta next summer, as part of what’s now a sixteen-week tour, which we hope to extend. There’s also talk about returning to Broadway, but I don’t know. I don’t want to be beaten up twice by the same critics, though I look forward to the tour. I’d like it to go to Chicago and California, places we got exceptionally good reviews, places where it has a chance of finding its mark. However, I really look forward to my next show. Parade has been five years of my life.
BOSSLER: Most people don’t realize it can take that long.
BROWN: It shouldn’t. Producers are scared about losing money, so they make everything drag on to prevent actually doing the show. They do a reading. They do a workshop. They’re doing the show without actually doing it. Shows with 75 people need time to develop, but I still think five years is overwrought. I hope that the show I’ve just started will be produced by next spring. You can become caught up in readings and workshops for eternity. A show that’s been in development for five years has no chance of retaining its initial impulse, unless its creators are very strong, like Alfred and Hal are. The biggest danger in too much development is that it sucks the life out of the show. You should do the show while the impulse is fresh. Then if it doesn’t work, you can go onto the next one.
BOSSLER: I know you don’t like to talk about what you’re writing next.
BROWN: I have three or four projects I’m working on now. It seemed very hard to follow up Parade. I couldn’t think of what my next project would be. It wasn’t until maybe three weeks ago that I figured out what I wanted to be working on, what intrigued me enough.
BOSSLER: Will you be working again with Daisy on one of them?
BROWN: Yes, Daisy is directing my next piece. She’s a wonderful director. I also hope to work with Alfred again on something else.
BOSSLER: You won’t say more than that, though?
BROWN: No, not under any circumstances. [laugh]