Posted on October 1, 2000 at 12:00 pm
I am sure that Jason Robert Brown is as tired of references to his age as he is to his being labeled part of the current ‘Bratpack’ of musical theater writers. But I am afraid that I can’t resist: his accomplishments in the past decade have been incredible for an individual of any age, much less a writer barely into his thirties. As an arranger,Jason worked on A New Brain and Dinah Was. His orchestrations can be heard on john and jen and Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall. He music directed The Petrified Prince and When Pigs Fly. And, oh yes, he won a Tony for writing the music and lyrics for his first Broadway show, Parade. Toss in the fact that one of his songs, “Stars and the Moon,” has become a cabaret and concert staple, and you have a truly amazing body of work at any age. So hopefully he will forgive my mentioning it…repeatedly.
Jonathan Frank: Welcome to Talkin’ Broadway, Jason. I heard a rumor that you’re a lurker on here on Talkin’ Broadway.
Jason Robert Brown: I show up every now and then. I like to see what “the kids” have to say.
JF: I don’t know how you do it. I can’t imagine visiting a website and seeing your work – your baby – discussed and dissected by a thousand posters!
JRB: At least it’s by people who care about the art form! I’ve seen my work dissected by Ben Brantley who couldn’t give a shit one way or the other. At least the people who are posting care about musical theater and support it.
JF: You have been touring the country conducting Parade. You didn’t get a chance to conduct the Lincoln Center production, right?
JRB: No. I had wanted to conduct it in New York but the run was too short for it not to be disruptive. It’s not like I didn’t have the best conductor in the world doing it anyway, so I just let him do his job and I would show up every now and then and sulk.
JF: But you did get the chance to play piano for it in New York, correct?
JRB: Yeah. Otherwise I was just sitting there; it was driving me crazy! I said that if the pianist ever needed a sub I happened to know how the songs went, so they threw me in there a couple of times.
JF: How long will Parade be touring?
JRB: After Seattle, we do two weeks in Cleveland … unless somebody wants to keep it going!
JF: How have the audiences responded to Parade on the road?
JRB: Well, the critical response has been exceptional. The press has been amazing every town we go to, except for Minneapolis, where for some reason they didn’t like us much. If I had gotten the kind of reviews in New York that we received in Dallas, I would be a much wealthier man. So that’s been lovely. The audiences go back and forth. The audiences in Atlanta were very involved in it emotionally, for obvious reasons, and were very receptive to it. It plays so differently in the South; it all of a sudden became a show about Southerners. Before, it had always been a show about this Yankee, Leo Frank, who was out of place. When we got to Atlanta, Memphis, and Dallas it became a show about the South.
JF: So they accepted it … it wasn’t perceived as a slam on them or anything?
JRB: No. Alfred Uhry is a Southerner and writes as one of them, and they responded to him as such, whereas at Lincoln Center it played more as a show by three Jews writing about this topic. In the Northern cities, the responses have been very positive but the audiences haven’t been great, since a lot of the theaters haven’t had the money to push the production.
JF: And the title probably doesn’t help … no offense. I have had to clear up many misperceptions by friends here in Seattle who think that, with a name like Parade, it’s going to be a show along the lines of Hello Dolly … a very ‘happy’ and up show. Which begs the question … how on earth did you come up with the title Parade?
JRB: It’s called Parade because the whole show is staged as the Confederate Memorial Parade, that being the day when Mary gets killed. And there is a continuous series of parades in the show; the trial itself can be thought of a parade.
The more honest answer, however, is this: the title that Alfred and I originally came up with was The Devil and Little Mary, which was not the greatest title, but it was evocative and had a lot going on. But Hal for some reason thought it should be called I Love a Parade, which I thought was easily the most misleading title that you could give a show. We actually did a reading with that title. I guess Hal had a lot of people tell him that it might have been the worst title we could have come up with; that we would have been better off naming the show Shogun. Finally Hal said, “We’ll just call it Parade, then.”
Songs for a New World is not one of my favorite titles either, and I feel like I have yet to find a good title for any of my shows. I want that Frank Wildhorn thing of having great titles for everything; when you go see The Civil War, at least you know what you are going to be seeing.
JF: I know that Songs for a New World, which is essentially a revue, contains material written for shows that were in development. But had you ever written a complete honest-to-God book musical before Parade?
JRB: I wrote a ballet called The Moneyman, which is sort of finished, but I threw out the book and I’m now waiting for a better book so I can rewrite it.
JF: When was that written?
JRB: 1996. It was all about Michael Milken and Wall Street in the ’80s. It’s a very exciting piece, but I haven’t found the right time for it yet.
JF: Were you working with other people on that?
JRB: I was, but at the end of the day, I just took my stuff and left. But I keep hoping I will find somebody to work with who really gets it.
JF: So then Parade was really your first full-fledged book musical.
JRB: Yeah. But at the time it didn’t occur to me that it was. Now that I’m able to distinguish between my juvenilia and my real stuff, it obviously is. But at the time I thought, “Oh I know how to do this! I know how to write a show!” Little did I know …
JF: I read somewhere that you had wanted to be a performer at one point. When you moved to New York at 20, did you still have aspirations of being a performer?
JRB: I had planned on being a performer when I was a kid; you know, be Billy Joel or a rock star. But by the time I went to college I had already decided that that wasn’t going to happen. It was obvious to me that the stuff I wanted to be writing was not radio songs …
JF: Because it showed intelligence and contained meaningful lyrics?
JRB: Ye-ah … but even more than that, it has build. Pop songs by their nature are about establishing a mood, sustaining it, and finishing with it. Theater songs are about the opposite; good theater songs go from one end of an idea to a different place. I wanted to write songs that had movement; that had journeys to them. I realized I was not going to be Elton John, or Billy Joel, or Randy Newman … I’ll be some guy who does whatever weird thing it is that I do … I still don’t know what that is, but the closest thing I found was writing musicals.
JF: Does Songs for a New World have any story or connective tissue, or is the show pretty close to what you hear on the CD?
JRB: There’s a little bit of connective tissue … it’s a very different show on stage than on record. On stage it’s about the relationship between the four people. That doesn’t come across on the record and it sounds like just 17 songs, when in fact it’s about one thing that leads to another person, which leads to another person and their overall relationships, which becomes clearer over the course of the evening.
The biggest challenge I have with musical theater is that the stuff I write, by its nature, is not going to be seen by too many people in its original production. Hopefully other people will do it and it will continue to have a life.
JF: Are you currently working on a new project?
JRB: Yes. In May I will have a new show opening at the Northlight Theatre in Chicago, which Daisy [Prince, the original director of Songs for a New World] is directing. It’s a character piece called The Last Five Years. In its simplest form it’s about a man and a woman who fall in love, get married and then get divorced. The woman tells her side of the story from the end of the marriage backwards, the man tells his from the first date forwards, and they do it in alternating segments. They are never in the same place at the same time except in the middle when they get married. So you get to see from two perspectives how things are created and how they are falling apart.
JF: Are you writing the book as well?
JRB: There’s not a whole lot of dialogue per se …
JF: But you are responsible for coming up with the concept and the story.
JF: Which brings up the ever popular question of what exactly is the dividing line, in terms of responsibilities, between the person who writes book and the person who writes the lyrics.
JRB: It’s a structural issue as opposed to a dialogue issue. Anybody who says, “this is what the show looks like in its over-arching form” is responsible, in part at least, for the book. The dialogue is certainly important if you have it … God knows with Parade, if Alfred’s contribution had been limited to the dialogue, he would have been done in an hour and a half. It’s brilliant dialogue and it’s wonderful, but there’s not a lot of it. Obviously his contribution was in determining the structure and the tone of the show.
JF: What song in Songs for a New World represents your earliest work?
JRB: The oldest fragment is “She Cries.” Most of it was written in 1989, and the bridge was written in 1992. “I’m not Afraid of Anything” is the oldest complete song, and it was written in 1990.
JF: I heard that a songbook of your music is in the works …
JRB: I keep talking to my publisher to get the proofs to me. We’re having a lot of trouble getting together a book that we actually like because the songs are so long. “She Cries” is twenty some-odd pages … it doesn’t sound like that, but it is … it’s just endless! In trying to create a folio, you want to balance the number of pages with what people are going to be willing to pay. We’ve been trying to get the songs into forms which are more compact, so we won’t have to waste the forests of several small countries.
JF: It is interesting how frequently I have heard “Stars and the Moon” sung recently … usually by people who are way too young to be singing it.
JRB: It’s amazing to me that people can listen to a show and isolate the four minutes that somehow captures their ear. I know it’s a very popular song and a very resonant song, but I never felt like it was the best song in the show … but I’m glad everybody likes it so much.
JF: What song do you consider to be your ‘best;’ that is the one that you are most proud of writing?
JRB: Some stuff from the new show is very exciting and I am very proud to have written it. Absent that, a song called “Music of Heaven” is what I wish every song of mine could be. It’s an amazing song.
JF: Is it recorded?
JRB: No. It needs a choir, which is the difficulty of performing it. But we’re doing it with the New York Pops at a big concert that they are doing on November 17th. They are going to be doing a tribute to me and Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa. They will be doing about 25 minutes of my stuff, and the last thing will be “Music of Heaven” with orchestra and choir, so that should be a blast.
JF: Any plans to record that concert?
JRB: I doubt it. It would be nice, but you know, everybody is very enthusiastic about all of us, but nobody has made any money off any of us. So things like records and big advances and commissions are still a ways off … for me at least. I think we’re all treading water until one of us hits.
JF: Is that circle of composers good friends or at least acquaintances?
JRB: We all say nice things about each other! I’ve known Adam [Guettel] off and on for about 10 years. I wouldn’t say we’re friends … we don’t travel in the same circles … but we certainly get on just fine. I think he’s just extraordinary. I traveled to Philadelphia by myself, which is completely not like me, to see the first reading of Floyd Collins because I just wanted to see what he did. I was in shock and he still knocks me out. I have a little more interesting relationship with Michael John [LaChiusa]; I was the music director for his show The Petrified Prince at the Public. We admire each other a lot … at least I hope it’s reciprocal … but I don’t think we’ll ever be the sort to ‘hang out.’ Ricky Ian [Gordon] is just the sweetest man you’ll ever meet in your life, and I feel lucky just to know him. The other day I got a letter from him out of nowhere saying how much he enjoyed listening to Parade that day, and I wrote back and said “You’re the guy!”
You know, the real problem, and I hope they’ll forgive me for saying this, but all four of us are exceedingly neurotic, which makes normal friendship difficult when there’s any kind of competition or pressure. And let’s face it, there’s plenty of both of those things.
JF: And here I was hoping that the four of you were constantly hanging out … the next generation of musical theater composers forming a new Algonquin Round Table or something like that.
JRB: You know, I really resist claiming that we’re the “new generation” …
JF: It’s hard not to. For the longest time there was all this bitching and moaning about “Where is the new blood?” The “Where is the next generation of composers to lead us into the millennium” sort of thing. Frank Wildhorn was about the only new voice that appeared for quite a while, and now all of a sudden there is this huge influx of similarly aged writers on the scene.
JRB: It’s arbitrary. Steve Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens I think are about the same age as, say, Ricky Ian Gordon. So all this talk that the four of us are the ‘new’ generation is really weird. I think Steve and Lynn did a lot in paving the way for us. Look, Once on This Island remains one of the greatest things I ever saw, and Ragtime is wonderful; I don’t think I would have been as confident in my work without them. It also conveniently ignores a lot of people who are doing things that are just as significant, if not more so, like Andrew Lippa or Matt Sklar or Jake Heggie. I mean I’m very grateful for the attention that I have been getting, but it seems arbitrary that the four of us who happened to show up on Audra’s record are the four people who get all the attention.
JF: I noticed in your bio that you did orchestrations for Sondheim at Carnegie Hall. That would have been right when you moved to New York! Don’t tell me that the first job you got in New York was arranging the entire concert?
JRB: No, I just did the songs for The Tonics, which was a group I was sort of music directing at the time. I came into town and started playing at piano bars and I met The Tonics. Someone had recommended me to them, since there aren’t a lot of people in piano bars or in musical theater that play rock and roll with any kind of facility. And it was a lovely experience, because right when I started working with them they took off and I got to be in the middle of it.
JF: You seem to be quite the master of timing …
JRB: I kind of think it’s the opposite; if I were the true master of timing, Parade would still be running!
JF: Well, I am looking forward to seeing it finally. I saw Fosse again recently and I still can’t believe it won the Tony for Best Musical.
JRB: It’s fine, but it’s not a musical.
Look, here’s the thing … you don’t win “Best Musical” because you’re the best musical. Everyone who reads this board has figured that out already. You win because the show is valuable to the greatest number of people if you win. The shame about Fosse winning Best Musical is that it isn’t valuable to anyone except tour presenters. The show doesn’t really add to anyone’s understanding of Fosse’s work, that’s for sure, and it’s not some groundbreaking and exciting form of revue; it’s just a bunch of dances that you either saw or didn’t see the first time around. And that’s fine, but it’s not a musical. So the lesson learned here is that the tour presenters are extremely influential in deciding how the Tonys are awarded, because nobody else had any reason to vote for Fosse.
I’m not saying they should have voted for Parade, because I don’t think any of us expected to win. But Footloose and Civil War were two shows produced by large corporations that could really have used a Best Musical Tony to prop up business, and they couldn’t get anyone to care enough about them to vote that way. So instead, a show that had absolutely no original material, which will have no life at all in stock and amateur sales … that most Broadway people couldn’t care less about one way or the other … beat out three shows containing original material which could theoretically be done in high schools and colleges for the next fifty years. That’s instructive.
JF: You did win a Tony, however, for writing the music and lyrics for Parade. I heard that two weeks after you won it you were working as the audition pianist for The Scarlet Pimpernel …
JRB: That was a favor I did … well, not a favor exactly … Mark Simon, who was the casting director for Parade was also at the time the casting director for Pimpernel, so as a private joke he would call me in to play for auditions.
JF: It’s interesting to hear things like that … because the perception is that once you win a Tony, you don’t have to do things like that ever again.
JRB: But I do have to do things like that; the Tony Award does not come with a cash gift. I mean, I don’t play auditions for a living; I just love doing it and Mark and I thought it would be fun. The unfortunate side effect is that it was distracting for actors, so I asked Mark not to do it any more; people would come in and start sweating and panting when they saw me at the piano, so I figured that it wasn’t fair.