Posted on August 15, 2001 at 12:00 pm
Jason Robert Brown is arguably the best of America’s bright new musical theatre composers. His talents can currently be seen at the BridewellTheatre, who present the European premiere of his first show, Songs for aNew World‚ until 15 September.
What was the motivation for writing Songs for a New World?
SFANW didn’t start out literally as a show. It was just songs that I’dwritten. I used to play in a piano bar in Greenwich Village and I knew thata few years before a show called Closer Than Ever had started there andeventually moved off-Broadway for a financially successful run. I thought, Ican write a show that can make a little money. So I stole the idea. Ithought I’ll put four people on stage with a little band, and it’ll beexactly the same.
So I took the room upstairs and started to put Songs together and, ofcourse, found out that it wasn’t as easy as it looks! So then I startedthrowing songs out and writing new ones. Gradually over a number of years avery clear emotional arc began to run right through the show. At the end ofthe day I had written more than half of the songs specifically for it, whichwas certainly never the intention.
How many sources were there for the original songs?
There were a bunch but it’s safe to say that none of them ever got finishedwhich I think is good for all of us. The Christopher Columbus number at thetop and the Betsy Ross thing at the end were originally from a dreadfulidea I had for a musical revue about American history. I did these two songsand then thought, "Who cares about the rest. This is just silly."
"Flying Home" was from a show that I still might write one of these days abouta girl and a faith healer. It was very wild and fun. "The River Won’t Flow"came from this modern Pinocchio thing which all these homeless guys sang."She Cries" was from a show about a piano player and a cabaret singer, and hasnothing to do with my life. Other songs were written for occasions: "Hear MySong" was written for a benefit concert and things like that. But I thinkthat’s most of it.
Were you always a writer?
Yes. What I like about watching the show now is that it’s sort of a pictureof me at 24. That’s how I wrote, how I thought, and what I was. But it’shard to watch it as a writer now because I know there are writers watchingwho are thinking, "He didn’t do this, he didn’t do that and he couldn’t havedone that rhyme", but I did!
How did you get into the musical theatre business?
I wanted to be Billy Joel, a rock star that played the piano and who chicksthrew their underwear at. If not that, then an actor because I’m a huge ham.Once I get on stage I just have to take it.
Somewhere between wanting to be a rock star and wanting to be an actor, itjust came together. I had spent a lot more time on the musical ends ofthings, summer camps for gifted composers etc. and so I was already inmusical theatre. I wanted to do that.
I went to college as a composer and thought that I was going to be an egghead composer with the horn-rimmed glasses and the pencil behind the ear,but that thankfully didn’t work out for me so I kept gravitating backtowards musicals. I played in piano bars until someone would let memusically direct a show, be a rehearsal pianist or an audition pianist andthat kept happening. And that’s it!
Obviously your biggest success was Parade‚ winning the Tony in 1999. How didthat come about?
It’s a long, complicated story involving a dog, but I went to see HaroldPrince in his office – with his 20 Tony Awards staring at me – to talk aboutan exciting new American opera that Steve (Sondheim) had decided not to do.He thought I might be interested and I said yes. So that’s basically how Igot suckered into doing Parade.
Parade has a remarkable score. How do you feel you got from SFANW toParade?
In the same way as I think of SFANW being me at 25, I think of Parade asme being me at 28.
SFANW was so hard to write because all of the songs were self-contained.Parade was a relief because I could write stuff for characters that couldevolve over the course of an evening. So not only did all the songs not haveto be seven-and-a-half minutes long, but they could also develop in littlepieces here and there so that the characters became much richer. I learnt alot just being able to do that. It gave me a lot of strength.
What are you working on at the moment?
I would like to write something that was a little lighter and a sucked alittle less of my blood out. I know you commit to something and give ityour all, but I would love to do something where at the end of everyperformance I didn’t feel like I’d actually want to slit my throat. I’d loveto write more of a musical comedy.
This is an extract taken from a platform interview with Jason Robert Brownand Clive Paget at the Bridewell theatre on 11 August 2001.