Posted on January 4, 2004 at 12:00 pm

You’d think that any young composer who’d been plucked from relative obscurity to replace Stephen Sondheim in a new Broadway musical, then landed a Tony Award for his efforts, would thank his lucky stars.

Not Jason Robert Brown.

"Broadway is an inhospitable place to work," said Brown, 33, who stepped in for a departing Sondheim to finish "Parade," based on the infamous murder trial and lynching of Leo Frank; Brown won a 1999 Tony for original musical score. "Broadway isn’t kind or forgiving to new or smart work. It’s unsophisticated and sort of, well, stupid. Everyone in the business knows that. I don’t have any aspiration to write the kind of material that’s successful on Broadway right now."

Brown is biting the hand that feeds him for a good reason: It hasn’t been feeding him all that well. Despite its accolades (including another Tony for Alfred Uhry, who wrote the book), "Parade’s" debut production at Lincoln Center closed quickly. And Brown’s next effort, "The Last Five Years," opened off-Broadway, received so-so reviews, and folded in the red after only two months.

Happily, Brown’s financial fortunes have benefited from a saving grace: "The Last Five Years" has been popular almost everywhere outside New York City. Since its 2001 debut in Chicago, it has dominated the country’s regional theaters. "This is probably the 60th production. I’ve lost count," Brown said of the show’s California premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, where it opened Saturday.

"The Last Five Years" was a reaction of sorts to Brown’s experience with "Parade."

"I wanted something more portable, (something) that I could do anyplace. ‘Parade’ had 35 actors and a big orchestra and a lot of collaborators. I wanted to do something of my own … without listening to what anyone else had to say. And I wanted to write a song cycle for two singers."

Though the show’s staging requirements are simplicity itself, its plot demands that you pay attention. It’s the story of a relationship, but each partner goes in opposite directions. The man begins at their first date, the woman begins with their breakup. The actors sing only one duet, in the middle of the show, when their two stories meet chronologically at the altar.

Though Brown insists such pretzel logic isn’t his forte, he confesses a fondness for complicated plots.

"I’m always very moved in the theater by pieces that play with time and pieces that show cause and effect. Stoppard’s work, for example: ‘The Real Thing’ and ‘Arcadia.’"

Another huge influence is Sondheim, a composer to whom Brown has often been compared. Many have noted a passing similarity between "The Last Five Years" and Sondheim’s poorly received 1981 musical, "Merrily We Roll Along," which also juggles time and the order of events. Brown admits there’s a connection.

"’Merrily’ was a very powerful (influence) on me as a kid. It’s always meant a lot to me." There’s even a reference to it in "The Last Five Years" – apparently an obscure one. "I have yet to meet anybody who’s spotted it," Brown said.

Turning his back on broadway 

Brown’s career path has been as circuitous and unlikely as the plot of his musical. He went to the Eastman School of Music, one of the country’s most prestigious conservatories, but dropped out after two years. "One of my teachers told me, ‘Why do you want to write musicals? Serious music takes time, but a musical you can write in a day.’ I knew it was the wrong place for me." Brown moved to New York to work as a composer, pianist and conductor.

Brown’s first show, "Songs for a New World," almost sank into obscurity.

"It was done at a small theater with only about 100 seats, but it was never full. I said, ‘This represents too much work, and the results are too good, for me to just lose it. Before this closes we have to get it recorded.’ "

Brown scrounged up $30,000 for the recording session, then peddled the result to RCA. "They said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Because of that record, the show became something. People started hearing it and coming to see it."

"Parade" was another example of the curious combination of serendipity and persistence that have characterized Brown’s career. He met Harold Prince, one of Broadway’s most respected directors, during rehearsals for Prince’s production of "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Brown was only the rehearsal pianist, but his lowly position didn’t stop him from promoting himself.

"I just kept pushing, observing, hanging around. Then when Steve dropped out (of ‘Parade’), they asked me if I wanted to write a couple of songs. I said, ‘Sure!’ I’ll never know what made me the next person to go to. I don’t know how I was able to be up in that league; it was an amazing opportunity."

The speed of Brown’s rise, however, has been tempered by the disappointments of "Parade," "The Last Five Years" and other projects. Those setbacks have given rise to a surprising level of cynicism, or at least sober realism, concerning his profession.

"I think ‘The Last Five Years’ is successful in regionals because it’s perceived as being easily done. It’s very well reviewed, and it comes off as being accessible.

"Regional theaters love doing musicals because they make money, but they don’t know how to do them all that well. They’re no good at developing them, I find. I’m not all that interested in teaching a theater company the bones of how to set up a show. We started ‘The Last Five Years’ in Chicago, and while it was a great experience, we had to spend a lot of time teaching them what to do."

Brown singled out San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse as two of the few American regional theaters that successfully produce new musicals of quality on a regular basis.

Perhaps the coming year will cheer Brown up and redirect his energies. He is moving with his new wife, composer Georgia Stitt, to Italy. There are several projects that interest him, including a musical about Betty Boop, which he will write with his friend, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Brown wrote the incidental music for Lindsay-Abaire’s "Kimberly Akimbo," seen at South Coast Repertory in 2001).

But judging by his current predilections, Broadway may not play a large part in Brown’s future.

"I thought I was going to love the business as much as I love the work. The surprise is I don’t love the business at all. There’s a lot of crap, and a lot of people desperate for their thing to be more successful than yours.

"I’m still optimistic that success (on Broadway) will happen. But in the meantime, I want to do other things. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t have to live in New York anymore. Italy for a year – why not? Spiritually, it’s about as far from New York City as you can get. That’s what I want right now."