Posted on April 22, 2004 at 12:00 pm
Jason Robert Brown, composer of "The Last Five Years" and winner of the Tony award for his score to "Parade" will be performing along with some hot-stuff Broadway talent, including Carolee Carmello, Brian d’Arcy James, and Darius deHaas, on April 26, 8pm, at Le Jazz Au Bar, 41 E. 58th [Park/Mad] 212.308.9455. There’ll be some surprise guests, you’ll hear numbers from Mr. Brown’s upcoming new musicals, and other great songs from the highly talented Mr. Brown. Should be a lot of fun – and it’s only $20. We spoke with Mr. Brown recently about his work and the state of the art.
Was there an "aha" moment when you decided to become a composer?
I prefer the more downmarket title of "songwriter" to "composer," since a songwriter is what I really planned on being. I sat down at the piano when I was seven years old and it instantly occurred to me that I could write songs on it, and that way I could be like Carole King (a constantly invoked presence in our household, since she grew up in the same Brooklyn brownstone as my father) or Billy Joel or Elton John or whatever. So I lifted the lid of the piano and started writing songs, and at some point, I got good at it. Also at some point, I became a Composer, but I’m not sure when or how. As long as someone’s singing what I wrote, I guess you can call me whatever you want. (And some people certainly have.)
What are you working on now?
Three separate things: first, a solo album, which has been a long-deferred dream of mine. We’re just now finishing the recording, and it’s been really magical, big orchestras and great soloists and amazing bands, all that sort of thing. Then, I’m writing a musical with the novelist Dan Elish about a group of thirteen-year-old kids in the Midwest – a real comedy, but not a patronizing kind of kiddie musical, something that I hope really means something to teenagers. And finally, I’m writing a big Broadway musical comedy with the screenwriter and director Andrew Bergman; we hope to have a draft finished in the fall and then do a production a year later somewhere. If it’s one twenty-fifth as funny as "The In-Laws," I’ll be very happy.
What have you seen recently that you liked?
I think part of why I write is that I keep hoping to create the kind of musical theater that I myself want to see. I don’t think I’ve been entirely successful writing it yet, and I don’t like a whole lot of what’s out there either, but I never really have – I think I really like only about half a dozen shows ("West Side Story," "Sweeney Todd," "The Fantasticks," "Once on this Island," "Floyd Collins," "On The Town," maybe one or two more), so it’s not surprising that I don’t go around swooning over much of what’s on stage these days. I tend to listen for the music before everything else, so if the notes aren’t really exciting, I tune out pretty quickly.
What’s the future of musical theatre? Is there one?
Sure. There’s too much money to be made for there to be no future in musical theatre. I don’t think the conditions of the so-called Golden Age of the 40’s and 50’s can ever be replicated, but I think there will be new musicals and every couple of years one of them will permeate the cultural consciousness and bring more people in to the party. The tragedy is that when musical theatre was the center of popular culture, it could afford to take risks and go interesting places, knowing that there would be an audience willing to experiment. Now that musical theatre is such a marginal piece of the entertainment world, there are no guarantees that an audience will be there if you go out on a limb, so the necessary strategy for a big Broadway musical is to go backward, do the safer thing, draw the audience in with the easy stuff, make them comfortable. I think it’s possible that if we get them comfortable enough, we might be able to take some risks again. Or we might get them so comfortable that they fall asleep. Interesting fork in the road; I’m wondering which way things will go, same way everyone else is. Meanwhile, I just keep writing the things that are interesting to me, and hopefully people will come see them.
Variation of Desert Island Disc: what ten original cast recordings would you take to a desert island?
Well, you know, now you can dump it all on my Desert Island iPod. Just give me a bunch of Bernstein, Sondheim, Gershwin, Steve Reich, Joni Mitchell, XTC, and Stevie Wonder, I’ll be fine until the coconuts run out.