Posted on June 6, 2004 at 12:00 pm

Strange. Brave. Incongruous. Any of these descriptions might apply to the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s final concert this season, titled "The New Broadway: Sondheim and Generation Next."

To be performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall next Sunday and June 15, the program will feature songs by three composers who are critically acclaimed but not yet famous: Jason Robert Brown, Ricky Ian Gordon and Adam Guettel.

The combination is certainly odd. The venerable Master Chorale is associated more with Bach, Mozart and Brahms than with newly minted show tunes, so it’s hard to imagine how songs by three avatars of musical theater’s new wave will be interpreted.

In the event, old prejudices may have to be abandoned. Despite the occasional success of some Broadway musicals — most recently "Wicked," "Avenue Q" and "Urinetown" — no younger composer-lyricists have attained anything close to the recognition Stephen Sondheim acquired decades ago, to say nothing of the affection earned by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Rodgers and Hammerstein during Broadway’s golden age. And as arts organizations of all stripes face formidable challenges on multiple fronts — competition from new technologies, graying patrons and consumer belt-tightening among them — they seek novel ways not just to gain new audiences but to retain their traditional base.

Indeed, Grant Gershon, who has led the Master Chorale since 2001, has spoken often about his desire to expand both his organization’s repertory — generally choral works by mainstream classical composers — and its ticket sales.

"If there’s any world more calcified than Broadway, it’s classical music," composer Brown said via e-mail from Italy. "So I’m overjoyed that Grant asked us to be a part of this. Good music deserves to be heard in all contexts by all audiences, and I suspect musical tastes are nowhere near as hidebound and reactionary as the classical-music marketing gurus think."

Gershon says the chorale has performed show music periodically, but he hasn’t conducted such a concert until now. "So I thought, let’s continue that tradition but with a twist. I don’t like to do anything too ordinary."

That’s an understatement. Gershon’s life in music has been nothing if not varied: He’s been a pianist, opera coach and orchestra conductor, and his musical interests stretch from Renaissance polyphony to alternative rock.

In 1998, he left Los Angeles for New York, where he became acquainted with a group of young theater composers just then gaining notice. The group included not just Guettel, Gordon and Brown but also Michael John LaChiusa — all composers championed by Audra McDonald, the singer and Tony Award-winning actress whose 1998 album, "Way Back to Paradise," gave these songwriters their first broad exposure together.

Gershon and Gordon, in fact, are among those who consider the CD, which has sold nearly 55,000 copies, seminal, because it essentially announced the arrival of a new school of intimate, sophisticated songwriting —thematically eclectic, unapologetically lyrical and harmonically modernist.  It also suggested to some that the Great American Songbook did not conclude with Sondheim.

Sondheim, now 74, remains singular in the American musical theater, the most significant voice to emerge in the wake of the great songwriting teams that had all but disappeared by the mid-1960s. And for that reason, Gershon is including five familiar Sondheim numbers in the concerts.

"I think it’s important and interesting to be able to put the music of these younger composers in the broader context of Sondheim’s influence," he said. "I don’t know how they feel his influence is manifested, but I feel there’s a direct connection to the smart, sophisticated musical and verbal language of Sondheim that very clearly connects to this generation."

The conductor, 43, also admits to a more prosaic concern: "I’m enough of a realist to know it’s never a great idea to have a concert made up entirely of music nobody’s ever heard of."

Brown, Gordon and Guettel all acknowledge their debt to Sondheim, but not without ambivalence. For one thing, the association isn’t always positive. "I’m loath to acknowledge it too often," said Brown, 33, "because when a critic writes that I’m ‘Sondheim-influenced,’ it’s usually code for ‘cold and cerebral,’ which doesn’t characterize Steve’s work at all and which I certainly hope doesn’t characterize mine."

Gordon, 48, calls such comparisons "hollow," noting that "whenever people have to hear music more than once, it seems they have to compare it to Sondheim, just because it’s intricately crafted or harmonically complex or contrapuntal."

Guettel, 39, puts even more distance between himself and Sondheim. "I see him as a deeply important, brilliantly talented point on the continuum," he said. "But he’s simply an influence. How does he influence me? By giving me the courage to make something new and not be cowed by those who would have it otherwise."

Yet even Guettel allows that Sondheim’s importance — "the girth of his originality" — cannot be ignored, if only because it is overwhelming. "You can’t get stuck in it, because that’s really unhealthy," he said. " ‘Sweeney Todd’ is one of the very best music theater pieces ever, but you can’t copy somebody. That’s not on the menu."

Though these three composers have benefited from the critical mass arising when artists are deemed part of a new school or trend, Gordon insists they are not musical musketeers. "We are not a coterie of writers," he said. "We never invented ourselves as a group. We all have very different and very separate careers. I think it’s kind of a press creation."

There are marked differences among them. Gordon can’t seem to stop writing — not just musicals but operas, multifarious text settings and hundreds of uncollected songs. "If I was a child now, I’d be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder," he said. Guettel, by comparison, barely produces, though his roughly 20 individual songs and two musicals, "The Light in the Piazza" and "Floyd Collins" (from which Gershon will present two selections), have earned high praise.

Brown, for his part, considers himself as much a singer-songwriter as a composer — "I’m actually a rock ‘n’ roll guy" — and though both he and Gordon will be performing with Gershon and the chorale (as will guest artists Megan Mullally and Brian D’Arcy James), Brown has also scheduled a date with his band, the Caucasian Rhythm Kings, at the Cinegrill between concerts.

What really links this trio is a shared commitment to overcoming labels.  All three, for instance, speak of their catholic musical tastes and have variously applied their songwriting skills. As they unashamedly court Broadway fame, a substantial portion of their output can be classified as art song.

Gordon, originally a pianist, describes his style as "emotional," though he says "some people think it’s intellectual." He even accepts the term crossover as an accurate descriptor of his work. "I grew up as enamored of Joni Mitchell as Alban Berg," he said, "and I wanted to steal Joni Mitchell as much as Ned Rorem."

Brown traveled a similar road. "I started out as a blues and gospel pianist," he said, "and much of my work still is extrapolated from that
background, though it’s got all that other stuff mixed in. I’m much more Joni Mitchell or Billy Joel than I am Steve Sondheim or Marc Blitzstein."

Unlike his peers, Guettel is already Broadway royalty; his grandfather was Richard Rodgers. He draws parallels between
their endeavors, granting that times have changed but insisting that the mission — "telling moving, indelible stories through music" — remains the same. But he does not, of course, restrict himself to his grandfather’s musical palette, and aside from saying that his "personal charter" is to be tuneful, he resists categorization. "If we’re looking for a common denominator, that would be melodic writing that befits and expresses character and situation," he said. "That’s an absolute requirement in my view. Within the scope of my abilities, I write in every style."

But for whom, exactly, are these ambitious composers writing? They all agree that the Broadway audience of yore has disappeared. What has replaced it is up for debate. Brown says that musical theater’s robust past bred a complacency that ultimately undermined the art form. "Now Broadway producers are desperate to serve a much wider audience, but they find newer audiences very reluctant to embrace something considered elitist and out of touch," he said. "Their solution is to make things as dumb, broad and bland as possible, so that everyone on Earth can feel included and no one can feel offended."

If that sounds like frustration, it is, but consider the daunting task such composers face. "Look, I went to a serious egghead conservatory," Brown said, "and the work I do now would be regarded as pathetically conservative and old-fashioned to them. Whereas in the theater world, I get accused of being Stockhausen. I haven’t the faintest idea how to write ‘down the middle’ any more than I already do."

Guettel is more sanguine, perhaps because his "Light in the Piazza" is scheduled to receive a Broadway production next spring. He agrees that theater audiences are shrinking and are only slightly more diverse than in the past. "But I don’t see serving a more narrow audience as a bad thing.  The challenge is to keep on going. It’s like holding a candle in the dark.  Of course, we may not be holding a candle. And it may not be dark."

That’s the funny thing about darkness: It sometimes takes a while to figure out whether the sun has just set or if it’s about to rise again.


Sampling the work of younger composers

With none of their shows a Broadway hit, and many of their songs performed only in concert, composers Jason Robert Brown, Ricky Ian Gordon and Adam Guettel have had their reputations aided by a series of recordings of their work. The CDs below, listed chronologically by release date, are only some of those featuring their songs, but they are arguably the most important.
"Floyd Collins"

Based on the true story of a Kentucky man trapped in a cave in 1925 (also the inspiration for Billy Wilder’s 1951 film "Ace in the Hole"), Guettel’s much-praised first show enjoys cult status. Its pulsing, roots-based score and smart, homespun lyrics make it a model post-Sondheim musical.
"Way Back to Paradise"

Audra McDonald’s debut record, this album featuring songs by Guettel, Brown, Gordon and Michael John LaChiusa announced the arrival of a new generation of gifted composers. Among the delights: a duet with Guettel and McDonald on "Come to Jesus" from "Saturn Returns," their first collaboration, and Brown accompanying McDonald in "The Stars and the Moon" from his revue "Songs for a New World."

"Myths and Hymns"

Essentially the cast album of "Saturn Returns," this collection of mostly short songs in the form of a cycle finds Guettel reaching back to Greek myths for inspiration and to an old hymnal for some lyrics. But there’s nothing borrowed about the composer’s inventive music, with the funk-inflected "Icarus" flying especially high.

RCA Victor

A company of 37 and elaborate production numbers placed Jason Robert Brown’s show in Broadway’s grand tradition. But not everyone applauded a musical based on the trial and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank, an Atlanta Jew wrongly convicted of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan. Brown’s music, though, broke new ground, seamlessly incorporating influences as disparate as Charles Ives and George Gershwin.

"My Life With Albertine"
PS Classics

This show by Ricky Ian Gordon and Richard Nelson was inspired by one of the books in Proust’s "Remembrance of Things Past." Gordon’s tuneful music, though entirely original, consciously pays homage to French salons, music halls and cabarets of the early 20th century. The result is an impressive chamber musical in which the old fuels the new.
Master Chorale
When: Next Sunday, 7 p.m.; June 15, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
Price: $23-$75
Contact: (213) 972-7282