Posted on January 1, 2005 at 12:00 pm
I was fresh out of college when I met composer-lyricist-arranger-musical director-orchestrator-conductor-musician Jason Robert Brown. On that sweltering July evening, in a Greenwich Village cabaret, I remember thinking two things: first, that I was hearing a stunningly creative voice that would shine in the coming generation of writers; second, he looked like he would be a fun and interesting friend. Thirteen years later, both have proven happily true. With a Tony, Drama Desk, and New York Drama Critic’s Circle win under his belt for 1999’s Parade, a Tony nomination for 2003’s Urban Cowboy, Off-Broadway productions of The Last Five Years and Songs for a New World, Jason’s voice has indeed made an indelible mark on contemporary theater. With a myriad of multifaceted projects on the horizon, the conversation is far from over. On a rainy night this past November, my now-old friend and I traded the Greenwich Village cabaret for an Upper West Side Italian restaurant, and over two huge plates of spaghetti (and much laughter), took the chance to catch up on his process, music, and the life that fuels it all.
MARCY HEISLER: What is your usual writing process?
JASON ROBERT BROWN: My process is different for every show I work on, but lately I’ve found that the more tightly I can structure something, the happier I generally am. I tend to work from the outside in, creating mini- structures within the larger arc.
For example, there was a specific way The Last Five Years had to function. I knew it was 14 scenes. I knew the couple would meet in the middle. I knew what would happen on either end. I knew exactly how much information I had to deliver in the 12 scenes between those ends. Knowing all that was helpful. I also knew in The Last Five Years that he would sing a song, and then she would sing a song. I had those road signs. So, the first thing I do now with any show I’m writing is to start by asking, “Where are the structural points,” not in big complicated ways but simply “Where does Act I end? Where does Act II begin? Where does Act II end?” I go from that to “What’s the middle of Act I? What’s the middle of Act II?” I try to break it up in the most mathematical way I can. I’ll admit that it can be a little bit arbitrary, but it helps me.
MH: How does your process differ when you’re writing with a book writer?
JRB: It doesn’t differ a lot. I ask my book writers to meet me halfway on the concept that structure is part of my ballgame and I need to work that way, and I find most book writers are happy to work in more structured ideas. It makes all our jobs easier, if we know where the goalposts are.
MH: Do you germinate the idea for most of your projects? Do you write differently if you don’t?
JRB: No. I’m in the middle of two shows now, one was my idea and one was not. The way I’m writing them is partly determined by whose idea it was. On the show that was my idea, I tend to say, “This is what I wanted this piece to be. This is what I want this chunk of it to feel like.” I retain the last say over how it will go. Whereas on the other piece, which was the other writer’s idea, I’m more interested in his take on it. I want to write his show. It’s not about writing mine.
I always said that about Parade. Parade was a job, so my aim was to write Alfred [Uhry] and Hal [Princes]’s show and write it as well as I humanly could in a way that also resonated with me. The Last Five Years was different. I wrote that for me. So, it’s an emotional and philosophical difference, but I don’t know that the process is different. I’ll still think in chunks of structure. “I feel this is what the characters need to accomplish here. I feel this is where the song happens. I feel this is what the title of the song might be.” After I have a title, I’ll sit at the piano until I find how to sing it, and if I can’t ever sing the title, I throw it away and come up with something else. It should crystallize the moment in a couple of words. Once I have it, then again it’s a matter of structure. “How many emotional or dramatic beats does this song have? What will happen over the course of the song? What is it that the character needs to accomplish?”
MH: Do you have any playwriting experience? Where did this desire for structure evolve? Have you ever written anything nonmusical?
JRB: I’ve written some nonmusical things, like stories and essays. However, music in and of itself is a structural entity. Sonata allegro form, which you learn when studying classical music, is structure to its bone. I also spent a lot of time learning serial music, which is about structure too, because otherwise you would have no organizing principle, since you don’t have tonality. For me, structure has always been key, and it was with the realization that I could extrapolate from musical structure to dramatic structure that I became a musical dramatist.
MH: What was your first foray into the musical theater world?
JRB: I don’t remember. In junior high school, I wanted to be an actor and a songwriter, so I was always writing songs for shows that I would be in. At one point, eventually I realized this is just what I do. There was a dividing line, though, when I decided where to go to college and chose a music school. It was a conscious choice to become an academic musician and learn what that was about.
MH: Would you talk a bit about the projects you’re currently working on?
JRB: I’m working on two shows at the moment. One is Thirteen, which was my idea. I wanted to write a show for 13-year-olds. I love that age group, and I felt the conflicts involved in being a 13-year-old were exciting to write about. I also wanted to write something that didn’t condescend to them in any way, something they could own, something that felt like their show. So, it’s called Thirteen, it has 13 people in the cast, and they’re all 13. Then it has a band of five 13-year-olds.
Following my concept of structure, there are 13 scenes and 13 songs. Within that, it’s a traditional musical comedy, a silly show about a kid who ends up being moved to the Midwest six weeks before he’s 13, so he tries to get all the cool kids to come to his bar mitzvah. The challenges inherent in writing for kids are largely about simplifying language without patronizing. It’s a great challenge, but also a lot of fun writing for an audience and for actors who aren’t jaded by what they’ve already seen.
I’m also working on a musical version of the film Honeymoon in Vegas with screenwriter and director Andrew Bergman. That will be a big-time, commercial musical comedy. By that standard, there’s not much else to say about it. Hopefully, it’ll be fucking funny – and if not, then I’ve failed utterly and I should be put out of my misery. Those are my two projects.
MH: I want to get back to what you said about college. How do you feel about the choice you made to study at a conservatory in such a concentrated way, and would you give that advice to a young composer?
JRB: My advice to a young composer is to be as knowledgeable and as curious a musician as they possibly can, for no other reason than music’s fun. Being able to explore it as deeply as you can is more exciting than dealing with it on a superficial I-can-play-it-but-I-can’t-write-it level. I think that’s bori
ng and unnecessarily limiting. Learning all the details can be a blast. Knowing how to orchestrate is a real joy for me. I love being able to hear the difference between orchestrators.
As for whether my academic training was a positive experience, the answer is yes and no. It was great for my intellectual curiosity to be at a conservative school, but I’m still at heart more of a rock and roll guy, which was not particularly respected in there. I didn’t feel what I had to offer was valued, whereas I valued what they had to give me, so I left after two years. It wasn’t fun to be in a place that was only into Mozart and Brahms. Now, I have no problem with Mozart and Brahms, but I didn’t feel I fit into that world. If you can imagine a place more tradition- bound and hidebound than musical theater, it would be classical music.
MH: Was there a defining moment where Broadway got you?
JRB: No, Broadway always had me. What I thought I did best, what I did that was unique, as opposed to what I may have just been good at, was being a musical dramatist. I understood how to make music in a theatrical way. I did not expect to be successful as soon as I was. I thought I would be a music director and a pianist in the city for much longer than I turned out to be, but I’m grateful I wasn’t.
MH: You’ve had some high points in your career, winning the Tony, et cetera, but what is the most surprising thing that has come with your success and the most challenging?
JRB: The most surprising thing is identical to the most challenging thing, which is that the success has been as limited as it is. I thought a Tony Award was as good as it got, but I found out that a Tony Award is not in and of itself everything. It doesn’t come with a cash gift, and nothing happened the day after I won. It’s hard to read this on the page, but I do say this without any sour grapes. It was a surprise that you can work as hard as we all worked on Parade, that it could run for three months, that it could be such a good piece – people may disagree but I persist in my belief that Parade was an extraordinary work – that I could be recognized and rewarded, and that be the end of it.
The surprise and the challenge is to know people think I’m good, that I can do the work, and that I have an amount of experience and credibility – yet I have to prove myself every time, not because the work wasn’t good but because it didn’t make money. I don’t like starting from scratch every time, because it was hard enough the first time, but I still do. Occasionally, I’m upset about it, but as long as I can write, I’m happy. I make a comfortable living with my writing, and there are a lot of fans of my work. I have a large core of young people who love what I do and respond to it in a way that suggests they own it.
MH: How helpful do you feel performing experience is for composing?
JRB: I don’t think composers have to be able to perform their work. It’s just a tool in your arsenal. Since musical theater is show business, it helps to know how to put on a show at every level. It helps to know how to tell a story in a way that will bring in an audience. For me, performance is second nature. I love doing it, but I’m not driven to the spotlight 24-7. I find myself immensely relieved when I can give up the spotlight to somebody else. So, any way you can sell your work is great, but some people have no gift for performing and may hurt themselves if they try.
MH: You’ve done so many jobs in music. Do you feel that composers must know more than composing? Must they also know arranging and engineering demos?
JRB: The reason I know how to conduct, to play, to sight-read, to do vocal arrangements and orchestrations, and how to work in a studio is that I’m curious about everything. I always want to be better at music. Also, the more gifts you have, the more you have to exploit. The reason I was able to stay in Italy the last six months is because of Urban Cowboy, which was not a test of my composing skills but of my ability to conduct, to arrange, and to sing a number in the middle of the show.
MH: How much of the day do you spend composing, as opposed to administering your career?
JRB: I don’t necessarily spend any part of the day composing. I wait until I know what I want to write, and then a combination of fear, deadlines, and a general exhaustion with procrastinating gets me to the piano. Within a given week, it may be a couple hours, but I write extremely fast. To some people it may seem that I wrote the entire song in just a half hour, but I’d been working on it somewhere in the back of my head for the better part of a couple of weeks. So, I don’t write often, but when I do write, it spins out fast.
MH: How old were you when you wrote your first song?
JRB: My first song was a dazzling and terrifying opus called “Come Back to Me,” which I wrote when I was 8 or 9. The chords were C, followed by B diminished, A minor, G, F, E minor, D minor, and then back to C. I did that over and over again. Any pianist will recognize I was just following the white keys down in triads. My second song consisted of the exact same chords in a slightly different rhythm, and it might have been called “Now You’re Back,” but I don’t remember. Nor do I remember what “Come Back to Me” was about, except that someone had left me and I was broken-hearted. I continued in the vein of writing songs for which I had no emotional correlative for the better part of 15 or 16 years after that.
MH: Which composers have influenced you or have you admired?
JRB: There’s George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne, Harold Arlen, Aaron Copland, Steve Reich, Fredrick Rzewski, Stevie Wonder, Carole King, Elton John, Billy Joel, Andy Partridge, Shawn Colvin, a whole lot of Joni Mitchell, Adam Guettel – and I haven’t even started, but that’s the heart of my iPod.
MH: When did you first write lyrics?
JRB: I was always both a lyricist and a composer. I started as a singer-songwriter, thinking I would be Billy Joel or Carole King. The question when I became a good lyricist is much harder. I was a fake-rhyme, trite lyricist for quite a long time. The most important influences on my lyrics were Stephen Sondheim and Sheldon Harnick as well as Joni Mitchell. Among the three of them, they taught me, first, that a lyric has to come from a place of emotional truth and, second, that it has to have a technical security – or it’s bullshit.
MH: Given all the pressures facing a professional writer today, do you feel it’s possible to achieve a sense of balance? If so, how?
JRB: I spent most of my 20s wanting to be in this business. I wanted to be all theater all the time. If I could have woken up and gone to a rehearsal, then to a recording session, and then to a performance, I would have been ecstatic. I spent ten years pushing like a maniac for that, and then at 30, I had a Tony Award, which was cool, and two shows I was proud of – but a disastrous marriage that had fallen apart in a most spectacularly awful way. I had a life that didn’t feel like much of a life. I thought, “I did what I felt I was meant to do. Now, I’d like to get the other stuff right.” It has been such an enormous relief to everyone who knows me that I don’t push as hard anymore. In fact, I avoid pushing whenever possible.
when I feel like writing – or when bills are coming due. I have a family. I have a life. I have a dog. I have an ambition of a life as opposed to an ambition of a career. That, more than anything, was the difference between where I was when I was 20 and where I am now. It’s something you can’t advise anyone about, but what became clear to me was that I wasn’t happy just being a guy in the theater. I wasn’t happy pushing the rock uphill all the time.
The stuff about who’s good or what’s successful is secondary to how you make a life while you’re making a living, particularly in a business that’s not interested in providing you either. For me, I only know it was most important to step back from the incessant chasing and find what would really make me happy. Of course, I still love getting attention, but I get it other ways now. It’s nice to know that, at the end of the day, I can put aside my work and go about having a life, go about having something I feel proud of outside of the everyday pushing and shoving.
MH: Talk about your love of music, what exhilarates you, what gives you joy about being a composer.
JRB: What exhilarates me and gives me joy about being a composer is that I get to be part of that pantheon of people who write music. When I write a piece that goes out into the world, by its mere existence, it’s part of the same place as Leonard Bernstein or George Gershwin or Paul McCartney. I don’t claim or necessarily even attempt to be as good as they are. I just like that I get to stand in the same room.
I’m not a big fan of the process of writing, but I’m a huge fan of the process of having written. When something’s done, I jump up and down I’m so happy. “Look at what I did. Tomorrow, someone will sing this song.” I love that people anticipate the work I’m doing, that they find it interesting, that they want to know more of it and want there to be more of it. Joni Mitchell said that nobody ever told Vincent van Gogh, “Hey, man, paint Starry Night again.” You get to recreate your art all the time. That’s thrilling – a little frustrating sometimes, but thrilling.
MH: What’s your favorite thing you’ve written?
JRB: My favorite things tend to be the larger pieces rather than the smaller. I love The Last Five Years and Parade. Those are at the opposite poles of what I’m proud to have written, but both large-scale, large-form works where I feel I generally accomplished what I set out to do. Songs for a New World is fun. I like it, but it’s a younger work about trying to find my way to what I should write. “Stars and the Moon” was an important song, because it was the first one that got a laugh consistently, and I am not a particularly funny writer. Growing up on singer-songwriters, as I did, you believe songs should be introspective and dark. I’m good at that, but the more theatrical type of humor that can turn on itself and take you someplace unexpected is not what pop songs trade in. So, it was exciting when I wrote “Stars and the Moon” to think, “I’m on my way to finding that.” I’ll never be Sheldon Harnick. I don’t have his gift of humor, but within character and intention, I can do okay.
MH: What’s next for you outside of theater?
JRB: I just finished a solo album. I had been writing songs that didn’t belong in a theatrical context, songs that just made me happy. When I accumulated enough, I said, “Let’s record them.” The problem is that I love musicians so much I always want a 70-piece orchestra, which is outrageously expensive. Raising money was hard, especially for the way I wanted the album to sound, but ultimately the recording was a blast. Sometimes the question comes up whether that singer-songwriter thing will be peripheral to my career or more central, but I write for the theater. I’m a theater writer at heart, so the other stuff will always be more peripheral.
I’m also writing a piano sonata, which will be done by Anthony DeMare at Carnegie Hall in March, and a string quartet for ETHEL. Outside of that, I keep looking for things that make me want to wake up and write.
MH: You and your wife, composer-lyricist Georgia Stitt, spent much of last summer abroad in Italy and elsewhere. What was that like?
JRB: I did a lot of writing in Italy. It was a great place to focus. Complete cliché, but absolutely true: Creativity is respected there in a way it isn’t here. Creativity is respected separate from its material reward, and creative people are accorded an amount of respect that I find thrilling. To say you’re a musician in Italy is to be part of something noble, whereas to say you’re a musician in New York is to say essentially that you’re starving. I’ve always recognized the difference, but it was nice to be part of a culture that thought, “Oh, you’re a musician. That’s exciting.”
I also took three weeks to conduct a Broadway pops concert that toured to Singapore and Taipei. Then I performed with the Los Angeles Master Chorale in a concert of music by myself, Adam Guettel and Ricky Ian Gordon. They did the funeral sequence from Parade, with a 60-piece orchestra and a 100-voice choir. I felt I had written the War Requiem. It was so cool. Then I came back to New York and arranged the reading of the first half of Thirteen and recorded two tracks for my solo album.
MH: What directors or designers would you like to work with that you haven’t?
JRB: I had a chance to work with a lot of people when I was a music director. I did a lot of incidental music at various theaters, especially Manhattan Theater Club, so I worked with a lot of wonderful directors. I would love to work more with Graciela Daniele, who is simply amazing and does it for the right reasons. Alan Bennett is a wonderful writer, and I would love to do something with him. I like directors who have a strong visual point of view. I have visual ideas, but I’m not a visual person. When I work with Daisy Prince or Hal Prince, they put a visual stamp on the work that I love. Joe Calarco did a wonderful production of The Last Five Years, and I’ve been desperate to find a way to work with him.
MH: How many productions have you seen of The Last Five Years?
JRB: I try not to see too many productions of that. I’ve seen about 150 of Songs for a New World, because it’s young groups that usually do it and I like working with them, passing on to them what I know about the show and the style of the piece. The Last Five Years I don’t want to watch so often, because the narrative is specific and the casting is specific. Inevitably the cast will not be as good as those I worked with in New York. The best actors in musical theater live in New York City. That’s where they can make a living, so why wouldn’t they be here? If actors are good, they find their way to New York eventually. Even if you’re talented, you won’t grow too much in Tuscaloosa.
MH: Should a composer who wants to write musical theater as a professional come to New York?
JRB: To attempt to write musical theater and not respect the form and meet the form on its own terms is arrogant and naïve, and it pisses me off when people think they can just toss one off because they saw a production of Pippin in high school and therefore they “know musicals.” Musical theater exist
s in a specific way, and you need to work with the people who know how it works and how to make it work. Musical theater actors, in particular, know how to make a piece of material land and how to show you where it doesn’t. Not only do you want to work with the people who can do that, you also want to work with people who are better than you. You don’t want to keep asserting your own superiority in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s naïve to think that anyone can write a musical. Those who do it know there are a lot of rules. It’s the same as writing a Hollywood movie. You could write a musical by your own rules, but you shouldn’t try to write a commercial Broadway musical and come at it as if you know what you’re talking about, particularly if you don’t know the history of the form, if you don’t have respect for the form, and if you don’t have a willingness to meet it on its own terms.
MH: Have you thought of working in Hollywood?
JRB: Not really. Ultimately, I’m a theater writer. I’m also not interested in getting on the bottom of another ladder. I like the position I’m at in the theater. It could be better, but I don’t want to start at the bottom again and have to ghost someone else’s score for two years waiting for a chance to work on a low-budget movie where I end up paying the musicians. Of course, if someone said, “We have a big-budget Hollywood movie we think you’d be great for,” sure, I’d love that, because I love musicians, but the political and professional aspects of Hollywood interest me not one iota.
MH: Jason, thank you very much. Italy may inspire you, but I hope New York may keep you.
© 2005 Marcy Heisler. All rights reserved. Jason Robert Brown 6