Posted on May 5, 2006 at 12:43 am

In this week’s ridiculously long entry: What is “King Of The World” really about? Can I translate your show into Farsi? Plus: orchestrating, writing lyrics, being a rock star, teaching, and much more!
Geoff Cook writes:
You are obviously influenced by popular musicians and have spoken highly about people such as Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder etc. To what extent is success outside of the theatre world a priority for you? It would be great to see you as a special guest to say Ben Folds or Randy Newman, or maybe even someone who plays a different instrument.
Also: “I’m in Bizness” is winning the popularity contest on my Ipod. Any recommendations for similar music I might enjoy?

JRB responds:
Success outside of the theater isn’t really a “priority,” it’s just part of the game. I’m not solely a theater bug, especially since I think most musicals have crappy music. I like making music happen, and I enjoy the fact that I can do that in a variety of different contexts. Clearly, I’m most successful as a theater writer, I know that, I love that, I’m happy about it. But I also have lots of things to say that don’t fit in that world, including the pop stuff I do on “Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes” and the more legit stuff I do in “Mr. Broadway” or the string quartet I’m (theoretically) working on.
If you dig “I’m In Bizness,” you should definitely dig the guys who really know how to do that stuff: Michel Petrucciani, Steve Gadd and Anthony Jackson, Live in Tokyo. This is the real deal. One of the highlights of my concert-going career was seeing this trio at Birdland twice in the year before Petrucciani passed. They are masters.
Fredrik Fischer writes:
What is most important to you – melody or lyric? You wrote earlier that music is all about structure, and I, as an aspiring lyricist/librettist totally agree with this, but I’d like to know what, in your work, is the shaping factor: the music or the lyric? In other words, what comes first?
On spare time, I’m working on a Swedish translation of “The Last Five Years”. What is your policy on translations? Is all of that handled by MTI, or do you have any say in the matters?

JRB responds:
Not to be clichéd about it, but what’s most important to me is the story. I can tell that story with music or with words, but it’s best when I need both. In terms of what comes first, it’s always the story: what’s happening, who’s doing it, who wants it to happen, and when do we figure all of that out? And that all determines the structure. Everything moves forth from there.
As far as translations go, MTI handles the licenses for all foreign productions, and I have to approve every translation into another language. Contact Richard Salfas at MTI: (That having been said, it was recently translated it into Japanese for a production there, and they changed almost everything – and not for the better, but by the time I got the re-translated version, they had already closed! Those wily Japanese!)
Caline Berlureau and Cyril Fargues ont écrit:
We send this e-mail from France & have a question: we would like to do a French adaptation of “The last five years.” We would like to have your agreement to make our project. This project is within the framework of an association which use to perform shows.
JRB répond:
I’d be thrilled to have a French adaptation of the show! All translations must be approved through Music Theater International or the appropriate affiliate in France. You can get more information by writing to Richard Salfas, the director of International Licensing. His e-mail is Bonne chance!
Kory Danielson writes:
I was wondering if there was a chance I could get an autograph? I would treasure it forever!
JRB responds:
Yeah, sure, send me something, I’ll sign it. Send it to: Jason Robert Brown c/o Sendroff & Associates, 1500 Broadway, Suite 2001, NY NY 10036, and include a postage-paid return envelope and I’ll get that to you as fast as I can.
Danny Abosch writes:
I noticed that both “Shiksa Goddess” and “I Can Do Better Than That” start out with the same chord, and even in the same inversion. (A in the left hand, B and E in the right) Both of the intros continue similarly in the sense that the B and E remain constant over a changing bass note. Did you do this purposely to suggest a similarity behind the meanings of the songs (both songs are about holding out for the right lover to come along), or was this coincidence? I know many other composers use such devices, and I’m wondering if you use them often as well.
JRB responds:
It’s somewhere between deliberate and coincidence. The reason I use that chord figuration in “I Can Do Better Than That” is because it mirrors “See I’m Smiling,” which as you can see is the same voicing. I probably used it in “Shiksa Goddess” because I wrote that song last of anything in the show and I needed it to bridge seamlessly into “See I’m Smiling.” But I wrote “Shiksa Goddess” so fast that I can’t be sure what I was thinking; it just slipped right out of me. Here’s the part that makes the entire rest of this paragraph sound like bullshit: Look at the vamp for “It’s Hard To Speak My Heart.” Clearly, regardless of my academic discussions above, I just happen to like that fourth in the middle of the piano.
Leon Sabarsky writes:
I really liked your comment about “feel” playing and gave examples like Dave Frishberg’s work. That comment led me to a question, “Do you miss New York?”
JRB responds:
Nah, not much. I’m there all the time anyway, having meetings, doing auditions, seeing my family, so I get plenty of New York City in my life, but I moved because I was Burned Out On New York, and I had been for a long time. Some people can live there forever, some people can’t take it for five minutes, but I did okay, and I had a great time while I was there. I knew, however, that it was time for me to move on. I also suspect that eventually it will be time to move back, if not to the city, then to the Northeast. But I’m liking Los Angeles now a whole lot more than I expected to, and my family is very happy and comfortable here.
Leslie Vincent asks:
I’m sure you get asked about the story behind the songs in “Songs For A New World,” but I am dying to know what “King of the World” is about. It’s one of my favorites, and my friend and I have discussed possibilities, but asking the source seems like the best idea. What is the song about in context?
Laura Radel asks:
What is the story behind “King of The World” in Songs For A New World? Does it have anything to do with the Doctor in “Tale of Two Cities”?
Peter Romberg asks:
What is the story behind “King Of The World”? I would like to perform it for the thespian competitions, and would like to know the backstory to this character.
JRB responds:
This is probably the number one question I get asked, and I’m not sure I understand why. I guess people think that “King of the World” came from a show or something and that it was sung by a specific character in that show. It wasn’t, it was always intended as a more allegorical (or at least metaphorical) number. Here’s where I was at when I wrote “King of the World”: I was living in a tiny studio apartment in Greenwich Village, I had no money, I couldn’t get a job, and I saw a lot of people who I thought were extremely talented getting nowhere. I was terrified that I would never have the chance to have my voice heard, that I would just spend the rest of my life stuck in a tiny apartment, never getting to share my music with the world. The song comes out of that, I guess, as much as anything. But what’s the story? It’s a guy in prison who genuinely believes he was the king of the world. I wasn’t thinking about O.J. Simpson or Jesus or the Doctor in “Tale of Two Cities” (?) or anybody else specifically, but if that makes the song work for you, go for it. Just make it consistent. (I’m literally destroying one of my last good secrets for you people. Now what will anyone ask me?)
Rob Tokarz asks:
I was wondering if you had a favorite photo of yourself, or something that catches a good glimpse of you as an artist that I could possibly paint a portrait from. Odd request, but I feel I’ve learned a lot about you creatively from your work (which is as good a source as any) and am intrigued to do a painting.
JRB responds:
That’s very flattering and a little weird. I don’t like any of my photos much because I think they all look like one large nose and then the rest of my face trailing in the distance, but I think the photo of me in the traycard for “Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes” looks like I think I look as a performer (it’s the shot of me playing the piano with my eyes closed). But if you just want to grab one off the site, Nigel Dicker took some great shots of me in London a couple of years ago, and here’s one that you might enjoy drawing from. Let me know how it turns out!
Dana Frick asks:
I am a senior in college and am working on a Theatre Performance Project with one of my friends next year, and we were looking at the Funeral Scene from Parade (There is a Fountain/It Don’t Make Sense). Problem is, I don’t know that this section of the production was ever published. However, if it was, is there any way to gain access to this material?
JRB responds:
Well, sort of. Any of the individual selections from my shows can be licensed for Concert Performance from MTI. The Funeral Sequence actually was cleaned up and edited for a concert with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, so that one’s in really good shape. So you could contact MTI and ask them how that works. Other than that, I’m not much help.
Sally Bishop asks:
I have never seen “The Last 5 Years” but have the CD, which is wonderful. Is there dialogue to go with it? Has the script been published?
JRB responds:
There’s not much dialogue, a couple of monologues here and there and then Jamie’s big story (which is printed in the CD booklet). The script hasn’t ever been published, and it’s so short that I can’t imagine it would be worthwhile for any company to do it.
Adam Kern writes:
I was wondering if you had any advice on writing musicals, specifically when not using your own music? I’ve written a show around the music of Simon and Garfunkel, and connected them with a great story line. I obviously don’t want to offend them or get myself into trouble without having their permission; but am not sure how to do that.
JRB responds:
I could be wrong here, Adam, but I’m fairly certain there’s no way on God’s green Earth that you’ll ever get permission to do a musical with the songs of Simon and Garfunkel. Also, I don’t have any advice about how to write a show like that. For me, the songs have to come out of the story, not the other way around. It’s not that I don’t enjoy “Mamma Mia” (well, actually, I don’t enjoy “Mamma Mia,” but the point is I think it’s a perfectly valid evening in the theater), but it’s not the kind of musical that I would know how to write. The one “jukebox musical” I loved was “Our House,” which I saw in London and thought was just magical.
Natalie Copeland asks:
I auditioned for the “13” workshop. I was just wondering if “13” is going to be done again soon. Because I absolutely LOVED the show. I still can’t stop singing the Kendra song we learned at the audition.
JRB responds:
Hey Natalie! Check the news section and you’ll find out about the world premiere of “13” this winter!
Karen Mallory writes:
Any chance that “Thirteen” will be going to Broadway/Off Broadway, or is it just something you are doing in L.A.?
JRB responds:
Look, if it’s up to me, it’s going to Broadway and then touring around the planet Earth for the next thousand years. It’s not up to me. We’ll see how it goes in L.A. Keep your fingers crossed.
Paul Peglar writes:
I was just wondering if you saw Billy Joel. I know you’re a fan, so I assumed you’d see him if you could. I went, and he was AMAZING! I can really see his influence in your work – a contributing factor to why I like your music as well.
JRB responds:
I’m sort of shocked about this, but the answer is no, I didn’t see Billy Joel this past month in L.A., and in fact, I’ve never seen him in concert. I met him once, but that’s hardly the same thing. I would love to see him, and if any of you have a spare ticket, I’ll go with you. Really.
Sean Bala writes:
I’m directing “Songs for a New World” for my hometown’s community theatre. I’ve been thinking about the production since we were approved in August and it seems very clear to me that there are a number of things that connect the show together. For example, I think that each of the characters’ songs taken together have a unified vein (all of Woman 1’s songs have a similar theme, etc…). I know that you are probably very busy but I would like to know if there is anything that you feel is important for a production of this show. Is there anything that you think must be brought out by the cast?
JRB responds:
There are probably a million answers to that question, but here’s the one that I’m thinking of right off the top of my head: it’s not just that Woman 1’s songs are all connected (they are, though it’s subtle and you shouldn’t hit the audience over the head with a baseball bat to point it out), it’s that Woman 1 is connected to Woman 2 and Man 1 and Man 2. Those four people are not just distinct individuals, they’re also a sort of family, and they all relate to each other very specifically over the course of the piece. Let those relationships come through, let the audience see how Woman 2 protects Woman 1, how Man 2 and Woman 1 yearn for each other, how Man 1 stands outside of this group and judges them, how Man 2 looks up to Woman 2; the cast should find those relationships and the audience should feel them, without you as the director ever stepping in to say “Look! It’s a story!”
Mike Cob writes:
Hi, I was looking at the Parade Section of the Internet Broadway Database, and their songlist has some songs on it that are not on the CD. Namely: Watson’s Lullaby, Something Ain’t Right, Newt Lee’s Testimony and It Goes On and On. Have these songs ever been recorded? If so will they ever be posted on Lastly, are they included in the P/C score that MTI sends out and therefore usable by people looking to perform the show?
JRB responds:
All four of those songs were in the original Broadway production of the show, but “It Goes On and On” was deleted when we did the tour and I decided the show worked better without it, so you’ll never get to hear that one again unless you watch the video at Lincoln Center Library. “Something Ain’t Right” was definitely recorded, and I think “Watson’s Lullaby” might have been, but we knew they wouldn’t make it on to the cast album. (I might post those one day, we’ll see.) “Newt Lee’s Testimony” is really not particularly interesting music, so we didn’t bother recording it. But all three of those are indeed part of the show and everyone who does “Parade” is required to perform those songs.
Cris Frisco writes:
I had some questions about the song “When You Come Home To Me/Climbing Uphill” from “The Last Five Years.” How did you decide on the structure for this song? Was “When You Come Home To Me” a piece original to this show or was it a previous sketch?
JRB responds:
“When You Come Home To Me” was original to the show. I really wanted to write a Jerome Kern-style song for Cathy to sing at her audition, and I remember writing it one night in Denver on the “Parade” tour. Deciding the structure was, I guess, really a matter of making sure that the joke landed; the audience needs to hear the real song at least once, and then a couple of false starts so they understand what’s going on, and then I can finally do the crazy voices-in-my-head version. Then I just had to fit in the rest of the story around that joke.
BeachBlondie writes:
Which character do you feel connected to the most? How come?
JRB responds:
Wow, I don’t know. Mary Phagan?
Lauren Troxel writes:
Is there a recording of Lauren Kennedy and Norbert Leo Butz performing “The Last Five Years”? For some reason, I seem to remember at one point seeing a CD with Lauren on it instead of Sherie, but since that rather hazy time in my memory, I haven’t seen anything even remotely resembling that. Am I going insane?
JRB responds:
Yes. You are going insane. There was never any commercially released recording of Norbert and Lauren doing the show. Lauren does, of course, sing several of the songs on her album, “Songs of Jason Robert Brown,” but other than that, nope, nothing. Give my regards to your therapist.
Michael Malarkey writes:
I’ve been trying my hand at musicals except my biggest problem is lyrics. I try and make an effort to write lyrics for someone at least once a night just for practice but I have a lot of trouble. Any advice?
JRB responds:
How long have you got? Look, short answer: Tell the story, tell it well, don’t use fake rhymes. Lyrics are, just like music, all about structure. Look at the classic songs by Dorothy Fields, Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart, see how they do it. Your stuff doesn’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) sound like theirs, but watch how they do it, they know exactly when to give away information and exactly when to hold it back.
Rachel Dugas writes:
One of the things I most admire about your skills as a lyricist is your ability to write touching, accessible lyrics that overflow with raw, honest emotion, that fit so perfectly with the music, while remaining original and sophisticated. I was wondering where you get your inspiration and, once you find it, advice on conveying these inspired ideas and emotions honestly, yet with sophistication and technical skill.
JRB responds:
It’s such a hard thing to articulate. I find it’s the thing I’m least equipped to bring out in my students at USC, that real ability to get down beyond the words and mean something. Maybe my emotions are just closer to the surface than other folks’. Listen to Shawn Colvin, listen to Joni Mitchell; they get it right out there, they say the thing that scares them the most and hurts them the most and it draws us in, pulls us closer to them. Bravery is the hallmark of a great lyricist, not amazing rhymes or clever jokes. What’s astonishing about Sondheim is not that he can pile sixteen rhymes up in one verse, it’s that “Finishing The Hat” is the most honest thing any artist has ever admitted to.
Zoom Kunnuwong writes:
I’m an exchange student from Thailand. I heard nothing about Broadway before I came here, but I did a lot of shows, singing contests and school concerts over there. I just discovered Broadway musicals seven months ago from your musical, The Last 5 Years. It really blew me away. After that I started learning about Broadway. I loved your music so much and I’m going to sing Schmuel Song in at the Talent Competition. Now, I’m spending most of my money to buy cast recordings. (It was a lot of money but it was good though.) I’m just wondering if you have any plan to write an Asian character or any character that fits with Asian people.
JRB responds:
Hey, Zoom, it was great to meet you in Chicago! There’s a Korean guy in “Honeymoon In Vegas”, does that count? I answered this in an earlier blog, but it’s worth trying to say again: I can’t honestly claim to speak for anyone else’s experience, and I’m generally embarrassed when I try. That’s not to say I won’t write an Asian character or a Hispanic character, it’s just that the stories I most burn to tell are the stories that resonate inside of me personally, and I haven’t yet figured out how to make some other cultural identity a conduit for those stories. Keep a look out for what I write in the next ten years, I think I’ll start shifting away from neurotic Jews more and more. (Or I won’t: it seems to work just fine for Philip Roth.)
Jonathan Skovron writes:
In regards to the wonderful orchestrations of L5Y: where did you come up with that awesome combination of piano, fretless bass, guitar, violin and 2 celli? I love the way that works as a concept, but the actual arrangements themselves are so fantastic… Did you formally learn how to orchestrate or are you “self-taught”?
JRB responds:
The orchestral concept of “The Last Five Years” was all strings, no drums. I vacillated for a while between two violins or two celli, but ultimately the celli won. The fretless bass/acoustic guitar thing comes from all those Joni Mitchell records that Jaco Pastorius played on. That combination of fiercely rhythmic guitar with fluid and melodic bass really felt right to me for that show, and it’s also what I travel around with for my band. I did some formal orchestration lessons when I was at Eastman, but to be honest, I really learned “on the job,” just pulling out the staff paper and trying to figure it out. The best education I got was watching (and hearing) Sebesky bring my work to life on “Parade,” it was such an extraordinary lesson in how to make piano-based music breathe orchestrally. I will forever be grateful to Don for that, he is the best in my book.
Andy Peterson writes:
How is the best way to enter the “musical theatre composing” world of things and stage your own show? Do you need heaps of money? Is it about who you know and who you have studied under?
JRB responds:
Yes, you need heaps of money, and yes, it’s about who you know, and I guess it can’t hurt to study under someone powerful and successful. But more than that, it’s about talent. The theater world is very small, really, and everybody’s always looking for the new thing, for the exciting breakthrough, for the person who’s going to make everyone a shitload of cash right now, today. If you can prove that you’re that guy, you don’t need money or connections at all. The best way to enter the “musical theater composing world”? Be commercial, be funny, be smart but not obscure. Get lots of applause at the end of your song. Make singers desperate to do your material. Don’t be a crazy stalker. Have a life other than musicals. Don’t write just for yourself, write because you love hearing applause. That may or may not be the way to do your best work (I go back and forth on it myself), but it’s what you’re going to need if you want anyone to put up the money to do your show.
Marken Greenwood writes:
My graduation from Palos Verdes Peninsula High is approaching at incredible speed, and two friends and I have created our own three-person rendition of “Long Long Road” to perform at commencement. (You’re probably cringing right now. But, yay for team effort!) Would it be possible to get our hands on the sheet music?
JRB responds:
Ack! I never wrote down the piano part! Just have some guitarist play the chords while you guys sing it; it’s not that hard to figure it out if you’re used to copping songs from records.
Nolan wants to know:
Is there any chance of getting sheet music for “Mr. Broadway”?
JRB responds:
Yes! Hal Leonard will be releasing the sheet music later this year! Watch this space, I’ll give you more information when it’s available!
Tamara Woolrych asks:
I was wondering if there was any possible way for me to get the music to ‘See I’m Smiling’ and the full duet version of ‘Goodbye Until Tomorrow’? I also have a question about the lyrics that Jamie sings in ‘Goodbye Until Tomorrow,’ he says “I’m not the only one who’s hurting here…” I just don’t get it, because obviously she would be hurting more than he is, so why would he say that?
JRB responds:
“See I’m Smiling” is in “The Jason Robert Brown Collection,” now available at all fine music stores (and The duet version of “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” is unfortunately not available for purchase, sorry. As far as Jamie’s lyric, he’s making a very important point: don’t get mad at me for leaving you, you’re just as miserable in this relationship as I am, I’m not the only one who’s hurting here.
Sarah Browne writes:
I am a Senior Manager in a college of further education in Dudley, West Midlands, UK. I am responsible for Performing Arts, Music, Film and Media. In September of this year, I will be delivering a new course for the department – BTEC National Diploma in Musical Theatre (predominantly attracting 16 to 19 year old students) This is the only course of its kind in the UK Midlands area. As part of this course, students must take part in a final major production. As we already perform one major musical a year, my intention is to use this project to showcase practitioners of Musical Theatre and as I am a big fan of your work, I would like to use the first showcase as a vehicle to perform some of your music and allow my students to share in my enthusiasm. We aim to do this within a concert setting rather than a dramatic context.
Ideally, some form of patronage from you for this venture would be fantastic and would mean a great deal to both myself and my students. However, any help, advice or acknowledgement you can give would be gratefully received.

JRB responds:
Congratulations to you and your students on establishing such an exciting program. It’s hard to offer a whole lot of advice, especially from across the ocean, and even more especially on a blog entry that I’m writing because my daughter won’t stay asleep, but the most important thing I would say to anyone doing the kind of work you’re doing is: it’s about them. It’s about your students, and not just because they’re up there performing, but it has to be about them in a real way: how do they connect to every line, every note, every story? What makes it worthwhile for them to stand on that stage and share their heart with an audience? Most of your students aren’t going to be professional performers, that’s just the odds of the business, so it has to be about their lives, not just their work. If I could share one thing with every student of mine, it would be: don’t sing because it will make you famous, don’t sing because you’re amazing, don’t sing because you have to – sing because it makes you complete, and because without your voice, you wouldn’t know who you were.
Is anyone still reading this? Go to bed!