Posted on May 30, 2006 at 4:22 pm

Today: studying voice, writing musicals, why I’m not a real jazz pianist, why I’m not a novelist, and why I’m not helpful.
Sara Ptak writes:
I am an aspiring singer/actor/etc., mostly singer. For most of my summers as a child I went to arts camps, Interlochen and Northwestern and I “studied” music theatre and did as many shows as I possibly could in every place that I could, and in my senior year of high school, I decided that I needed to study classical music so that I could really understand the voice, and so that I could really understand music and how it works and why the hell it affects me so damn much!  So here I am at DePaul University’s School of Music and I love it most of the time, but there are days (like the day of your concert at Northwestern) that I really question not studying music theatre in college.  Question: Do you think I am making a mistake studying classical voice performance if I really want to be a music theatre performer?
JRB responds:
Technique counts, especially given how difficult most contemporary music theater is to sing.  I don’t think there’s any mistake in getting to know your instrument intimately and to push it to its limits.  The only negative is that many (most?) classical voice teachers look down on belting as though it were the Devil’s Testicles.  If you can’t comfortably, naturally and robustly sing in your chest voice, you won’t be able to do much musical theater.  So I would say the danger is in only developing one part of your voice; I don’t know that you need to drop out of the program at DePaul to do the rest, you just may want to add a musical theater coach or additional voice teacher to your workload.  Opera and musicals are very different animals, performance-wise.  Don’t let your opera coaches fool you into thinking otherwise; if you want to do both, you’ll need two entirely different techniques.  Audra McDonald, for example, has entirely differently approaches to her classical singing and pop singing, as do Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O’Hara and Andrea Burns.
Kerrie Bond writes:
I was wondering about the process of writing “Parade.” Was it difficult to write a musical about such a heartbreaking and powerful story? How did you go about making sure it was done with care and was done well?
JRB responds:
Luckily, I had the best collaborators in the world.  I think, left to my own devices, “Parade” would have been a much nastier piece, and not in a good way.  I was a very angry guy in my twenties, and I think the show would have reflected that.  The balance and the empathy of the show are really Alfred’s contribution, and the thematic and structural integrity is really Hal’s.
Dan Allan writes:
I am an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, and my music teacher is Jason Titus, who says he knew you during your Eastman days.  He mentioned that you once wrote a musical for the Eastman orientation.  I work with a group that produces student musical revues on campus, and we are big fans of your work.  Is there any chance we could see some of that music?  I know it’s early work, but we’d love to see music written by you about our school.
JRB responds:
Adam Guettel once said to me, “There’s a fine line between juvenilia and crap,” and the Freshman Show that I wrote in 1988 falls very clearly on the “crap” side of the line.  Even my ego is not large enough to imagine that there’s any compelling reason to listen to that work.  But hey, say hi to Jason Titus for me!
Janice Young writes:
I am really writing to see if the rumor that the Last 5 Years is coming to Pasadena is true… I can’t find it on their website.
JRB responds:
Yep.  It’s part of something called “The Marriage Musicals,” which involves “The Last Five Years” and Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’s “I Do! I Do!” (another two-person musical about marriage) running on alternate nights in rep.
Peter Salomon writes:
As a writer, I was wondering if you’d ever considered taking the plot of “The Last Five Years” (or a wholly different plot you might have lurking within) and writing a novel.  I know in my high school and college days I dabbled with writing musicals and lyrics before realizing very very quickly that, damn, that’s freakishly difficult to do well.
JRB responds:
The way you think about writing musicals is the way I think about writing novels.  Not that I lack for confidence, but for right now, I’d rather concentrate on doing what I know I do well.  I’ll save the novelizing for my retirement.
Lanie Reel writes:
How do you picture the musical in thirty years in America?  What do you feel you have done differently in creating your art than some of your peers?  I am focusing my thesis on your creation of The Last Five Years.  What were some of your musical influences in producing this show?  Who would you name as a mentor and whose musicals would you say are the most different from yours?
JRB responds:
I have no opinion about the American musical in thirty years.  I don’t think the American musical today looks much different than it did in 1976, so I don’t know how to extrapolate forward from that.
I don’t know what I’ve done differently from my peers other than just writing in my own voice; some people are going to respond to that and some people won’t, but the only reliable barometer I have of the quality of my work is whether it feels like it’s mine.  
As far as musical influences in “The Last Five Years,” I think they’re pretty obvious: Joni Mitchell (particularly “Hejira” and “Hissing of Summer Lawns”), Billy Joel, Sondheim, Paul Simon, Shawn Colvin, lots of traditional Irish and Jewish music, a million other things.  
To name a mentor, I’d have to say Hal Prince, who took me under his wing and gave me an opportunity and an education that no one else could have possibly provided.
And whose musicals are the most different from mine?  That’s an odd question.  I like to think I’ve still got some time before my “style” is pinned down, and I think most Broadway writers have written many different kinds of shows.  Andrew Lloyd Webber, for example, may be most famous for sung-through melodramas, but he’s written music-hall comedies and thrillers and pageants and all sorts of things, and I hope my career has that same kind of genre fluidity.
Jonathan Skovron writes:
It is obvious from some of your recordings (and also sometimes in your writing) that you have some jazz background. You also have serious jazz chops on piano. I was wondering if you ever devoted a lot of time to practicing that sort of thing, and whether you ever considered going more down the jazz path as a performer.
JRB responds:
Dude, with the shows I’m writing and the baby and the classes at USC and the concerts, I’m lucky if I get to practice anything at all.  Really, I’m not a genuine jazz cat, I don’t have the fingers or the vocabulary to put myself in the same league as Brad Mehldau or Benny Green or Fred Hersch, I’m just my own kind of wacky rock-gospel-jazz-showbiz thing.  I mean, yeah, I’ve played in some jazz bands, but I’ve also played Bach fugues, I’m equally out of place in both arenas.
Adam Katz writes:
I’m a 17-year-old pianist from Australia.  One of the biggest compliments I have been given is that my style of playing is very similar to yours.  I was wondering if it would be possible to get a personalised signed photo sent to me? This would be amazing!
JRB responds:
Sure, just send all photo requests to: Jason Robert Brown c/o Sendroff & Associates, 1500 Broadway, Ste. 2001, NY NY 10036, and please include a postage-paid envelope for return!
Tim Meola writes:
I was wondering if you knew of any good sites and/or reference materials that provide a deeper explanation of “The Last Five Years” and its songs. I would like to do the show justice and would like to get a better idea of what Mr. Brown intended for the songs and characters to show emotionally. 
JRB responds:
I’ll throw this one out to the readers; anybody?  I think if you read through the articles, interviews and reviews about “The Last Five Years” on this site, you’ll get a pretty comprehensive picture.
Richard Wolf writes:
Do you have “A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me” available for purchase as a single song?  I have a student who would like to sing this song for an upcoming performance.
JRB responds:
Sorry, as explained in another post, I had to keep some things out of the book or else there’d be unauthorized productions going on everywhere.  MTI can license individual songs for concert performance, you should give them a shout.
Angela Cohen writes:
I was wondering what the story/inspiration was behind “Over” from your solo album? I just want to say that I love the album, it’s one of the best cds that I’ve heard in a very long time. Keep doing what you do best.
JRB responds:
I’m very proud of “Over” and I think it’s different from my other songs, so thanks for mentioning it.  It was actually inspired by an article I read in The New Yorker about US Army mortuary workers in Iraq, though that’s not what the song is about.  I had been wanting to write something about the war, but it’s hard for me to write political stuff, I don’t like getting preachy and didactic; my viewpoint on this Presidency is so clear and specific that it doesn’t leave much room for empathy.  But when I put the song in the voice of a soldier, I found some room for ambiguity, some emotional flexibility.
Todd Christopher writes:
I am Choral Music Director for Wapakoneta City Schools. This e-mail is on behalf of me and my senior accompanist Adam Fahncke. We love all of your music. We read that you wrote a piano sonata called “Mr. Broadway” for Anthony DeMare at Carnegie Hall. Is there a way to see this piece of music? Or is there an mp3 of the piece that we can listen to?
JRB responds:
You know, I’m working on that.  I myself can’t play it (really!), so I’m looking to find someone who can do a great recording of it.  Hal Leonard will be publishing the score later this year, so I’ll keep you all up to date on that.  Keep a lookout on this website some time in the Fall.