Posted on February 14, 2007 at 4:45 pm

Mollie Wilson’s article here.

Popularity Contests

Composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown hasn’t always had an easy time fitting in. Neither have his characters.

By Mollie Wilson

“I gotta tell you, Rabbi, when you’re a geek, it’s the loneliest thing in the world,” sings Evan, the teenage protagonist of composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s new musical, 13. Transplanted from New York City to Indiana in the wake of his parents’ divorce, 13-year-old Evan is anxious to establish a new identity. He’s the only Jew in school, and as far as he’s concerned, the most important detail of his approaching bar mitzvah is whether the popular kids will attend his party.

For the 36-year-old Brown, who created the musical with children’s book author Dan Elish, the themes of 13—the adolescent struggle for self-definition and the competing desire for popularity—were all too easy to recall. “The sense of feeling dislocated, the sense of feeling like I don’t belong…that turns out to be very close and very real,” Brown said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where 13 is playing at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. “And not just from when I was 13—my sense of being dissociated from whatever the larger community is, the ‘popular kids,’ turns out to be very close to what I feel a lot of my life.”

If there are any “popular kids” in the musical theater world, it seems like Brown ought to be one of them. Hailed as a musical theater wunderkind, he won his first Tony, for the Broadway musical Parade, while still in his twenties. With his poppy yet sophisticated music and smart, conversational lyrics, he was one of a handful of composers considered to be heirs to Stephen Sondheim. But in 2003, after a string of his productions succumbed to chilly reviews and quick closings, Brown left New York determined to give up writing for the theater. 13 marks his return to the stage, his first full-length musical in five years.

13 did not start out as an autobiographical project for Brown, who grew up in Rockland County, New York—where Jews are far from exotic—with parents who never divorced. He recalls in his program notes that he skipped ahead a grade when he was ten, “and the social fallout from that was absolutely toxic.” After a few years studying at Eastman School of Music, he left without his degree for New York City, where he performed in piano bars, arranged other composers’ work, and established himself as an up-and-coming composer at a time when musical theater was particularly hungry for new voices. He also developed a reputation for egotism and arrogance among theater insiders, perhaps fueled by his rapid professional rise.

In 1995, an off-Broadway revue of Brown’s work, Songs for a New World—a loosely constructed sequence of ballads, comedy songs and rousing gospel numbers—brought him to the attention of legendary Broadway producer and director Hal Prince, whose daughter, Daisy, had directed the show. Prince was developing a musical for Lincoln Center about the 1913 trial and lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta. Longtime collaborator Stephen Sondheim had been slated to compose the score, but when Sondheim changed his mind, Prince chose the 25-year-old Brown as his replacement—the professional equivalent of skipping a grade.

Brown’s score for Parade is sophisticated and tuneful, drawing on traditional American song forms and featuring his signature piano-driven arrangements. Both lyrics and music establish Leo’s alienation by playing up his Jewish identity: “God—all the noise, and on Yontiff yet,” he grumbles when his work is interrupted by the Confederate Memorial Day parade that gives the show its name. At the musical’s conclusion, noose around his neck, Frank sings a mournful a cappella Shema. “Even popular song of the 20s was very much Jewish/vaudeville-oriented,” Brown points out, explaining why the Jewish content in Parade came easily for him. “Trying to find a sound that was authentically Southern was the harder task.”

The show had a promising pedigree. Its book was by Alfred Uhry, making Parade the third, after the non-musicals Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo, in his loose trilogy of shows about Atlanta Jews. But the expensive, ambitious “book musicals” (such as Follies, Sweeney Todd, and Evita) Prince was famous for bringing to Broadway were a dying breed by the time Parade opened in 1998. With a large, pricey production and a less-than-cheerful premise, Parade needed serious critical and popular support to survive. The major reviewers were complimentary but unenthusiastic; many complained that the show was too preachy, and the central character of Leo too slow to come alive. Parade‘s handful of awards—including the Tony recognizing Brown’s richly dramatic score—came months after its 84th and final performance.

Brown’s follow-up project, The Last Five Years, an intricately constructed, almost entirely sung-through portrait of a failed marriage, premiered in New York in 2002. With a two-person cast, a contemporary setting and sound, and an intimate off-Broadway production, this solo effort was different from Parade in every way. Cathy and Jamie, the protagonists, tell their stories in opposite directions; Jamie journeys from first date to divorce, while Cathy follows a reverse chronology. During the final number, while Jamie lists his reasons for ending the marriage, Cathy reflects hopefully on their first date. The Last Five Years was inspired by Brown’s own divorce and Jamie, a suburban New York Jew who finds professional and artistic success in his early 20s, is plainly a rough self-portrait of the artist. Originally Jamie is thrilled to have found a “shiksa goddess” in Cathy, but as time passes, the couple’s differences drive them apart. “Don’t we get to be happy, Cathy?” Jamie asks. “Don’t we get to relax / Without some new tsuris / To push me yet further from you?”

Critical response to The Last Five Years was again respectful but lukewarm. Ben Brantley of The New York Times praised Brown’s “sparkling facility as a composer,” but had trouble cozying up to the characters; other critics found the show dull. Brown’s ex-wife, meanwhile, felt the project was too inspired by real events, and threatened to sue to prevent its performance. The show ran for only two months.

In 2003 Brown composed a few songs for the widely ridiculed Broadway flop Urban Cowboy, for which he also served as musical director and orchestrator. Brown had no illusions about the overall quality of the show—”One of the main reasons I signed on to Urban Cowboy, The Musical was the opportunity to work with Jenn Colella,” he writes on his website, before adding gleefully, “(The other main reason was the money.)” After that show closed, with no awards and few laments, Brown left New York and announced that he would no longer write for the theater. “I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say in this form anymore,” he recalls in his program notes for 13. “And I wasn’t sure anyone wanted to hear it.”

Brown headed off to Europe for nearly a year, and on his return resettled in Southern California. He worked on an assortment of musical projects—from composing industrial shows for State Farm Insurance Company, to recording a solo album (Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes) to creating the choral composition “Chanukah Suite,” a Broadway-style setting of traditional holiday songs.

Meanwhile, his fan base continued to grow. Musical-theater enthusiasts cherished the original cast recordings of Songs for a New World, Parade, and The Last Five Years, finding, in close study of the scores, emotional depth and insight. The shows also found new life and new audiences in regional productions around the country, and individual songs began popping up in cabarets.

Brown was pulled back to the theater by librettist Elish, who approached him with the idea for 13. “There is a huge demographic of kids that age who love musicals,” Brown says, “I wanted to create something that they could feel like they owned.”

Since its January 7 opening in L.A., 13 has met with little resistance from critics, an unusual experience for Brown. A few have been disappointed by its lightweight approach—Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times compared it to an “after-school special” and dismissed Brown’s music as “bubblegum rock.” But many reviewers have embraced and endorsed the show (“13 is sheer bliss,” Variety gushed), and performances have been selling out. The show runs through February 18; its life thereafter is still up in the air, but Brown hopes it will eventually be recorded, and perhaps even bring him back to the New York stage. Still, he no longer views theater, or his role in it, with the same intensity he once did: “I’m not sure that I can ever just do theater writing,” he says. “Maybe this show will change it and maybe it won’t, but I’ve always felt that my relationship to the community was very tenuous—that I wasn’t one of the ‘in crowd.’ You know, I keep playing that story throughout my life.”

Mollie Wilson writes and blogs about theater and the arts in New York City. She last wrote about Edna Ferber.

And here, from Mollie Wilson’s blog, is an “outtakes” reel from the interview:

As promised, here is some bonus material from my interview with Jason Robert Brown that didn’t make it into the final Nextbook story (edited, obviously, to make both of us, but mainly me, sound more articulate). I didn’t want to keep it to myself!

MW: It sounds like 13 is a big success.

JRB: It’s…exactly what we wanted it to be. It is a show with a bunch of teenagers jumping around onstage, and it’s a very warmhearted, life-affirming kind of a show. I think there are people who don’t dig that, but that was what I wanted to do, and that’s what we did, so I’m very proud of it.

MW: Do you feel like audiences are responding to it the way you expected?

JRB: I think 80% of the audience is always with us, and 20% of the audience is always those people who think, “What happened to Angels in America?” …It’s not a heavy show. I think it may be, in its own way, a deep show.

MW: I read somewhere that one of your motivations in doing a show about and for teenagers was realizing that you had a big following in that demographic, in spite of the fact that your work has been kind of mature in theme up to this point.

JRB: My demographic, truth be told, is actually a little bit older than 13. I think my demographic tends to be in the 17-through-college department. So, what it was about was the realization that there is a huge demographic of kids that age who love musicals, and I did not think there was a lot of appropriate material for them that was still smart and still musically valuable… If you wanted to see something that really connected to who they were at that time in their lives, and didn’t talk down to them and didn’t insist on sugarcoating their experience, I thought, there’s not that much like that. And I wanted to create something that they could feel like they owned.

MW: On your weblog you described the kind of music you write as — this is a quote — ”Jewish-rock’n’roll-Motown-showtune.” I wanted to ask if there’s anything you can identify that’s particularly “Jewish” about the equation.

JRB: I think there is something about the hyper-verbality — hyper-verbosity? — of the work that I write that feels Jewish to me; that feels specifically, culturally related to that. I don’t know if I could define it or explain it any better than that, but I feel like, if I listened to my stuff and I didn’t know me, I’d say, Ah, nice Jewish boy, I know him.

MW: In the case of Parade, for example, there are obviously traditional Jewish influences in the songs that Leo Frank sings, especially in the Sh’ma that he sings at the end. Did you have to go out of your way to make that part of the fabric of that show?

JRB: No, that’s the stuff that comes easy to me. That’s the stuff I know. What was harder, in Parade, was the stuff that’s authentically Southern… There are a lot of hidden quotes of “Dixie” all over the score of Parade.

MW: I love the funeral scene, with the hymn “There Is a Fountain” — that’s really beautiful. So you looked into spirituals and hymns and things like that?

JRB: Well, that hymn, “There Is a Fountain,” was actually what was sung at Mary [Phagan]’s funeral. So I just extrapolated from there. That was actually a sort of improvisational thing, where I just played the hymn over and over again, and let it see where it would lead me. And it brought me to the “It Don’t Make Sense” section of that song, which, harmonically, is sort of distantly related to the hymn.

…You know, it sounds like, sort of, “tricks,” and in a way it is, but once you get beneath all the tricks it has to have some emotional content to it that you can believe in. And I’d like to think that it does.

MW: In writing this musical, did you seek out music that 13 year olds right now are listening to?

JRB: Well, I did and I didn’t. When I started writing the show I just said, Let me see what I come up with, as far as what I think feels authentic to these kids. And what I ended up writing, and it wasn’t even deliberate, was all stuff that sort of sounded like 1983, when I was 13. When I put myself in the mind of a teenager, I ended up writing things that were popular when I was a teenager. So after we got through the first draft of the show, there were parts where I felt like, “I’m not telling the whole story, musically, of what it means to be a 13 year old.” So there are a couple of more contemporary-sounding things in it than I had originally thought out… But no one’s gonna confuse this with a Gwen Stefani record.

MW: The band for 13 is also made up of teenagers. Was that always part of your plan, or did that…

JRB: Oh yeah, no, that was definitely always part of the game plan.

MW: Because I know that you, as a composer and arranger and a musical director, tend to be really particular about making everything sort of one artistic statement.

JRB: Yeah, well, that was always the point… I wasn’t sure whether we could do it, you know, I wasn’t sure whether we could, in fact, find a band that could play my stuff. I didn’t want to write the material down to the performers; I wanted to just write what I wanted to write and then find kids who could do it. And I wasn’t sure that I could, but… these sensational players out here, I mean, these genius kids who can do anything. And who are, incidentally, much better musicians than I was when I was their age.

MW: You have this album of your own nontheatre songs, and you’ve been doing appearances in support of that — does it feel like you have a few different personas, or does it all fit together for you?

JRB: You know, it feels to me like one big thing, but I recognized, when I put out the album, that it wasn’t a marketable idea, if you will, to say, “This is all part of the same deal; I write these shows and I write these songs, and ultimately it’s all going to add up to the same thing.” So I sort of allow the perception out in the world that I have this other persona who writes these rock-and-roll songs and goes out and does these concerts, but I think if you asked any of the kids who are involved in 13 who have come and seen me do the concerts, they would all say, “That’s all Jason.”

MW: Do you think this project has brought you back to theatre writing?

JRB: I’m not sure that I can ever just do theatre writing… It felt to me that if I put all my eggs in that basket, I would ultimately end up being sort of bummed out and depressed all the time. So I decided not to, and instead I can do a whole bunch of different things and keep myself spread over a number of different groups, which is easier for me than just being a theatre writer all the time. There’s just not enough interesting theatre happening, particularly on Broadway, to keep me doing it all the time.