Posted on May 23, 2007 at 3:10 pm

I’ve spent the last four days writing the opening number to Honeymoon In Vegas. You would think that at this point in the process, three years after we started working on the show, we’d have the opening taken care of. That would be nice. In fact, this represents either the fourth or fifth completely different crack I’ve taken at the opening, not to mention all the little revisions and tweaks I’ve put in to those versions along the way. I think we’ve finally got it now. I’m really happy with it. But the opening has thus identified itself as our Hot Spot.

Every show I’ve worked on has a Hot Spot, one song that fights you and spits at you and resists “landing.” If you look through the discard piles of all my scores, what you’ll usually find is a bunch of half-written ideas and motifs, and then several fully finished songs that were all written for the exact same spot in the show. There is nothing harder for me than writing the same song twice, never mind five or six times, and yet I’ve had to go through that process at least once with every score I’ve written.

With Songs for a New World, it was the opening, which went through at least four versions before settling on the one that’s on the cast album now. It makes sense that that would be the Hot Spot since there was so much riding on that number: it has to set up an entire show and let us know who we’re watching and what we’re about to see. I know there was one version Andréa loved that we tried in Toronto, but it was too literal – what is now the bridge (“a house in the Hills, a job on the Coast,” etc.) basically dragged out for four minutes – and it just didn’t work. (If you follow the measure numbers in the vocal score, you can see exactly where the old version gets picked up and carried to the end.)

In “13”, our Hot Spot was the football number, which was called “Little Ball” through three separate drafts until it found its shape as “Angry Boy.” Of course, 13 still has one more draft to go, so that song may yet undergo further surgery, but I hope not, particularly since I haven’t the least interest in football even on my best day.

The Last Five Years tripped me up at the third song in the show. The original version was called “What’s Wrong With Him?” and in it, Cathy talked about the couples’ therapy she and Jamie were enduring at the hands of a vaguely sadistic narcoleptic shrink on the Upper East Side. It was really funny, but it kind of only worked for the first verse, and then there was nowhere to go with it. Three drafts later, it became “See I’m Smiling.”

But the show with the most Hot Spots of all was Parade, not least because Hal was sometimes on a completely different wavelength than Alfred and I were, and therefore he’d ask me to rewrite songs that I thought were perfectly fine already. That was not the case with the opening of Act Two, however, which never worked, not in the reading, not in the workshop, not on Broadway, and not on the tour. Each of those iterations of the show had a completely different way of starting Act Two, and each one was a flop. And now, as Alfred and I are revisiting the material in preparation for the production at the Donmar in the fall, we’re looking at yet another approach.

The two versions I’ve included below will go some distance in demonstrating the trouble we had.

Hal’s overall concept for the opening of the second act was that we would go back to the Memorial Day Parade one year later, only this time, all the floats in the parade would be metaphorical representations of aspects of the Leo Frank case. We also had two main plot points we needed to deal with, which may or may not have had anything to do with Hal’s concept. So we tried to cram everything in to one song, and as you can see from the title of my first draft, we were not exactly successful: “I Have Something To Say/Special To The New York Herald!”

The first issue we had to cover was Leo’s emergence as the hero of his own story. For the whole first act, he’s been very passive, but we get the sense at the end of his trial that he’s changed, he’s opened up emotionally. We wanted to follow up on that, and so we invented this moment where he blows up at his sentencing and demands to be heard and recognized as an innocent man. We all expected it to be this thrillingly liberating moment, and I wrote a big ringing song to cover it. I never quite understood the dramaturgy of it, though – why would Leo be allowed to bluster and yell for this whole period of time in a courtroom, particularly after he’s just been convicted of murder? Wouldn’t the judge have called the bailiff to drag him off? Wouldn’t his defense attorney have stepped in? Ultimately, the moment was false; in real life, Leo never blew up at anyone anywhere, and this number felt melodramatic and artificial. I love the music and it was a kick to sing it, but it made no sense for this character to sing this song at this point in the show.

The other issue we needed to dramatize was the way the Frank case had begun to seep into public consciousness beyond the city of Atlanta. In 1913, Leo Frank was a massive cause célèbre throughout the entire country, one of the first “Trials of the Century,” and that was part of our attraction to the story in the first place, so we wanted to use this number to show the way people outside the South perceived the case. Britt Craig (the newspaper reporter) is our narrator here, explaining how his dispatches are being picked up in other papers across the country, which are represented as different floats in the parade. Then one of the floats turns out to be a group of Northerners (Yankees, as it were) who mock the Southerners for their backward ways. Even writing it down, I’m embarrassed by that bit of Brechtian “dialectic theatre” – we hadn’t done anything like it anywhere else in the show, and it just seemed to me that no matter how artfully I wrote it, it would be arch and cold. Hal was really excited about it, though, so I took a shot. I hated it then, I hate it now, I’m glad it got cut. The rest of the song sure is a lot of fun!

As for the dreadful “nursery rhymes” that start and end the number, those were my idea, and I’m sorry. In real life, children did make up all sorts of gruesome rhymes about Leo and Mary Phagan, but there was undoubtedly a more artful way to dramatize that than my clunky and over-the-top bits of doggerel.

“I Have Something To Say/Special to the New York Herald!” written for Parade (1998)
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
JRB: piano and lead vocals
Tom Partington: drums and percussion
Anastasia Barzee, Jenny Giering, Norm Lewis, Michael McElroy: ensemble vocals
Recorded and mixed at Quad Recording Studios, NY NY, July 1996

Oh well. On to the next draft.

We changed Leo’s outburst from a song to a scene, and then to a shorter scene, until it was finally just a ten-line exchange with his lawyer in the jail cell. That was the end of “I Have Something To Say.”

Now that Leo was quieted down, having Britt Craig report on his “outburst” didn’t make sense, so I changed the song to something called “It Goes On and On.”

For the workshop, we went back to this idea of a metaphorical parade, and since nobody liked my version of “Dixie” from Hell, I was told to try again, but this time from the point of view of Southerners who didn’t like these Yankees messing in their business. The song was called “Look At Dem Yankees!” You can hear the melody in the cakewalk at the end of the first act, but to the extent that I have any control over these things, that’s all you’ll ever hear of it – it was truly an awful song. However, when we watched it in the workshop, we realized something that led us to one of my favorite songs in the show.

There were four black actors in the onstage cast, and two of them were essentially ensemble members – Riley (the Governor’s driver) and Angela, a serving girl. They were directed always to be floating around the edges, being generally (and, historically speaking, accurately) invisible, but in fact, every time they stepped on stage, we as audience members were drawn to them, hoping they would get involved somehow. After the workshop was finished, Hal asked us what we could do to give voice to those characters, and in response, I wrote “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’.”

On Broadway, Act Two still opened with the metaphorical parade, but we (thank God!) dropped “Look At Dem Yankees!” and instead went right into “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’.” (There was, in fact, another chunk of “It Goes On And On” that came after “Rumblin’,” which had some really cool chord progressions, but it’s not preserved anywhere.) When we made the cast album, we included “It Goes On And On,” but we had to cut it when the CD was running too long. This is the first time this material has been released (the cast never heard it, the record label never heard it) – those of you with sophisticated editing skills can now splice this into your Parade cast album and you’ll have an extra-special-deluxe-groovy edition. (As proof of how wedded I can be to a demonstrably terrible idea, you’ll hear that the horrible nursery rhymes are back, but they actually weren’t in the show on Broadway, I just put them on the album to cover a transition that was done with dialogue on stage.)

“It Goes On And On” from Parade (1998)
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Orchestration by Don Sebesky and Jason Robert Brown
Conducted by Eric Stern
Don Chastain: Judge Roan
Evan Pappas: Britt Craig
Brooke Sunny Moriber, Abbi Hutcherson, Emily Klein, Megan McGinniss: nursery rhyme girls
Rick Heckman, Ed Matthew, Chuck Wilson, Mark Thrasher: woodwinds
John David Smith, Jill Williamson: French horns
Terry Szor, Alex Holton: trumpets
Vernon Post: trombone
Dean Thomas: percussion
Tom Partington: drums
JRB: piano
Jack Cavari: acoustic guitar
Rick Dolan, Karen Milne, Mia Wu: violin
Sarah Carter, Chungsun Kim: cello
Ron Raffio: tuba/contrabass
Henry Aronson: associate conductor
John Miller: music coordinator
Recorded and mixed by Jeffrey Lesser at Clinton Recording Studios (Ed Rak, engineer), NY NY, March 1, 1999

Oh well. When we did the tour, we decided the whole metaphorical parade was a bust, and all anyone cared about was “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’.” So we cut “It Goes On And On,” and the second act now begins with Britt Craig singing four lines to establish the bare minimum of plot and then we jump right into Riley and Angela. And it works much better.

But the principal problem with all of the versions of these songs is that I think, having now done this for a while, that songs are a lousy way to get exposition across to an audience. The lyrics in all of Britt Craig’s songs are dense to the point of bursting, filled with all kinds of important information about what’s happening to Leo and the city of Atlanta, and the end result is that they just sound like laundry lists. I would agree with anyone who says the lyrics in “It Goes On And On” are bad, but I defy anyone to do a better job. Indictments and arrests aren’t the kinds of thing people like to sing about. When people sing, it should be an emotional release. When I have to write a song that just tells information, I feel like I’m wasting valuable music. It took me a while to figure that out, but it’s a good lesson to have learned. Many of the cuts I’m making for the London production of Parade involve getting rid of those clunky, expositional lyrics. And I hope, once that’s done, we’ll figure out the perfect way to start the second act. We’ve been trying for eleven years, after all.

[This posting is an ideal opportunity to send a loving shout-out to Evan Pappas, who is slowly recovering from an absolutely horrifying car accident earlier this year. Evan, if you’re reading this, know that I am thinking of you and wishing you nothing but the safest, speediest recovery. You are much missed.]