Posted on August 4, 2007 at 7:27 am

In any composer’s official biography, by which I mean the self-written essay which is included in the Playbill or inside the press kit or on the website, it is customary to include a list of upcoming projects, and starting in 1996, my bio always mentioned something called The Moneyman or The Moneyman Dances or some variation thereof, which was often referred to as “a dance musical.” I would write, in these bios, that a production of The Moneyman was forthcoming in this season or the next, which was always a lie; the show was never optioned for production anywhere. I thought it was an interesting idea, and I had written what I considered to be some great music for it, but I couldn’t get anyone interested.

And so, after eight or nine years, The Moneyman disappeared from my bio, never to return. It is my lost show, one hundred minutes of fully-scored music and lyrics that will never be performed as part of a theatrical production. Everything about The Moneyman had bad karma written all over it, and my life has gotten noticeably better since I stopped attempting to get it produced. And so here, in this and subsequent posts, I shall eulogize it with the love any parent has for a wayward child, and make my peace with its demise.

Jonathan Marc Sherman, the magnificently gifted playwright behind Sophistry and Women and Wallace, travels in far fancier circles than I do, and back in 1995 he was hanging out with a crowd that included the avant-garde choreographer Karole Armitage. Word got around this group, one way or another, that Karole was looking for a musical theater songwriter to add a couple of songs to a ballet she was working on. Sherm had just seen Songs for a New World in its initial production at the WPA Theatre, and he mentioned to Karole that I might be just the writer she was looking for. (Sherm disappears from our narrative at this point, but I thought he’d enjoy this little cameo.)

My collaboration with Karole came to a truly terrible end, so it’s hard for me to be objective about her, and even harder for me to be generous, but when we met, she had already had a substantial and impressive career as the Bad Girl of Ballet, doing classical choreography to punk music and collaborating with a group of modern artists, among whom was the painter David Salle (with whom she had had a long relationship). Much of her notoriety was established during the go-go modern dance scene of the eighties, a scene that came crashing to a halt when a substantial percentage of corporate arts contributions disappeared amidst the savings-and-loan scandal. Karole’s company went belly-up at that time, and this new ballet she was planning in 1995 was going to be her comeback, and in some sense, her revenge on the world of financiers who had both made her dreams possible and then heartlessly dashed them.

Karole had written a scenario entitled The Predator’s Ball, adapted from Connie Bruck’s terrifying exposé of the collapse of the investment firm of Drexel Burnham. The antihero of Bruck’s book, and the center of Karole’s scenario, was the financial savant and junk-bond king Michael Milken. Karole’s ballet intended to tell the story of how Milken’s genius allowed Drexel to become a greedy power-mad monolith, and how his unchecked ego and power ensured its fall, all seen through the eyes of a Greek god named Thyades, who would assume various roles throughout the drama. She had hired a playwright to flesh out her scenario into a full-length script.

(I can’t imagine that the details of Milken’s story will be of great interest to the vast majority of readers here, and I’ve gotten pretty fuzzy on a lot of it in the eleven years since I was actively researching the show, so I’m going to just skip over most of the specifics of the plot. Anyone interested in the rise and fall of Milken is enthusiastically directed to Connie Bruck’s sensationally written book and James B. Stewart’s masterfully detailed Den Of Thieves, and there are certainly any number of other sources that could fill in the history.)

What Karole most wanted from me was one specific song. The beginning of the second act involved Milken moving to Los Angeles and coming to grips with that city’s obsession with appearance by, among other things, buying a toupee. Karole imagined that this would then blossom into a full Vegas-style number with showgirls and tap dancing and chaser lights. I read the scenario and totally understood what Karole wanted with that song; but more importantly, I found myself totally drawn to the story she wanted to tell. Her scenario was pretentious as all get-out, but there was a sort of uncontrolled zaniness and barely-contained rage that was very appealing to me. So I asked Karole, on our second meeting, if she would consider allowing me to write the full score.

At that point, the production was five months away: Karole had been engaged to create the piece on an Italian ballet company called MaggioDanza di Firenze that would open at the historic Teatro Comunale in Florence in June of 1996. Sets were already being designed, dancers had been hired, the machine was sputtering and croaking to life. I wasn’t daunted by the concept of writing a hundred minutes of music in such a short span of time; I thought it was a fun challenge, and since much of the score would be just music (lyrics are by far the most labor-intensive and procrastination-inducing part of my work), I would be able to write much more quickly than my usual pace. Karole took some persuading, but eventually, she decided it was worth a shot. We drew up a budget and set to creating our piece.

Karole made clear to me at those initial meetings that she was very unhappy with the script she had commissioned and encouraged me to use it only as a starting-point. I never met the man who had written it, and she never told him that we were ripping it into little pieces. (Listen closely: a harbinger of disaster.)

As I began restructuring the script, I felt like Karole and I were on the verge of a new hybrid: a dance-musical, not like West Side Story or On The Town where the narrative was still primarily told through dialogue and song, but a show where the language of the dance was inherent in every beat of the structure. The whole aesthetic of the piece would evolve from the movement; instead of the dance emerging from the song, it would be the song that emerged from the dance. It felt phenomenally exciting.

Alas, I never shared my vision of the piece with Karole; I just assumed we were on the same page. As I was soon to discover, we were not.

Story to be continued. Here are two pieces from the “finished” score, one mainly a song and one mainly a dance.

At the end of the first act, Milken packs up his family and moves his division of the firm from the heart of the New York Stock Exchange to Los Angeles, where he had been born and raised. Because New York had long been the financial capital of the US, Milken’s move seemed like madness to most of the financial community. To illustrate this, Karole wanted the scene set like an old Western movie, with Milken the pioneer heading across the country in a horse-drawn wagon. I thought it would be fun to bring on a yodeling cowboy to accompany him on his journey. So here’s me as the yodeling cowboy, me also as Michael Milken, and Lauren Mufson (who was featured in the ballet’s premiere in Florence) as Milken’s wife Lori.

“Coming Home (The Ballad of Michael Milken)”
from The Moneyman (1996)
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Jason Robert Brown, Lauren Mufson: vocals
JRB: piano
Kevin Kuhn: acoustic guitar
Randy Landau: upright bass
Tom Partington: drums
Robert McEwan: congas and percussion
Sal Spicola: tambourine
Mia Wu: violin
Recorded and mixed by Jeffrey Lesser
Instruments recorded at RPM Studios, NY,NY, 5/1/96 (Engineer: Suzanne Dyer)
Vocals recorded at Warehouse Recording Studio, NY NY, 9/17/96 (Engineer: Billy Eric)

I used to always do that song in my concerts and it got a great response, but I found that, even though it’s far from the rangiest or most difficult song in my repertoire, it completely wiped me out every time. No matter where I put it in the show, it killed my voice for the rest of the evening. So I stopped doing it, and the world has been sadly bereft of my unexpectedly ass-kicking Jewish yodeling prowess.

In the second act, we see how Milken runs his company: he sits at the center of a large X-shaped desk and can see and hear every part of every transaction going on around him; he controls the high-risk bond division of Drexel Burnham Lambert with incredible efficiency and uncanny strategic impulses. Here, we watch as he wields his power and intelligence (and twenty different phone lines) to engineer the takeover of a company called National Can. (If you are paying attention, you’ll hear Brooks Ashmanskas delivering some dialogue as one of Milken’s dedicated employees.) I love most of this piece, though I’m aware that the first half sounds like warmed-over Steve Reich and the end sounds like a chase scene from an episode of Starsky and Hutch; nonetheless, this was a rare chance for me to write music that was so ambitious and conceptual, and I felt that by tying the Reich-style minimalist thing to a New Orleans funk groove I was really doing something I had never heard before. (I was able to perform this live once, at a concert at the Guggenheim, and it was wicked fun to play.)

“The X-Shaped Desk”
from The Moneyman (1996)
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
JRB: piano
Kevin Kuhn: electric guitar
Randy Landau: fretless bass
Tom Partington: drums
Robert McEwan: vibraphone and percussion
Sal Spicola: soprano and alto saxophones
Mia Wu: violin
Recorded and mixed by Jeffrey Lesser
Instruments recorded at RPM Studios, NY, NY, 5/28/96 (Engineer: Suzanne Dyer)
Additional recording at Knoop Music, River Edge, NJ, 5/29/96 (Engineer: Manfred Knoop)
Additional engineering and editing by Peter Dowdall