Posted on June 24, 2010 at 3:28 pm

You’ve been hired to direct a show. You do all your homework, find a way to tell that story that’s unique to you but comprehensible to the audience, work with your designers to bring that vision to life, cast the actors who most closely resemble the image of those characters in your head, and then…

Dear Mr. Brown: I’m currently directing a production of The Last Five Years. It’s a very great process and I’m enjoying it tremendously. However, I have run into a pretty big issue. The pianist is a little iffy in some spots… and overall I’m not satisfied with the sound… I feel it could hurt the show. I think using an accompaniment instrumental CD would be my best bet… but I can’t find it anywhere. I know a Jason Robert Brown karaoke CD is sold, but that doesn’t have the full score. MTI doesn’t sell an accompaniment CD on their site. Is there any possible way to get my hands on a recorded instrumental score of The Last Five Years to use in my production? If so, where, and how much would it be? It would mean the world to me right now to get a helpful response. Thank you.

That sound you hear is JRB taking a deep breath. Here goes:

Thanks for your message, and thank you for bringing The Last Five Years to life.

I appreciate the difficulty you’re having in finding musicians who can accurately reproduce the written music; it’s a very hard score to play (and to sing, though that’s not the issue at hand). And I can see why you would want to try using a recorded version of the score in lieu of the live musicians you’ve already hired. But I think that’s a bad idea, and I’ll explain why, and it will help you not one iota.

I am unutterably opposed to using recorded accompaniment for The Last Five Years, or, in fact, for any of my shows. There is a communion between musicians and actors that is the only real part of musical theater that interests me. I’ve never cared about who can belt the highest or cry the hardest or leap the farthest or tap dance the fastest; the reason I write musicals is that when a character becomes sufficiently charged with emotion that they have to sing, they require musicians to support them – that support, that give and take between the dramatic and the musical, is what I love more than anything. However, it’s simply not possible with recorded music. By definition, the recording cannot respond, cannot support, cannot in any real sense accompany the singer – all it does is play along while the singer has to follow it slavishly, responding to the recording’s phrasing and tempo without being able to call on any of the gifts or instincts that make a musical theater actor great.

You say your pianist isn’t quite up to the task of playing the show, though, and so all of this glorious rhetoric about musical give-and-take is essentially moot – with an ill-equipped musician, what your production probably sounds like right now is Panic. The pianist panicking because the notes are going by and he’s missing them, the other musicians panicking because no one is leading them, and the actors panicking because they feel utterly at sea, doing their best to bring extremely difficult music to life without any solid ground under their feet and no air under their wings. The sound of Panic is horrible. It’s the worst sound in the world; it sounds like amateurs and fools.

Now, okay, can I be straight with you for a second? If your pianist can’t play the show, then he should be fired and replaced. (It could be a she, of course.) And then you should hire someone who’s up to the job. Of course, if you’re not paying very well, you may find it difficult to hire a pianist who can do it. But that’s what you should do. I’m glad you recognize that your pianist isn’t up to the gig – all too often, such incompetence passes unnoticed in the theater – but now that you’ve recognized it, it’s your job (and the job of your producer and your theater) to do everything in your power to respect the musical element of this show that you have chosen to stage and that you are charging people to attend. There is no excuse for asking an audience to sit through a bad performance.

You may, however, simply say “There’s no money for a better pianist.” Or there may be a political issue about firing the current piano player. At that stage, I have nothing left to offer. I understand that small theaters survive on tiny budgets and every penny is accounted for, and that a professional musician may be more than an amateur theater group can handle. But I didn’t write this music to be performed badly, and I don’t think you want it that way either – if you’re not prepared to create a professional product, then you have to be satisfied with whatever it is you’ve signed on to create. I can’t abet that lack of respect for the musical element of a show by sending out a recorded version of the score.

I wish you the best of luck on your production, and please let me know how it all plays out.


And if you’ve gotten this far, let me mention that you can now follow my inane tweets on Twitter because I’m a sucker and I signed up for the damn thing and now I spend all my time thinking up dumb bullshit to put on it. if you give a shit, and I swear I don’t take it personally if you don’t.