Posted on March 5, 2011 at 11:18 pm

Bryce Hallett’s profile available here.

Showman making musicals modern
by Bryce Hallett
The Age (Australia), February 28, 2011

JASON Robert Brown is not yet a household name, but his musical output and ambition rival that of Andrew Lloyd Webber. He has been hailed a champion for lifting the contemporary American musical out of the doldrums.

Brown’s musicals, including Songs for a New World and The Last Five Years, have been produced many times throughout the world, including Argentina, Germany, Hungary, Greece, Mexico and Australia.

A prodigious composer, lyricist, musician and teacher, Brown is about to embark on a whirlwind Australian tour produced by Your Management International, beginning in Melbourne tomorrow, when he will perform excerpts from his shows – old and new – and give public master classes.

Described as one of Broadway’s most original and probing songwriters since Stephen Sondheim, his first work Songs for a New World in 1995 brought to notice an exciting and uncompromising talent. He earned a Tony Award in 1999 for his score to Parade, written with Alfred Uhry and directed by Harold Prince.

Since the premiere of his one-act musical about a disintegrating relationship, The Last Five Years, in Chicago a decade ago, the composer has expanded his musical horizons to create novel and intimate works such as his 2007 musical 13 about the uprooting of a teenage boy from New York City to Appleton, Indiana, and big commercial shows like Urban Cowboy the Musical, to which he contributed.

”New York can be a forbidding place to create work that you believe in,” says Brown, who is writing a musical based on Andrew Bergman’s 1992 screen comedy Honeymoon in Vegas starring Nicolas Cage, James Caan and Sarah Jessica Parker.

”That patch of real estate brings a great deal of commercial pressure. It would be far healthier if there were centres away from New York where shows could gain legitimacy without the intense competition. One of the problems is that success tends to be judged purely on how long a show runs on Broadway.”

Brown’s teaching commitments and heavy workload, on and off Broadway, mean he seldom ventures to Australia. But he plans to make the most of his visit by performing and teaching in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, including at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

”Teaching is an integral part of my career; it feeds into my writing and has allowed me to meet people from all walks of life,” Brown says.

In his performer-based master classes, he offers aspiring theatre talents basic yet often unheeded advice about what makes a song tick and how to fathom and interpret its meaning. He insists that aspiring composers, singers and actors need guiding by inspirational mentors or teachers to achieve their own best standard.

Brown’s career – it encompasses musical direction and conducting – is almost a parallel universe, mirroring the divide between commerce and art. There’s the world of big, potentially-lucrative Broadway stage (Honeymoon in Vegas and The Bridges of Madison County), and then there’s the more specialised and challenging chamber works such as The Connector, an exploration of truth and lies in the media.

”It’s entirely non-commercial and it’s not built for a Broadway theatre,” Brown says. ”It’s a very contained piece about journalism scandals inspired by the Stephen Glass story. It looks at ethical issues and how the news is fabricated and no one takes responsibility.”

The Connector premieres in Chicago next year when it will be staged by Daisy Prince, who directed The Last Five Years, off-Broadway in 2002.

”Writing The Bridges of Madison County with Marsha [Norman] is an altogether difference experience to The Connector because it has broad commercial appeal and potential.” The adaptation is based on the James Waller novel that was made into the 1995 romantic drama film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.

Plans for the musical are well advanced and a reading of the first act is imminent.

Brown’s version of Honeymoon in Vegas has been optioned for a Broadway production next year.

Jason Robert Brown, Live & Intimate, National Theatre, St Kilda, tonight at 7.30pm. Public master class, Victorian College of the Arts, March 1 at 6.30pm