Posted on March 8, 2011 at 8:35 am

Mark Shenton’s blog for posted here.

I’ve got a singular impression things are moving too fast…
By Mark Shenton on March 8, 2011 5:59 AM

Is there a more in-the-moment, zeitgeist-y composer on the Broadway block than Jason Robert Brown? Catching up with him live in concert last night in Sydney, where he is appearing as part of a national tour that is visiting all the major Australian cities this week and into next, I realised that he has provided a touchstone for the last two decades of new musical writing; not because he has had a single stand-out hit, but more particularly because he hasn’t.

Here’s the finest musical dramatist of his generation who is able to write songs that are entire musicals in themselves in the depth of storytelling that they embrace, but he’s not been able to buck the system that Broadway now typically operates under: a disconcerting mix of the over-familiar and under-nourished, where spectacle has usurped content (Spider-man is guilty as charged on all three counts).

Occasionally, a show like Next to Normal (not written by him) slips under that radar, but Jason Robert Brown, for all the ambitious nature of his own writing that has seen him write Broadway musicals about a Jewish man being framed for murder and a precocious teenager being plunged into an unfamiliar new world in Parade and 13 respectively, is yet to have a serious commercial hit, even if the former won him a Tony Award for his score.

In fact, in the scheme of things, he has a relatively limited repertoire of produced shows at all; apart from those, there are the off-Broadway shows Songs for a New World and The Last 5 Years, as well as contributions to Urban Cowboy, and – inevitably – a whole raft of works-in-development, including currently musical versions of Honeymoon in Vegas and The Bridges of Madison County. (A song he performed last night from Honeymoon in Vegas has the irresistible line, “Only suckers go to Foxwood’s”, which of course refers to the casino chain but is also now the name of a Broadway theatre, currently housing Spider-man, the loser of a musical which is even now looking at replacing its director Julie Taymor, according to a report in today’s New York Times).

And yet he has too acquired a following that may not have been possible in the pre-internet era: whenever I’ve seen him, from London (where he has variously done concert shows at the New Players and Garrick Theatres) and New York (at the jazz club Birdland) to Sydney, there’s a huge coterie of devotees who greet each song with whoops and cheers like a long-lost friend.

Of course, his online following may have translated into followers, but not necessarily people who pay to appreciate his work (except in live concert arenas like last night); referring to his brilliant solo CD “Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes”, he acerbically added, “which you’ve probably downloaded for free from the internet.”

This has been one of his particular bugbears, of course – last year he waged a public campaign against those downloading free sheet music, which I reported on here at the time, but may be a losing battle. But without royalties coming in from the shows themselves (though I’m sure amateur and stock rights for Songs for a New World, for instance, will count for something), Brown has to obviously put himself on the road; and it is lucky that is such a supremely gifted interpreter of his own work. He may come across as a slightly nerdier version of Billy Joel, but he brings considerably more passion to it.

Life is full of coincidences, and the overlapping worlds I’m living in is neatly encapsulated by the fact that last night I saw Brown and today I have travelled to Melbourne to spend time with Philip Quast, who is appearing here in Mary Poppins at the moment. For Quast’s 2002 season as the first of the male Divas at the Donmar, his musical director was none other than Jason Robert Brown! And yesterday, too, I got a message from Jeremy Sams that he was Australia-bound this coming weekend, asking if I’d still be around when he gets here – and Jeremy, of course, directed the Broadway production of Brown’s 13 that I first saw in its out-of-town try-out at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut.

Perhaps all of us simply move in too rarefied a world, though I like to think that there’s something all three of them have in common, and that’s a fierce, independent talent that has drawn them to each other – and me to them.

And another pair of coincidences: Brown was appearing at NIDA’s Parade Theatre. NIDA (the National Institute of Dramatic Art) is the foremost drama school in Australia – the one that Philip Quast attended (as a contemporary of Mel Gibson and Judy Davis); and of course there simply couldn’t be a more appropriate address for Brown to appear at than one called the Parade, given that it is also the name of his most celebrated show.