Posted on January 29, 2012 at 11:55 pm
Marty Hughley’s article here.
A really fantastic photo gallery is here.
Tony-winning composer Jason Robert Brown and Beaverton High grad turned Broadway star Shoshana Bean come to Portland
By Marty Hughley, The Oregonian
January 27, 2012
Arts and education walk hand in hand in many ways. Sometimes it’s a serendipitous stroll.
Take, for example, the string of connections that led to a Saturday night concert in Portland featuring Tony-winning composer Jason Robert Brown and Beaverton High grad turned Broadway star Shoshana Bean.
It started with the small Portland theater company Staged! and its plans to produce “13,” an engaging Brown musical about the social-psychological minefield of adolescence. Having presented Brown’s work before and hosted his 2010 Portland appearance as a singer/pianist, Staged! leveraged its relationship with the composer to get him to come to Portland to work with the young cast of “13.”
And since his previous concert here had been such a hit, another one seemed only natural. And since Staged! founder Chanda Hall knew that Brown and Bean both live in Los Angeles and had performed together, why not ask if Bean wanted to make a hometown visit, too? And while she was here to perform, she’d be great teaching a master class for young singers and actors.
“Education has always been a part of what we do,” Hall says. “To me that is part of being a true artist: nurturing the next generation.”
The general public won’t get to watch Brown coaching, but tickets are available to watch Bean’s master class and all can soak in their artistry at Saturday’s concert at the First Congregational United Church of Christ and then see further fruits of their expertise when the Staged! production of “13” opens Feb. 9.
JASON ROBERT BROWN
Composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown hasn’t had a show on Broadway since his “13” played for a few months in 2008. But that hardly means he’s been taking it easy.
Among the writing projects he has in the pipeline are musical adaptations of “Honeymoon in Vegas” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” As a performer he has an upcoming PBS special with fellow Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose. He’ll direct the West End premiere of “13” in London this summer, and he’s the music supervisor on “The Prince of Broadway,” set to open in November, a high-profile musical celebrating legendary producer/director Harold Prince, who hired Brown to write music for the 1999 Tony winner “Parade.”
Amid all this, though, Brown finds time for visits such as the one he’ll make to Portland this weekend, where he’ll perform Saturday evening at First Congregational United Church of Christ, after working with the cast of an upcoming local production of “13.”
The combination of concerts and workshops on his material is something Brown does around the country when his schedule permits. “It does my heart good to know that the work is out there,” he says by phone recently from his home in Los Angeles. “And ’13’ in particular needs love, because it’s hard to make a show work well when there are only kids in it.”
Brown, who also has a band called the Caucasian Rhythm Kings, fits in 15-20 concerts a year, either as a solo performer — as he did in a rapturously received show in 2010 at Miracle Theatre — or with guest singers such as Shoshana Bean, who will join him here Saturday.
“I love doing the concerts,” he says. “I feel like it drives my writing if I’m out there embodying the work. When I’m onstage, I sometimes think ‘I’m missing something here. I need a song about X’ — and then I can go write it.”
Brown’s deft, rhythmically driving piano playing and assured, flexible baritone can make you overlook how technically demanding his music can be. “I tend to believe that everyone’s going to come up to the level that you ask of them,” he says. “Besides, it’s only adults who will complain about the material being difficult. I’ve never had a child performer say ‘I can’t do this.’ They say, ‘Let me work on this some more.'”
There’s a lot of talk these days about a resurgence of interest in musical theater among American youth. And Brown — who was inspired early by such composers as Stephen Schwartz (“Pippin,” “Godspell”) and Stephen Sondheim (“Sweeney Todd”) and now also teaches at the University of Southern California — is in a position to see that fresh interest firsthand.
“I still wish there were more boys into it,” he says. “But musical theater always was seen as weird and outsidery, and it still seems weird and outsidery.
“It’s just that now we’re celebrating its weird outsideriness.”
Shoshana Bean moves easily between the worlds of pop music and musical theater. And if, for the moment, her heart belongs more to the former, she’s not about to disavow the latter.
When she speaks to The Oregonian in a recent phone interview from her current home in Los Angeles, she’s on her way to an afternoon yoga class but is still abuzz with the excitement of the previous night’s performance.
“There’s nothing like last night, being in a packed club and playing my music with people screaming,” she says. “But then, there’s nothing like a Broadway musical either.”
It was the Broadway musical “Wicked” that made the Beaverton High grad a star when she took over for Idina Menzel in the featured role of Elphaba during the original production.
These days, however, her focus is on furthering — and redirecting — the pop career she launched with 2008’s “Superhero,” an album of slickly produced R&B.
“My sound now is so vastly different,” she says. “It’s a lot more authentic, throwback, vintage soul music. We’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of years redirecting my audience about what to expect.”
But musical theater still can draw her back into its fold. She spent much of last year on “a sort of ‘Funny Girl’ update” called “Dear John Mayer,” a show she co-wrote with Eydie Faye and starred in at Los Angeles’ Open Fist Theatre Company. And this weekend in Portland she’ll share her musical theater expertise, with both a Saturday night concert and a sold-out Sunday afternoon master class.
Of Saturday’s performance with composer/pianist/singer Jason Robert Brown, Bean says, “He’s the star, I’m the guest.” Even so, Brown is unstinting in his praise of Bean, calling her voice “the most technically proficient and musical vocal instrument I’ve found in — almost forever” and describing singing with her as “one of the great joys of my life.”
“We have a really special connection musically,” Bean confirms. “He’s such a brilliant writer for women. Everyone’s drawn to his songs because the lyrics are so easy to relate to — raw and gut-wrenchingly honest — and the arrangements are stunning. He’s incredibly soulful and influenced by rock and soul in a way that most theatrical composers and players aren’t. But his music is deceptively difficult; it’s always a challenge.
“Jason’s one of the few composers who move me deeply. Whenever he calls, I bend over backwards to work with him.”
STAGED! AND THE MUSICAL “13”
Packed into a cramped second-floor rehearsal room at Southeast Portland’s Theater! Theatre!, the cast of “13” runs through the song “Brand New You,” singing and dancing the show’s spirited finale.
“That, to me, looks like a bunch of focused professionals,” director Paul Angelo says, as the performers catch their breath afterward. “You’ve been doing some homework. Really nice.”
Angelo’s comment comes as high praise especially because the show is about middle-school students and cast with appropriately young performers. And those performers will get an extra boost this weekend when Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the music and lyrics for “13,” comes to Portland to help get them ready for the show’s Feb. 9 opening.
“My job is to encourage them and to give them the tools and permission to unlock themselves to explore, to feel free to make big stupid choices, or little delicate choices that no one may notice,” Brown says about advising young performers. “I find myself saying, ‘Look, it’s just better when you’re you.’ It’s like watching them blossom by rolling the boulder away from where they’re growing.”
Brown also has been a boon to the growth of Staged!, the musical theater company that’s producing “13” here. In the summer of 2010, Staged! (with help from Miracle Theatre Group) presented a series of performances and educational workshops focused on Brown’s writing, including a production of his 1995 revue “Songs for a New World” that won four Drammy Awards. The theaters also brought Brown to town for a sold-out solo performance that showcased his captivating skills as pianist and raconteur.
But it might be “13,” which played on Broadway in 2008, that fits best with the evolving identity of Staged!.
Founded in 2005 by Chanda Hall, the company has made a subspecialty out of its work with and for students. In addition to youth summer camps in musical theater, Staged! has performed an all-student version of “Les Misérables” and cast mostly teenagers in its spring production of “Big River.”
“‘We grow artists’ is our motto,” Hall says. “And you have all these hugely talented kids in this area who don’t want to be doing children’s theater. We’ve had a lot of feedback that (material for a teen sensibility is) something that’s needed.”
“She’s so mission driven about what she’s putting on stage,” says Oregon Children’s Theatre artistic director Stan Foote, whom Hall credits as a valued mentor. “And she loves the kids and wants them to succeed.”
Brown’s “13” provides lots of opportunities for success, with a story about the challenges of growing up and fitting in, and a range of roles representing the complex social strata of an American school. “We realized something was connecting with kids and parents when we offered it as a summer camp show,” says Hall. “It’s the thinking kid’s ‘High School Musical.’ It’s not sanitized — you hear Brown’s snarky, dry wit come through. And we’ve all been 13, so everybody relates to at least one of the characters.”
The show also keeps alive a fruitful relationship with Brown, among the most respected of younger Broadway composers.
“I think we’re still trying to figure out who we are as a company,” Hall says. “And one thing that sparks my imagination is connecting with living writers and composers. I want to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s coming next in musical theater.”
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