Posted on January 20, 2014 at 4:34 pm
Lorne Manly’s profile in the New York Times Arts and Leisure section is on the
You’ve Got Another Chance, Broadway
Jason Robert Brown, Back in New York, With ‘Madison County’
by LORNE MANLY, Jan. 16, 2014
The composer Jason Robert Brown is never happier than when surrounded by musicians. Kibitzing with the string section, directing the percussionist to feather in the high-hat more softly, poking fun at his own orchestrations, Mr. Brown, 43, was in his element on a recent Thursday at a musical theater ritual known as the sitzprobe, an evocative German term for the first time the full orchestra plays with the cast.
It’s the joyous occasion before the real-world complications set in — harsh reviews, saggy box office — complications with which Mr. Brown, who won a Tony at 28 but has never had a real New York hit, is unfortunately most familiar.
And so Mr. Brown eagerly took the baton for the hootenanny that kicks off Act II of “The Bridges of Madison County,” the hotly anticipated show for which he’s written the music and lyrics. Foot stomping and head bobbing, an animated Mr. Brown conducted his 10-piece orchestra with controlled abandon, a contented smile on his angular Abe Lincoln face.
By all rights, 2014 should be Mr. Brown’s moment. The $8 million production of “Bridges,” starring the Broadway darling Kelli O’Hara, opens on Feb. 20 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater after a warmly received run last summer in Williamstown, Mass. “Honeymoon in Vegas,” his buoyant reimagining of the 1992 movie, is expected to land on Broadway next season. And a film of “The Last Five Years,” his chamber musical exorcising the ghosts of a busted marriage, should reach theaters soon.
After more than eight years in Los Angeles, he’s back in New York, with his wife and two young daughters, to take it in.
If only the arduous world of making a modern Broadway musical were about the melodies, the lyrics, the singers and the orchestra cohering into a beautiful whole, as it is during a celebratory sitzprobe. But Mr. Brown, who walked away from it all about a decade ago, knows better.
Some of his shows have come to be staples in high schools and colleges, where he is a musical theater god, and favorites of small theaters across the country and around the world. But success has eluded him here. The downbeat musical “Parade,” for which he won the Tony, closed after two months. The semiautobiographical “13” lasted not much longer.
The hurt may run deep, but he will be the first to admit it. Self-deprecation comes naturally to Mr. Brown, whose sense of humor runs toward the sarcastic, ironic, sometimes corny and playfully intellectual. (He and his best friend, Joel Fram, text each other photos of grammatically incorrect signs.)
In this and other ways, he can seem like a man out of time. He frets that there isn’t a place for heartfelt and musically and lyrically complex shows on a Broadway dominated by industrial entertainments, for the type of musicals he burns to write. “I feel like some sort of weird haberdasher,” he said, “like I’m doing something so arcane and antique.”
Growing up in Monsey, N.Y., about 50 minutes north of Manhattan, Mr. Brown’s family was not a musical one. There was no Broadway cast album epiphany. Yet at the age of 8, he begged for a piano, started writing his own pop songs at 9 or 10, and at 11 began attending performing arts camp.
He can rattle off not just the Broadway shows he’s seen — his first, at the age of 7, was “The Wiz” — but also the Broadway theaters in which they played. The home for “13,” his musical about a smart-alecky New York teenager transplanted to small-town Indiana, used to be called the Royale, and that’s where Mr. Brown saw “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine” with his father nearly three decades earlier. They sat in the very last row, with their seats purchased from TKTS. “Every day in that theater, I would look up, and I would know where my dad and I were,” he said, his voice breaking slightly.
“So it means a lot to me to be in those buildings,” he said. “It means a lot to me to be part of this. That was the point. That was what I was supposed to be doing, is to be here. It’s just been a rough ride.”
The difficult subject matter of “Parade” — anti-Semitism, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan — proved a hard sell. “The Last Five Years” opened Off Broadway not long after Sept. 11 and played for just two months. And even a brand-name title like “Urban Cowboy,” for which he served as musical director and onstage bandleader (and contributed five songs), closed after just 60 regular performances.
Job offers were not plentiful, partly because of an outspokenness that could be — and often was — taken for arrogance. “I’ve never been accused of having a surfeit of tact,” Mr. Brown acknowledged.
When a gig teaching musical theater performance and composition at the University of Southern California came up, he and his second wife, Georgia Stitt, moved in 2005 to Los Angeles. The sojourn soon became more permanent. Mr. Brown decided he had enough of Broadway. In case no one was paying attention, a song on a 2005 solo album, “Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes,” carried the title “Getting Out.”
“He got mad at New York,” said Alfred Uhry, who wrote the book for “Parade” and who remains a close friend.
The insular world of musical theater, and his place within it, nagged at him. “He didn’t like walking through Midtown and seeing the marquees of shows that were running when his wasn’t,” Ms. Stitt said.
She added: “He has often said he is looking for — what’s the word he uses? — sanctuary, and it’s hard for him to find sanctuary in New York.”
Mr. Brown said he was at peace with the decision. “I liked theater, but I thought they don’t have room for me, so it doesn’t matter anymore,” he said.
Yet his wife, friends and colleagues all suspected — or hoped — that Mr. Brown was not done.
“I’ve never known a composer who at some point hasn’t been ready to give up,” said Harold Prince, the director of hits like “Cabaret” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” who hired Mr. Brown as a rehearsal pianist in the 1990s before choosing him to write “Parade.” “But he didn’t give up.”
“I don’t see how someone with all that stirring within could quit,” he added.
What brought Mr. Brown back was “13.” A collaboration with the writers Dan Elish and Robert Horn, which would feature a cast and band where no one would be older than 17, “13” began more as a lark.
But sitting in the audience at a public performance of a workshop for the musical in early 2007, he felt overwhelmed. “I really thought, ‘Nobody else does this the way I do it,’ ” he said. “I shouldn’t be so cavalier about it, assuming I can leave it behind.”
Yet he pushed ahead with a lot of reluctance, knowing full well that a trip to Broadway could be another chance to be rejected. He was right. But Mr. Brown was back in for good — or ill.
Those contradictory feelings are baked into Mr. Brown’s very being. “I’m ambivalent about everything,” he offered without prompting over a December lunch.
“No one does, and I especially don’t, like to be rejected,” he added. “And so in order to avoid that, I have developed a very strong wall of ambivalence. It’s not phony. I’ll take it or leave it. It’s all O.K. with me. But it does matter to me enormously to be working on Broadway; it does matter enormously to be able to work with the caliber of people that I’m doing, in this city, in these buildings, at this time.”
Those mixed emotions power his work as well — even in this newest and in some ways most unlikely project, an adaptation of Robert James Waller’s blockbuster novel about the romance between an Italian immigrant farm wife and a roving photographer in Somerset, Iowa, circa 1965. “I think he understands when people are ambivalent or in pain, without question, deeply,” said Bartlett Sher, the musical’s director. “So he can write the anxiety and longing to the piece.”
“Like a great fiction writer,” he continued, “he’s able to step into the shoes of the character and make a sound around it.”
The shape shifting began early. At his bar mitzvah, he performed a song about breaking up with a girlfriend. That the precocious Jason Robert Brown had not yet had a girlfriend did not really matter.
His musically disparate work has its through lines. The music is piano-centric, groove-driven, high-energy, even in the ballads, a nod to the influence Billy Joel has had on him. (“I thought I was going to be Billy Joel, as I think every Jewish kid who played the piano then would have told you,” he said.) And the characters share some of Mr. Brown’s ambivalent essence in their verbally dexterous lyrics.
Marsha Norman, the book writer for “Bridges,” had collaborated with Mr. Brown on another project, aimed at children. When she was approached to turn the novel into a musical, she knew she had found their return engagement: the musical theater equivalent of “La Traviata” Mr. Brown desired to write.
The two sought out Ms. O’Hara as they opened up the novel’s Midwestern world. A state fair scene was added, as were new characters, in part to provide comic relief.
“There’s actually more humor than you think,” Ms. Norman said. (She and Mr. Brown banter easily, often adopting Boris and Natasha Russian accents for conversations both serious and silly.)
In creating the unabashedly romantic score, with its soaring strings and sweeping Italian operatic flourishes, Mr. Brown composed on guitar rather than on the usual piano. “I am ultimately a mush ball,” Mr. Brown said. “So I have all this mush I wanted to write.”
As for the lyrics? “There’s a lack of neurosis, let’s just say, because he’s not writing about urban people,” Ms. Norman said.
Yet even here, Mr. Brown reveals something of himself. The show, like the novel, is suffused with loss. “That sense of an extraordinary emotional connection combined with the sense that you will have it only fleetingly is very strong for me.” Mr. Brown said.
He added, “I know there is in me a very profound and not deeply buried core of something very sad.”
Mr. Brown does not mean to sound maudlin. He actually seems happier in his life and career than ever. Friends chalk that up to a successful marriage, fatherhood and plain old maturity that comes (one hopes) with getting older. And they think he’s now better able to handle the inevitable disappointments prevalent in the crucible of Broadway.
Another box office and critical dud would be “a drag,” Mr. Brown admitted, making it harder “to keep the career going on a certain level.”
But “The Bridges of Madison County” was the show he wanted to write, and he believes that his music will find its place in the world, he said.
Searching for a metaphor with which to elaborate, the consummate musician picked an instrument. The pipe organ, he said, is so large that the sound emerges two to three seconds after you blow into it; you just have to trust that you’re on track.
“I now write with faith,” Mr. Brown said. “I know that people will get it. I just can’t expect them to get it right now. And I could not have told you that when I was 25.”