The Chicago Tribune
Richard Christiansen

We are about to get, at last, a good chance to hear the music of Jason Robert Brown. The 31-year-old composer won the Tony Award for the best score of a Broadway musical in 1999 for "Parade," but the musical, which took up almost five years of his life, closed in New York after 84 performances and never made it to Chicago in its short national tour last year.

Earlier this season, he performed a few of his songs in cabaret style for a brief run at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, and several of his show songs, including those for "Parade," have been recorded.

But his first prolonged stand in the Chicago area comes Wednesday when "The Last Five Years," his semi-autobiographical, two-person musical, has its premiere at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, with Brown at the piano and conducting a six-piece band. A commission from Lincoln Center Theatre in New York, which produced "Parade," it is scheduled to move there some time after its Northlight run.

The musical chronicles the rise and fall of a love affair in 14 songs, one for each scene. It stars Norbert Butz, who was the emcee in the touring production of "Cabaret" that played here in 1999, and Lauren Kennedy, another performer with a raft of Broadway credits. All of their songs are solos, except one, which takes place at their wedding. Otherwise, they sing alone, he starting at the beginning, with their first date, and she at the end of their affair, meeting only in the middle for the wedding.

Smart, edgy and ambitious, Brown is eager to get this new, personal musical on the boards. "After `Parade,’ " he says, "I wanted to do something that was not very big — and that was mine."

"Parade," in fact, had been a very difficult job for him. He got to know its fabled director, Harold Prince, through having worked as a rehearsal pianist on Prince’s production of "Kiss of the Spider Woman"; and Prince’s daughter Daisy, who is staging "The Last Five Years" here, had also directed "Songs for a New World," a revue of Brown songs that had enjoyed a well-received off-Broadway run.

Stephen Sondheim originally had been set to write the "Parade" score, but he pulled out of the project, Brown says. Prince, recognizing the young composer’s talent, brought him in to write the score.

"Parade," set in the Deep South in 1913, tells of a Northern Jew in Atlanta who was accused of murdering a 13-year-old white girl and lynched by a mob. "It was a difficult, dark show," Brown says, "and the whole experience was very hard on me. I did my best, but, in the end, it was not really a composer’s show anyway. It was a director’s show.

"And it didn’t seem to mean anything. We opened around Christmas time with a show in which the leading man is lynched, and nobody wanted to see it. It never made money. It lost money in New York; it lost money on the tour.

"I don’t mean to whine, but I won a Tony and nobody called. If I hadn’t written it, nobody would have cared either. And, besides that, a lot of my life was going through [a rough patch], including a very difficult divorce."

Yet "Parade" had majesty in its score, as well as in its staging. Though Brown insists that he was not familiar or comfortable with the period in which the musical takes place, he wrote some distinguished songs. The show’s opening number, "The Old Red Hills of Home," for example, is a splendid work of dark, ironic power. If writing this score was a hard job for Brown, it was nonetheless a job well done.

"The Last Five Years" takes him to a smaller, more intimate scale and gives him the opportunity to express himself more fully.

In person, he’s extremely good at expressing himself. Talking to a group of Northwestern University students earlier this year, he was precise and encouraging in criticizing their first, exuberant efforts at musical theater. "They were me," he says, "12 years ago."

Raised in Ossining, N.Y., he comes from a family where "going to a Broadway show was a regular part of life." He did some acting, "as a very high-pitched Che in a production of `Evita,"’ but early on he turned to composing, rather than singing.

He studied music for two years at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., but, he says, "I had wanted to be Billy Joel for as long as I can remember, just sitting at my piano and belting out my songs."

Other influences ranged from Joni Mitchell to Charles Ives, and, "It makes me cringe to say it, but, yes, Stephen Sondheim, who is inescapable if you’re talking about musical theater."

Working in cabarets and piano bars when he came to New York, he wanted his own songs to get attention, so he put together a batch of them into what turned out to be the "Songs for New World" show. "I had intended it to be a calling card," he says. "It was me, showing off that I could do all these things. It ran for three weeks at the WPA Theatre off-Broadway, but, thanks to producer Billy Rosenfield at RCA, it was recorded, and pretty soon it was selling steadily. Now the show is getting about 40 productions a year. I make some money out of that and other things, like the occasional college and university classes. Whatever happens, I’m not going to be a waiter!"

His work method, he says, is to think of a title for a song first. "I have to start with a title, because I need something to build to. I just sit down, bang away on the piano and sing out the title over and over until I start to get a feeling for the song. It sometimes takes a long while before I get it, but I keep chiseling away and then it clicks in.

"I think I write OK music, and pretty good lyrics, but I’m very good at structure. I can make a dramatic moment work, because I structure it well."