Jason Robert Brown has won a Tony Award and praise from critics and for the last several years has been heralded as one of the brightest new young talents in musical theater. He has enough songs to perform an entire program of them Monday at Quality Hill Playhouse.
And he has yet to write a hit show — you know, a show like “Spamalot,” which can demand $309 for a decent seat.
He made a splash with “Parade,” an ambitious musical for which he claimed a 1999 Tony, but the show was a tough sell in the age of expensive tickets and unbridled irreverence. The story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was wrongly convicted of the 1913 murder of a teenage girl in Atlanta and later lynched, just didn’’t sound like a fun night out, despite the track records of director Hal Prince and playwright Alfred Urhy.
“It was not a commercially successful show in any sense of the word,” Brown said by telephone from Los Angeles. “But I think what we had was the momentum of people who really love adventurous musical theater, which is the kind of thing I want to do. You know, the crowd that wanted to see ‘La Cage aux Folles,’ the crowd that wanted to see ‘The Producers,’ that crowd didn’t like ‘Parade’ much. They thought it was so dark, so depressing, why are you telling a story about a lynching?”
But Brown is a realist. He knows that those are the people who make up the major audience for musicals in New York.
“What most people go to a Broadway show to see is ‘Guys and Dolls.’ They want to see something very light and funny and happy, something that affirms their goodness and their right to spend $100 to see a night of theater,” he said. “I don’t even disagree with them on any material basis. It just happens to be the kind of show I don’t generally write.”
“Parade” has enjoyed an afterlife in small regional theaters and university playhouses, including a 2003 production mounted by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City.
“The people who love the musical theater, see what it can be and what it can do, those are the people who rallied behind our show,” he said. “And it’s had an interesting life not only on Broadway, where it had a relatively short run, but then we toured for six months . . . and it’s begun to feel to me now . . . that there’s a kind of groundswell around this show. I can’t tell you why.”
Brown, 35, was born and raised in Westchester, N.Y., and got interested in music early. He had become a prolific songwriter in high school.
“I was that kid who wanted to be Billy Joel,” he said.
Brown attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., but dropped out after two years. “I just hated it,” he said. Then he had to decide what to do next.
“I thought, ‘I’m not exactly a rock star, but I’m certainly not a classical composer,’?” he said. “Musical theater was the thing I understood best.”
At the age of 20, he packed up and move to New York City. He took jobs conducting, arranging, staging cabaret shows and working as a musical director. Along the way he wrote his first show, “Songs From Another World,” which was first staged by the WPA Theatre. That got the attention of Prince, who asked him if wanted to work with Urhy, the prize-winning author of “Driving Miss Daisy,” on a musical about Leo Frank.
“I couldn’t pass that up,” he said.
Brown will perform Monday’s show with Broadway actress Emily Skinner, who was nominated for a Tony in “Sideshow.” Brown said he does a lot of these shows, mainly in support of his solo album “Wearing Somebody Else’s Clothes.”
“In this case I wrote all these songs that I didn’t have a home for otherwise so I decided I’d record them,” he said. “The problem is when you’re doing a show there are people who can go every night and see it, but when you do a record nobody knows about it. The only way they know about it is you go and tell them, ‘We did it.’ ” So it’s been fun. I haven’t been home on the weekend in a long time.”
Brown teaches at the University of Southern California and is working on three new shows. One, “Thirteen,” employs a cast of 13 13-year-olds and is scheduled for a workshop performance in January at the Mark Taper Forum. He’s also working on a musical version of “Honeymoon in Vegas” with Andy Bergman, who wrote and directed the movie.
“We hope to have a reading of that show in May in New York,” he said. “So both of those are sort of on the boil, and we’ll see what happens. They’re both much more accessible projects than ‘Parade’… and I’m excited to see what happens in a more commercial arena.”
Jason Robert Brown will perform with Broadway vocalist Emily Skinner at 8 p.m. Monday at Quality Hill Playhouse, 303 W. 10th St. Tickets cost $23. Call (816) 421-1700 or go to www.qualityhillplayhouse.com http://www.qualityhillplayhouse.com/.
Brown will also lead a master class with professionals and music students at 8 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free, but reservations are required. Call the playhouse.