2002-02-28
Associated Press
Justin Glanville

NEW YORK (AP): New York City 1990. Jason Robert Brown, a 20-year-old songwriter disillusioned with the stuffy academics of music school, moves to Greenwich Village with dreams of writing a Broadway musical. To make ends meet, he takes a job in a smoky piano bar, pounding out songs from "Hello, Dolly!" and "Peter Pan."

One night several years later, a young theater director named Daisy Prince wanders into the bar. Brown plays one of his own tunes for her.

"Amazing song," Prince says. "You should send a copy to my Uncle Steve."

"Uncle Steve?" Brown wonders to himself.

Later, it hits him. Daisy Prince is the daughter of legendary Broadway director Harold Prince. And "Uncle Steve" is Stephen Sondheim, the father of contemporary musical theater and a longtime collaborator of Harold Prince.

Nearly a decade later, Brown and Daisy Prince are unveiling a new musical off-Broadway. "The Last Five Years," written by Brown and directed by Prince, opens March 3 at the Minetta Lane Theatre.

Almost entirely in song, it tells the story of a star-crossed couple _ the man is a novelist, the woman a budding singer _ but with a twist. The man relates his story from beginning to end, while the woman tells hers in reverse.

On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Minetta Lane, Brown and Prince are relaxing between preview performances, trying to decide what to eat for dinner. They argue playfully over the options, like a battle-scarred but still-affectionate married couple.

In both appearance and manner, they are a study in opposites. Brown, 31, is deadpan and soft-spoken. He has dark hair and a long, somber face. Prince, 36, is blond, outgoing and constantly in motion. "I’m very loud," she says.

But they are alike in their enthusiasm for "The Last Five Years."

For Brown, writing the show was a chance to return to his roots _ confessional songwriting in the style of Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon.

"The Last Five Years" is an intensely personal work that in many respects mirrors the last few years of his own life. The novelist in the musical, like Brown, achieves notoriety at an early age. But his wife’s performing career never takes off, leaving her frustrated and envious of her husband’s success. Eventually, the two split; Brown’s own marriage to an aspiring actress foundered recently.

The musical’s emotional intimacy has proved demanding for its stars. "It would be easier to be naked on stage than to do this material," says Sherie Rene Scott, who plays the wife. "It’s so raw and emotional."

Prince says the show’s subject matter gives it a universal appeal. "Most people over the age of 12 have had a relationship and can see parts of both of those people in themselves," she says. "You want them to stay together, even though you know they’re not going to."

The unorthodox structure of "The Last Five Years" made her job as director all the more challenging. "It’s a puzzle, and I love puzzles," she says. "My task was to figure out my piece of the puzzle _ how do you fit all of the pieces together, how does the show move, what does it look like."

Writing the show was a welcome change of pace for Brown, whose last project was "Parade," a 1998 musical he did with playwright Alfred Uhry and director Harold Prince. It flopped on Broadway.

Although Brown won a Tony for his score, trying to reconcile his creative goals with those of the director and playwright was a constant struggle. "It was more of a learning experience than a creative one," he says.

"The Last Five Years" is the second formal collaboration for Brown and Daisy Prince. The first, "Songs for a New World," was a song cycle born out of their initial meeting in 1992 that . It was given hen "Songs" was given an off-Broadway production at the WPA Theater, the two cultivated a respectful yet informal rapport that has remained the bedrock of their working relationship.

They would meet in Brown’s studio apartment in the West Village to hash out ideas. Brown would play his compositions for Prince, using his foot _ "his own internal drum set," she says _ to tap out rhythmic accompaniments. She would offer feedback and help him shape his compositions into a cohesive whole.

At first, Brown says, he tried to tailor his songs to what he thought audiences’ tastes were.

"My first inclination was to make them more Pollyanna," he says. "As a result, I was writing things that were patently untrue for me. And Daisy really got me out of that. She kept pushing me back to the things I did well."

Their working habits haven’t changed much, although Brown has since left the studio apartment for more spacious quarters.

What makes their partnership tick? "We just trust each other to do our jobs," Brown says. "And that was sort of instantaneous."

"They’re like a comedy team, like George Burns and Gracie Allen," says Norbert Leo Butz, Scott’s co-star in "The Last Five Years."

"When the cast and crew go out after shows, no one else really talks because they’re so funny together," Butz says.

Prince says her father’s collaboration and friendship with Sondheim – a relationship she says brought the two men great joy – is a model.

"It’s something to aspire to," she says. "To be able to work together and maintain a friendship, that’s an amazing thing."

But then she cuts herself off, quick to downplay any comparison. "I mean, I love this show. But we have a lot to learn, both of us."


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