2001-05-01
Stagebill Magazine
Jason Robert Brown

I want you to know something about people who write musicals: We all know what will make a big hit. If we write a funny, kid-friendly show for a big star based on a well-known property, we know we’ll have a hit. The gang writing a musical about the fathers of preventive dentistry knows this. The guy writing a show about a Hindu fish salesman in Argentina knows this.  The Sylvia Plathsical? I’m telling you, they know.  Here’s the important part: that’s what we all think we’re doing. We think you really want to see that show about a paraplegic painter and her large snapping turtle. We think that that show is going to make us really rich. At some point between the moment when the idea comes to us and the moment we start thinking about how to write that big 11 o’clock number for Catherine the Great’s horse, we become convinced that our idea is not only not crazy, but the logical evolution of human artistic achievement -cave paintings, the Sistine Chapel, Brahms symphonies, and now Stieglitz! The Musical. This collective hysteria affects every single one of us who works in this genre. I cannot explain it.

So the fact that Harold Prince and Alfred Uhry wanted to do a musical about Leo Frank, a Jewish factory owner who was lynched in Georgia in 1915, did not seem at all unusual to me. I fell in love with the idea immediately, happily signed on, and was soon spinning fantasies about my dream house in Trieste. There we all were for four years, churning out this grim and upsetting story, all of us doing (if I may say so) really sterling work. I doubt that I will ever be as proud of anything in my life. It did not occur to any of us that we were not writing a stone-solid hit. We even opened this musical about a murder and a lynching at Christmas.

Parade played for less than four months. I did get a Tony Award, which is no small honor, but I couldn’t help thinking that this was no way to run a career.

So I decided for my next project, I would do what I should have done from the beginning. I thought about a Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical, a Batman musical, a Valley of the Dolls musical. Couldn’t get the rights.  So while I waited for my big hit to show up, I decided to write a little song cycle for two singers and a small chamber ensemble. Just a little piece that would be contemporary, familiar, and, most importantly, just for me. I didn’t care if anyone ever saw it.

The little song cycle has become a show, called The Last Five Years. It is the story of a man and woman who fall in love only to find that they cannot possibly stay together. It has two wonderful performers, an extraordinary director, and a great team of designers. It is the best work I’ve ever done. It is really funny and powerfully emotional. It is the least likely musical I could possibly have conceived.

I think it’s gonna be a smash.

ORIGINAL DRAFT: (925 words)

I am not a shrewd tactician when it comes to my career in the theater.  The first show that I wrote was called “Songs for a New World” – it was a collection of songs I had written over a number of years, designed to be performed by four singers of positively superhuman endurance.  I don’t know what I was thinking – no producer in his or her right mind would try to put on a plotless revue written by an unknown.  (Luckily, I found a producer who was not in his right mind at the WPA Theater in New York City.  I will not take all the credit, but the WPA Theater no longer exists.)   The show was produced, ran for about eight and a half minutes, nobody came, we closed.

Here’s the thing you should know about people who write musicals: we all know what will make a big hit, and we’re right.  If we write a funny show for a big star based on a well-known property, and you can take the kids for a great evening out, we know we’ll have a hit.  We all know this.  The gang who are writing a musical about the fathers of preventive dentistry know this.  The guy writing a show about a paraplegic war criminal in Argentina knows this.  A woman who is just now starting her song-filled tribute to “Berlin Alexanderplatz” knows this.  We all know it.  Here’s the important part: that’s what we think we’re doing.  We think you really want to see that show about a suicidal lesbian painter and her confidante, a large snapping turtle.  We think that that show is going to make us really rich.  At some point between the moment when the idea comes to us and the moment we start thinking about how to write that big eleven o’clock number for Eva Braun, we become convinced that our idea is not only not crazy, but the logical evolution of human artistic achievement – there were cave paintings, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Brahms symphonies, Rodin, and now “Stieglitz! The Musical.”  This collective hysteria affects every single one of us who work in this genre.  I cannot explain it.

So the fact that two of the most lauded and respected figures in the entire entertainment industry, with more than a hundred years of experience between them, wanted to do a musical about the case of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory owner who was lynched in Georgia in 1915, did not seem at all unusual to me.  And I fell in love with the idea immediately and happily signed on, and was soon spinning fantasies about my fantasy house in Trieste.  There we all were, churning out this grim and upsetting story, all of us doing (if I may say so myself) really sterling work, and it did not occur to any of us that we were not writing a stone-solid hit.  Socko.  Big time.  For the height of hubris, we opened a musical about a murder and a lynching at Christmas.

Of course, I am not saying Parade was not a worthy endeavor.  I doubt that I will ever be as proud of anything in my life.  But the essential nature of musical theater is that it is a commercial entity – it sprung from a desire to make a lot of money, and people who work in it expect to be rewarded with a lot of money.  We didn’t do Parade at some small theater in the East Village, we did it on Broadway, and we were all amazed, every single one of us from the producer to the press agent to the star to the hairdresser, that people were not lining up outside the theater day and night to get in.  In fact, there were nights at Parade where I could hear the cold wind whistling through the empty seats.  (I should know – as the former president of my high-school Masochism team, I went to see probably eighty out of the hundred and twenty performances.) 

Parade took five years to write, and it played for less than four months.  I did get a Tony Award, which is no small honor, but I couldn’t help thinking that this was no way to have a career. 

So I decided for my next project, I would do what I should have done from the beginning.  I sounded out the possibilities of a Buffy, the Vampire Slayer musical (the producers never returned my calls), a Batman musical (someone else thought of it first), a Valley of the Dolls musical (the rights were too expensive) and so on.  While I waited for my big hit to show up, I decided to write a little song-cycle.

I thought I would write a concert piece, for two singers and a small chamber ensemble.  It would be the anti-Parade, just a little piece that would be contemporary and familiar and funny and emotional, and most importantly, it would be just for me.  I didn’t care if anyone ever saw it.

You’re already ahead of me:  The little song-cycle became a show, called The Last Five Years. It is the story of a man and woman who fall in love only to find that they cannot possibly stay together.  It has two wonderful actor/singers, an extraordinar
y director, and a great team of designers. It is the best work I’ve ever done.  It is really funny and powerfully sad.  It is the least likely musical I could possibly have conceived.

I think it’s gonna be a smash.


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