2004-03-11
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Christopher Rawson

The composer was in Copenhagen, then New York, the interviewer in Pittsburgh, then London, and time differences and schedules kept interfering; but when finally contacted, Jason Robert Brown was frank and pleasant.

Though known better by the cognoscenti than the average musical theater fan, Brown is a Tony-winning composer for “Parade” (1999), on which he collaborated with librettist Alfred Uhry and director Hal Prince. It’s a sensitive musical treatment of the story of Leo Frank, the guiltless accountant lynched in Atlanta in 1915. Though a critical success on Broadway, “Parade” closed quickly. People who saw it were moved, but too few thought they wanted to see it — as also happened when the national tour came to Pittsburgh in August 2000.

Pittsburgh now gets another chance to hear the talented Brown, 33, when the professional Jewish Theatre tonight opens his two-person drama of love found and lost, “The Last Five Years,” for a three-week run.

This story tells of the courtship, marriage and separation of Jamie (Jewish) and Cathy (Roman Catholic), shaped so that Jamie tells the story chronologically while Cathy tells it backwards. Each provides counterpoints and anticipates the other, with the two intersecting poignantly in the middle.

There have already been about 100 productions of “Last Five Years” across the United States. Why so many?

“Well, it’s cheap,” Brown jokes. “It needs only two actors. In any given musical theater community, there are at least two actors a producer wants to showcase. It’s a great opportunity.”

But he also admits it’s a popular show, and touching, as anyone can testify who’s listened to the CD (Sh-K-Boom Records) starring Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott. Those roles will be played here by Marcus Stevens and Daina Griffith, both recent grads of the Point Park musical theater program, directed by Scott Wise, with Douglas Levine as musical director.

The show is also popular, Brown says, because the audience “doesn’t have to reach very far into their experience to understand something very universal, [about] two people who want very much to be together. … That they are two people of such different backgrounds is a key of the piece. That draws them together and keeps them apart.”

He identifies himself as “a Jewish guy constantly involved with non- Jewish women” and says he understands the attraction found in “doing the forbidden thing, something other than what you grew up with.”

Brown is always listed with Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel and others as the wunderkinder of the American musical. He may not yet have had a major Broadway success, but his songs are heard all over — not just those from “Parade” and “Last Five Years,” but also from his popular 1995 song cycle, “Songs for a New World,” and on albums by Audra McDonald and others. He always writes his own lyrics.

“It’s the only way I know how. It’s not so much a control thing as that the ideas flow on top of each other. I have a situation and a piece that needs to get written, and the musical textures and words come together.”

Brown is a jack of all musical trades — arranger, orchestrator and conductor as well as composer. That’s often been a way to pay the bills, but Brown says, “I just love working on shows.” He was the arranger for William Finn’s “A New Brain”; orchestrator for Yoko Ono’s “New York Rock” and for “Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall”; and musical director for LaChiusa’s “The Petrified Prince.”

He also does a busy sideline in master classes at some 40 colleges. When interviewed, he had just taught how to act songs at the Musical Academy of Denmark and was next heading off to Boston Conservatory.

All this is because, he says, “I came of age when the predominant musical voices were singer-songwriters like Carol King, Billy Joel and Paul Simon, so I never extracted the idea of performing from writing.”

Many composers don’t do their own arranging because they can’t, but Brown can, and does. When “Parade” went on tour, he chose to conduct.

“I loved doing it, being able to drive the show each night, to make sure it was what I wanted it to be. … The general sense in New York was it would have been odd for a composer to music-direct his own show, so I hired a conductor, and I had to sit there every night and take notes. It was valuable, but I really felt I wanted to be involved.”

So when they did “Last Five Years” in New York, he directed and played the whole run, except for a couple of shows when he hired someone to cover so he could sit out front and listen.

“Last Five Years” is scored for piano, electric bass, acoustic guitar, two cellos and a violin. “That musical creation with the musicians is as much a part of the show as the two performers,” Brown says, so he would be pleased to hear the Jewish Theatre will use that full orchestra.

As to the two performers, Brown warns, “each has seven songs, each at least 4 1/2 minutes long. It’s brutally hard singing and very difficult acting.”


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