The Chicago Sun-Times
Hedy Weiss

Jason Robert Brown is part of a young, loosely linked group of musical theater composers and lyricists that includes, among others, Michael John LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel and Jeanine Tesori. All of them write artful, literate songs that are richly poetic, intensely personal, eclectic in their musical roots and often decidedly non-commercial in their appeal.

Unlike those other composers, however, Brown has won a Tony Award. He received the honor for his musical "Parade," the complex tale of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager who was accused of murdering a young girl in Atlanta in 1913 and was subsequently lynched. "Parade" premiered in 1998 at the Lincoln Center Theatre, where it ran for just four months in a production written by Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy") and directed by Harold Prince. A national touring version never made it to Chicago, and to date, no local theater has announced plans to stage the large, complex work. But it has been picked up by seven colleges nationwide for productions slated throughout the next 18 months.

Meanwhile, Brown is presiding over the world premiere production of "The Last Five Years," his new two-person musical, directed by Daisy Prince (Harold’s daughter), which opens tonight at Skokie’s Northlight Theatre. The show co-stars Norbert Leo Butz (the emcee in the 1999 national tour of "Cabaret") and Lauren Kennedy (whose Broadway credits include "Side Show" and "Sunset Boulevard"). It spins the story of the five-year courtship, marriage and subsequent breakup of a couple described as "a nice Jewish boy and a good Irish Catholic girl." Brown will serve as pianist and conductor of the six-piece band accompanying the show throughout its run here.

"I wanted to do a piece that was very much in my control," said Brown, who turns 31 in a few weeks. " `Parade’ was a job–it was not my project–although I’m very grateful Hal [Prince] brought it to me after Stephen Sondheim turned it down. But after writing all that period music, which I didn’t grow up with–and being very scrupulous about getting the style right, even if that was of very little interest to most audiences–I wanted to write something very small and contemporary and close to myself."

"The Last Five Years" began as a song cycle for a man and a woman, and Brown then developed the scenario using a very specific structure.

"The man tells his story from the first date forward, the woman tells her story from the end of the relationship backward, and they meet only once–at the wedding that occurs in the middle," Brown said. "That way they can alternate songs without being repetitive.

Although he insists the story is not modeled on his own life, Brown also readily admits that he was going through a divorce while he was writing the show, and that he had been part of a Jewish-gentile marriage.

As for style, he wanted to combine the quality of the five or six-minute scene-length songs featured in his 1995 Off-Broadway show, "Songs for a New World" (seen here several seasons back at Apple Tree Theatre), with the narrative and emotional drive of the work he created for "Parade."

Raised in Rockland County, north of New York, Brown describes himself as "a show-off kid" who initially wanted to be an actor and who played the piano from early on. He was accepted at the prestigious, conservatory-style Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. As he readily confessed, "In reality, I was trying to be Billy Joel, but I was able to write a good enough fake of a piece of symphonic music for my [college] application. It was only later that I realized those worlds could collide in musical theater."

Brown left Eastman after two years of trying to "reconcile my rock ‘n’ roll ambitions with the school’s conservative approach to composition." He headed for Miami, where he taught at a performing arts school for two years. He then settled in New York, where he took a series of "ridiculous piano bar jobs, often playing the theme from TV’s `The Jeffersons’ for drunks."

Along the way, Brown met Daisy Prince. She introduced him to her father, who hired him to work as rehearsal pianist for "Kiss of the Spider Woman." His career was jump-started.

Brown’s Northlight connection was forged in 1999 when he served as musical director for "Dinah Was," the show about the life and career of jazz singer Dinah Washington. The theater’s artistic director, B.J. Jones, asked him what else he had in the works, and his new vest-pocket musical seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

Asked if "The Last Five Years" might be headed to New York, Brown would say only, "Right now, it’s just about being at Northlight."