The Philadelphia Inquirer
David Patrick Stearns

NEW YORK – Shortly after composer Jason Robert Brown won the Tony Award for the Broadway musical Parade, his telephone answering machine carried a sardonic message: "You can find me flipping burgers at White Castle."

That, from one who’s considered one of Broadway’s smartest and most sophisticated songwriters since Stephen Sondheim?

The 1998 show had closed at a loss, leaving him new-found fame without fortune – or, for that matter, rent money. He’d been plucked from obscurity by director Hal Prince and author Alfred Uhry for a musical about lynchings in the Deep South. Too serious for Broadway. Few heard Brown’s answering tape. His phone wasn’t ringing after he won the Tony; many assumed he was above glitz. "I’m thought of as an egghead," says the bushy-haired, pencil-thin composer, "which isn’t true."

His dilemma has two remedies at present, one in Philadelphia, one in New York.

The first is the two-character, small-scale musical titled The Last Five Years, opening tomorrow at the Plays & Players Theatre and produced by the Philadelphia Theatre Company, which is one of 20 regional groups around the country so far this year that have leapt upon Brown’s musical about his failed marriage. By the end of 2003, there may be 100 such productions. As successful as that sounds, the other half of the failed marriage sued him for violating a privacy clause in their divorce agreement. Legal fees devoured royalties.

Hence Urban Cowboy, remedy number two, a low- to middle-brow musical about Houston oil-field workers who spend evenings drinking, brawling and riding a mechanical bull. It opens March 27 at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theater. Brown is music director, arranger, orchestrator and wrote four of the songs. You wouldn’t picture him in a show where characters rhapsodize over their mobile homes, particularly now that opera star Renée Fleming features Brown’s "All the Wasted Time" from Parade on her new disc, Under the Stars.

There’s logic here. "It [Urban Cowboy] is a show that does all the things that I want people to know that I do. I write orchestrations, I play piano onstage, I have a whole musical number to myself. I have all these songs [four] I wrote that are specific to the situation, but very commercial and pop-y," Brown says.

For those who believe that Brown has written some of the best show songs of (no pun intended) the last five years, or that Parade was one of the great musicals of the past decade, such commerce-driven goals could be a shock. But it’s not as big as the shocks he’s been through lately.

"The best thing that’s happened to me in the last three years is that I’ve been able to lose my ambition as a writer, in terms of hopes for posterity and success," he said one evening over an hour’s dinner break betweenBroadway rehearsals. "I believe in my work for Urban Cowboy. I’m proud of these songs."

His is a generation desperately seeking solutions to the conflicts of making art in a medium more interested in commerce. Indeed, he and four of his compositional contemporaries – Adam Guettel, Ricky Ian Gordon, Michael John LaChiusa and Jeanine Tesori – constitute a post-Sondheim school of composers who arrived in the early to mid-1990s ready to create a smarter alternative to Phantom of the Opera.

Trained at the Eastman School of Music, Brown came to write musicals the way all of them did: There was no alternative. Brown tried teaching at a performing arts school in Miami and performing on the piano bar circuit.

Many people get stuck in places like these. Yet the same thing drove him out of both.

"Over the course of the year that I taught in Miami," he says, "I saw a lot of kids start out the year bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and then ended the year as drug addicts. It killed me. It wiped me out. In the piano bar, I was watching a slower process. Day after day, I watched people getting drunker and drunker. I did it for a year and half and then I said, ‘I’m stopping.’ "

By the mid-1990s, Brown and the others were all writing their masterpieces, ones that won them acclaim and success, but off-Broadway and in regional theaters: Guettel’s Floyd Collins, Gordon’s Only Heaven, LaChiusa’s Hello, Again, and Tesori’s Violet. And that’s no place to make a living. So nobody was surprised when Tesori surfaced last season writing supplemental songs for Thoroughly Modern Millie.

The Last Five Years, which opened off-Broadway exactly a year ago, represented a different kind of maneuver – and threw Brown into a self-declared retirement from composing. "It was self-contained, small and cheap. With six in the band and two actors onstage, I thought that if there’s four people in the audience we could make back our investment," he said. "Parade was an enormous collaboration. Nobody wasn’t offering me comments. In The Last Five Years, I wanted to do something where nobody said anything. I wanted it for me. This is mine. This is something I can do."

The show, which is all song and little dialogue, is a classic case history of a first marriage in which love doesn’t survive career ambitions. The story unfolds in two simultaneous trajectories: He’s telling the story chronologically, and she’s telling it backward. It’s metaphoric: The couple are rarely in the same place at the same time.

"I’d seen this subject done in plays: The Real Thing [by Tom Stoppard] was dead on," Brown says. "I wanted to achieve something as honest and artistic as that, but in a musical that didn’t resort to cliches to make a point. I didn’t want this to come off as a piece where I’m bashing my ex-wife or women in general. And I felt goofy trying to mitigate some of my faults onstage so people would know I’m a good guy. I did a lot of dancing around to not make it true-to-life."

Apparently not enough. In the face of legal action from his ex-wife, he replaced one song and made changes in others. His answering machine at that time carried the message: "I’ll call you as soon as I get out of therapy, which will be in about six years."

Although The Last Five Years had great buzz, it didn’t get good reviews. It’s hard to say why. Same story with LaChiusa’s just-closed Little Fish and Gordon’s recently opened, Proust-inspired My Life With Albertine. As a group, these composer-lyricists have a way of telling audiences things they may not be ready to hear. Amid all of its sumptuous music, Albertine declares, "On any given day, half the human race is in tears." In New York, these musicals constitute a genre without a sympathetic venue.

Brown considered taking a teaching position at Emerson College. He was ready to settle. But maybe not just yet. He signed onto Urban Cowboy as music director, and then more songs were needed. And though the show features jukebox hits such as "Lookin’ for Love in All the Wrong Places," Brown’s songs consistently crank up the theatrical heat. Some are among his best.

So if he’s back in the bull ring, it’s with unblinking pragmatism: "I’m beyond the point of thinking that something coming truly and honestly from my heart is going to be a smash success. The only danger with any of us doing this kind of work," he concludes, "is if there’s something inside us that’s trying to get out and it’s not getting out – because we’re doing this."

The current tape on his answering machine: "Hello, this is Jason Brown, and I’m out trying on a new cowboy hat." At least for now.