Posted on April 23, 2006 at 12:27 am

More Q & A with everyone’s favorite cranky composer! I think my responses are a little snippy this time out, I’m sorry about that; I really do appreciate all of your questions, keep ’em coming!
Thomas Hodges writes:
I was curious about your advice composing in today’s world and the road to making it in “The Business.” When you were much younger did you have many trepidations? And if so how did you surpass them? Is there any overall advice you would give to a composer?
JRB responds:
Wow, that’s a heavy question. I think I had fewer trepidations when I was younger than I do now; I didn’t care when I started out about how “the business” worked or how to keep the weekly nut down or who the contractor was, I just wrote the things I loved and assumed that someone would produce them. Now I have to make sure that I’m going to be able to make a living, and that’s terrifying. I was passionate about composing for the musical theater, and I was fiercely ambitious and tenacious and proactive about getting my stuff in people’s ears. I will say this: I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t lived in New York. That’s where the professional theater is, and if you want to get into the professional theater, that’s where you have to be. There’s no getting around that, there’s no finessing it, there’s no halfway. You want to be on Broadway? Go to Broadway. Other than that, overall advice? Write something interesting, for Christ’s sake, I’m so bored of I-IV-V progressions and rolling sixteenth notes and everything being in 4/4. Make the music worth paying attention to.
Mat McPherson asks:
Will you be performing again in the UK any time soon?
JRB responds:
I certainly hope so. We’re right now in the midst of trying to get “The Last Five Years” on in London, and if we do, I’ll definitely come over to supervise that and undoubtedly do a night somewhere.
Rico Sego asks:
I was fascinated by the structure of your musical “The Last Five Years,” and couldn’t stop myself from analyzing the story arch when told both forwards and backwards. I noticed that the crux, or climax of the work comes when the two “see” each other onstage and are briefly “at the same time,” which happens to be in the 8th number of 13. My question is: Are you familiar with the golden mean (golden proportion, section, ratio etc.)?
If not, a quick synopsis: it’s the ratio or proportion that we, as humans, find beautiful or perfect. It’s approximately 1.618 (or .618 depending on the comparison), and is often referred to in literature as the greek letter phi. It can be found by comparing one number of the Fibonnaci Sequence to the next (this is a summative sequence, whereby the next number is found by adding the previous two: 1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55 etc.)
ANYWAY, there’s been a ton of study done on all the different ways this relationship manifests itself in nature, art, architecture, etc. and how the man-made things that are most admired/found beautiful are the ones that mimic the harmony and perfection of nature in this way. We studied how composers used this concept in my music history classes during my master’s, and found that many intentionally structured their works so that the climaxes came at “golden section” points. I couldn’t help wondering if you had done so in your work, or if it was simply intuitively the “right” place. Any thoughts you’d care to share on this, and your process in general, would be appreciated!

JRB responds:
That question wins the prize for most esoteric so far. The fact is, I don’t really honor the Fibonacci sequence, there are fourteen songs in the show, not thirteen. Furthermore, the fourteenth song actually comprises two songs, which I think of as #14 and #15. Therefore, the reason they sing together at #8 is simply because it is the mathematical center of the piece. (It also happens, strangely enough, to be the chronological center of the piece, but I didn’t plan that, I was just pleasantly surprised to discover it during the run of the show.) So I actually violated the golden mean, but to answer your question directly: no, I really wasn’t thinking of that stuff during the writing of the show. I feel like I’m letting you down by admitting that. Sorry, I AM a geek, I AM, I promise.
Jennifer Poles writes:
Your music reminds me of all the passion I’ve had since day one. Thank you for inspiration. The passion in your music is amazing and has kept me pulling through some times when I didn’t think I had it in me. I hope that one day I am privileged and lucky enough to perform some of your own works. You are truly an inspiring artist, above the rest. Keep on making amazing and beautiful music, because we all need it in our lives. Thank you for being an amazing artist.
JRB responds:
I often wonder, if I had had the Internet when I was a young’un, whether I would have written a letter like that to Steve Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber (I don’t know why I’m acknowledging that I used to be an Andrew Lloyd Webber fanatic, but I was, right up until I heard “Starlight Express”). I hope that if I had, it would have meant as much to them as your letter means to me. Thank you for listening and singing and sharing.
Chris Hall writes:
I live in the UK and saw you in London last December (I was the one all alone on the front row!!) so I was really excited to read on Playbill that Last 5 Years would be coming to the Menier. Please could you confirm that this is correct and say if you yourself might be coming over to see it.
JRB responds:
Well, I can’t confirm anything yet because I don’t know anything for sure. We’re trying! Keep checking the website, you’ll know as soon as I do!
Raj Bowers-Racine writes:
A few years back I was perusing your site and found what seemed to be an MP3 of you singing “Moving Too Fast” while accompanying yourself on the piano. Computers being what they are the file got erased somewhere and I was sad. “Fear not,” thought I. “In the wide expanse of the internet I’m sure that thing is kicking around somewhere.” Well, for all my searching I can’t find it anyplace and I’m asking if you might know where it’s available. I’m willing to bribe you as high as 1 (one) dirty joke which proceeds as follows: What did the leper say to the prostitute? Give up? “Keep the tip.” I guess “mohel” could also be substituted in there. Your call as to which version is dirtier.
JRB responds:
Yeah, we had the demo up on the official “Last Five Years” site for a while, but I don’t think that site even exists anymore. Anyway, I hope the version I just uploaded to the Sound Blog will suffice! As for which version of your joke is dirtier, I’m gonna go with the mohel, but that’s a personal preference.
Beth Alison writes:
I am 16 years old, and an aspiring singer/actress/dancer/pianist….*phew* and I was wondering what your advice to a teen who loves this business more than life itself would be? My friends really think I’m crazy, what with practicing voice about 2 – 4 hours a day, piano 3 hours a day, and of course auditioning for anything I can get my hands on. I’m also working as often as possible – I’m spending this summer in the beautiful state of Utah, as an artist with the Utah Festival Opera Company. I am currently a homeschooled sophomore, and I would also like to know what you suggest by way of college, and if you think that taking that time and training in NYC or even here in LA instead of commiting myself to school for 4 years could be more beneficial? Also, which art form do you think I should be concentrating on at this point? Musical theatre? Film/TV? Piano? Dance? I will say again, I do what I do because I can’t help it. I really don’t have a choice. Hey, put me on a stage and throw me food, I’m a happy camper. But how do you think I could best advance my career at my age, and which area should I concentrate on to do so?
JRB responds:
All right, look, here’s the thing: if you love this business more than life itself, then go do it! That’s my advice! Follow your passion! Passion is such a rare thing in this world, most people, the overwhelming majority of people, never feel it and have no idea what to do with it. You’ve got it, you’re passionate about something, so do it. Will you be successful? No idea, and not entirely in your control. Go do it, and be as good as you can possibly be. You’re young, you’ve got nothing to lose. As far as college training, I think it’s a good idea to try it and see how it feels. There are lots of great college musical theater programs out there, and I’m not really qualified to discuss one over the others, but I think you owe it to yourself to get into a really rigorous training program and see how you like it. I know some people who get in that situation and blossom, and some people get in that situation and hate all the cliquey competition. You’ll feel it. I wish you the best of luck, but even more so, have fun, enjoy it, enjoy every second of it, because if you don’t, there’s really no good reason to do it.
Brianne McGill writes:
My friends and I are doing a community concert of musical theatre from the last fifteen years and we’re using several of your songs in it, including “When You Come Home to Me.” The problem is that we’re doing it at a church and our community is rather conservative, and we have to take out curse words… Do you have a suggestion for the f-bomb in “When You Come Home to Me”? And is substituting words in songs even ethical? I don’t want to disrespect your work.
JRB responds:
I have so many conflicting responses to this. First of all, I’m practical. I want you guys to sing my songs, and I know that people can get very sensitive to language, particularly when it’s young people singing. In fact, people got cranky about all the fucks and shits in “The Last Five Years” even when we did it in New York, which amazed me since those same people have no problem with it when it’s in a David Mamet play. Musical theater brings out the puritan side of some folks, I guess. The point is, I get it, you shouldn’t sing “fuck” in a church unless you’re trying to get people crazy, so of course you should try and come up with something more appropriate to the venue.
But here’s the other thing: what’s the big fucking deal? It’s just “fuck”! I never understood why it was unacceptable to say “shit” on television but okay to say “crap.” They refer to the exact same thing! They both are one-syllable, four-letter words! If you mean “shit,” why not say “shit”? Oh, it makes me insane! There are words that are calculated and designed to offend, I’m aware of that, and I understand that people are sensitive to the various colorations that language can acquire. But who’s offended by “fuck”? Unless maybe you yourself are a fuck, in which case, you and your whole tribe of fucks can write a fucking petition to unfuck the English language. Why is “fuck” a bad word? Who decided this? It’s ridiculous! Cunt, sure, I see where cunt makes some people upset, I don’t agree but I get it. But “cocksucker”? What’s wrong with that? It is what it is! Sorry, I could go on for days with this.
Scott Smith writes:
I’ve seen three productions of “The Last Five Years” – including a flawless one in Sydney, Australia. What vexes me every time I see the show is the part in “The Next Ten Minutes” where Jamie is pointing out the buildings to Cathy. In every instance, the actor playing Jamie points to two different locations when mentioning “John Lennon” and “the Dakota.” I thought it was just common knowledge among most people that John Lennon lived in the Dakota – and never even been to New York City! Ever considered including a bit of context for the show when you send out permission to perform it?
JRB responds:
It’s interesting, I’m really on the fence about this. With both “Songs For A New World” and “The Last Five Years,” I made a deliberate decision not to include anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary in the stage directions. I just think it’s classier to say to the director of a production: “Here’s the information you need, now do whatever you want with it.” But it turns out that a lot of directors feel confused by all that freedom, and a lot of productions that I’ve seen or heard about don’t seem particularly well-researched or thought out. Which suggests that I should include considerably more detail in the script. But I just think that if I were directing something and I saw all that detail there (he enters here, she’s wearing this, the set looks like this), I’d feel vaguely insulted by it. As far as context goes, I don’t think it’s my job to tell anyone that John Lennon lived in the Dakota or that Crate and Barrel sells furniture. If there’s a reference in the show you don’t understand, go find a computer and Google it. I get questions from foreign countries a lot (latest one: “Who’s Daisy Mae?”) and I understand where people outside of the US would be overwhelmed by the specific references in “The Last Five Years,” but I can’t really imagine myself putting together a Lonely Planet Guide to the show. Maybe you can do it for me and I’ll put it up on the site. Start with John Gotti and a good definition of “Shiksa,” you’ll probably be doing a great service!
An extraordinarily talented young man writes:
I’m sixteen years old and currently in the precollege jazz program at Manhattan School of Music, but I’m also studying composition. Three of my original compositions are on my myspace. If you ever have the time, would it be possible for you to click on it and listen to them? I wrote them; and that is me playing and singing. They are definitely contemporary and theater style.
JRB responds:
It would be a lot of fun if I could listen to all the stuff people send me, but I really don’t have the time, and from a legal standpoint, it makes me uncomfortable. All I need is you writing me after you see one of my shows and saying “Hey, you stole that from me!” I’ve also found that people don’t really want my advice or suggestions. What people want to hear is, “Wow, that’s amazing! Let me call my record company right now and get you signed!” I’ve never said that, or anything like it, and when I do give advice, no matter how gently or positively I spin it, the person who asked invariably feels hurt and unappreciated. So just keep writing, keep putting it out there, eventually I’m going to hear it if you’re any good. And honestly, I wish you all the luck in the world.
Okay, that’s it for now. Gotta get some rest before my concert tomorrow. More soon!