Posted on March 24, 2008 at 11:10 pm

What’s new, Buenos Aires? I’m on a flight from New York to Los Angeles, the eighth cross-country flight I’ve taken so far in 2008. While I don’t much enjoy the flying, this time in the air tends to be mercifully free of distractions. Generally, I’ve spent that time literally staring into space, just grateful to have my mind clear for a couple of hours; but a bunch of readers have actually written me vaguely threatening letters, taking me to task for not updating this blog, so I thought I’d take a minute and hip you to what’s been going on since January lest things get ugly in cyberspace.

It’s been long enough since I last wrote that most of the things to which I alluded in my “Blind Items” entry in January have finally been publicized. I’ll take the opportunity now to clarify.

As has been announced elsewhere, “13” is doing a pre-Broadway run at the Norma Terris Theater at Goodspeed, in Chester CT, starting May 9. The show is substantially different, in every respect, from the version produced in Los Angeles last year. First of all, just in terms of the writing itself, we’ve replaced more than half of the songs, re-focussed the story, added a half-hour of running time (and with it, an intermission), and probably changed every single line of the book except for four really good jokes. Paradoxically, the show is longer because it’s leaner and tighter, and there is now a much straighter line from the beginning to the end. A lesson I learned this year with both “13” and the London revision of Parade is that it’s all too easy to let a secondary character hijack the show. I know we solved it in Parade by cutting down Britt Craig’s role; I think we’ve now solved it in “13”.

But apart from the rewriting, there are lots of other changes at “13”. Most importantly, we have a new director, Jeremy Sams, who has been invaluable both in his ability to cut the fat away from the story and in his understanding of the way music functions in the show. The fact that Jeremy is a formidable musician in his own right doesn’t hurt. In fact, Jeremy is a terrifying polymath; a quick look at his résumé shows that he has directed successful plays and musicals on Broadway and the West End, as well as having written film scores, lyrics and books of musicals, and translations and adaptations of classic and obscure plays (from several different languages, all of which he speaks fluently). Dan and I are convinced that in the event of some horrible catastrophe, Jeremy is perfectly equipped to take over any and all jobs on the show, ours included. (Mercifully, he’s a lousy actor, and I’m sure his dancing is perfectly execrable, so the kids needn’t feel threatened.)

Our choreographer is Christopher Gattelli, whose work is represented in New York not just by Altar Boyz but by two equally dazzling Broadway revivals this year, Sunday in the Park with George and South Pacific. Our set and costume designer also worked on Sunday, the masterful David Farley. We have an absolutely first-class lighting designer, Tony Award-winner Brian MacDevitt; a terrifically gifted sound designer, Jon Weston; and our musical director is none other than Tom Kitt, whose own show (the thrilling Next To Normal) just closed after a powerful production at Second Stage. Going into rehearsal knowing that this team is supporting us is a tremendously reassuring, even empowering, experience.

None of that would matter if we didn’t have the talent onstage to bring this show to life, and I’m over the moon about the cast and band that we hired. Assembling the cast took a long time, and the final group that’s going into rehearsal in two weeks comes from all over the country – New York and the tri-state area, of course, but also Los Angeles, Texas, and Florida – and while some of the kids have résumés longer than mine, others have never done a professional production before.

The band is an equally amazing group, and the band audition day was the most fun I’ve had in a long time; sixty-five awesomely gifted teenagers showed up and made glorious music together for seven hours. The hardest part was figuring out who to send home; all of the grownups in the room felt that we could have randomly picked five kids at any given time and ended up with a superb band. Needless to say, the five that made it to the end are exceptional. I know that kid musicians are not as used to the arbitrary and bizarre process of auditioning as kid actors are, so I wanted to take this space to thank all the musicians for coming out and playing so beautifully and rolling with the experience. Having a “kid band” is a huge experiment for a Broadway musical, but I know it’s going to pay off handsomely.

So that’s “13”, which, as you can imagine, has been taking up the overwhelming majority of my time. But there are some other things going on worth noting.

Last week, Lauren Kennedy and I took to the stage at Birdland for a concert performance of The Last Five Years with the original New York orchestra (thoroughly terrifying pictures available here, and don’t say I didn’t warn you). Tickets sold out in three hours, and when we added a second show, that sold out within an hour. Neither Lauren nor I could have anticipated the kind of excitement that this event generated. As it was, neither of us was performing under optimal conditions – I’d been swamped with “13” auditions and pre-production and hadn’t sung in public for months, and Lauren had just gotten off a plane from England the day before after doing two sold-out concerts at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Maybe the fact that we were both shellshocked accounts for how intensely emotional the concerts were; or maybe it was the fact that we hadn’t done the show together since 2003; or maybe it’s just a ridiculously emotional show. Whatever the reason, I walked off the stage at the end of the show feeling both triumphant and that I had just been run over by a Hummer. Lauren and the band all did sterling work, and I was honored and truly moved by their commitment to what remains an intensely personal piece.

Meanwhile, the Kennedy Center announced the forthcoming premiere of a new project I’m working on, an adaptation of E.B. White’s classic children’s book The Trumpet of the Swan for narrator and orchestra, conceived and adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman. It will be something like Peter and the Wolf crossed with Appalachian Spring, if you can imagine that; it’s a wonderful and liberating challenge for me to be able just to write music without having to put lyrics on top of it. More news about this as things progress.

And on a totally different front, the people at Laura Geringer Books have been keeping busy with my work. In August, they’re publishing a novel Dan and I wrote based on “13”; and later this year, a children’s picture book adapted from “The Schmuel Song” is coming out, with some unbelievable artwork by the incredible Mary GrandPré. So come holiday time, I’ll be able to walk into my neighborhood Borders and see two of my own books for sale! Now that is an unexpected turn in this crazy career of mine.

There’s other news too, but we just started our descent into LAX, so I’m wrapping this up. Rehearsals for Goodspeed start on April 7, so I’ll be on the East Coast for a while, but I will have to jump back to California for two concerts in May (one at Pepperdine, one at Citrus College) as part of the Festival of New American Musicals. I hope to see you on one side of the country or the other soon! (Or perhaps I’ll meet you on a 727 somewhere over the Midwest. I’ll be the one staring into space.)

As your reward for getting through this entire megilla, here’s a little music. As I noted above, we’ve cut a lot of the songs that were in the Los Angeles production of “13”. The unkindest cut of all was “Being A Geek,” which is a song I have been doing in my concerts for a couple of years now and which I love deeply. In the song, Evan (whose parents are in the midst of a titanic divorce) tries to explain to his rabbi in Indiana why it’s so important to be popular. When we recorded the score in L.A., we got to preserve this heartfelt performance by Ricky Ashley, the boys of the cast, and the entire amazing band. Enjoy!

“Being A Geek”
written for “13” (2007)
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Ricky Ashley: Evan
Tyler Mann: Rabbi
Seth Zibalese, Christian Vandal, Ellington Ratliff, Ryan Ogburn: Backup geeks
JRB: piano
Charlie Rosen: keyboards
Molly Bernstein: lead guitar
Chris Raymond: rhythm guitar
Nehemiah Williams: electric bass
Jamie Eblen: drums
David O: musical director
Craig Wolynez: band director
Recorded and mixed by Jeffrey Lesser at the Record Plant, Los Angeles, February 24 & 25, 2007 (Engineer: Eddie DeLena)