Posted on February 21, 2010 at 12:09 pm

As a followup to my previous sound blog, which was about an ill-fated collaboration with David Lindsay-Abaire, today I’ll focus on one of my collaborations with David that worked out very well indeed.

After the original production of Parade closed in New York, I was in parlous financial straits and needed to get out of the city for a while to recover. An offer came to be the musical director of a show in Dallas directed by David Petrarca, with whom I’d worked a couple of times.

While we were in the midst of rehearsals, I noticed that he carried a script around with him with the baffling title of “Fuddy Meers.” At lunch one day, I asked him what it was.
Petrarca told me it was a fantastic new play that he was going to be directing that fall at Manhattan Theatre Club. Without even reading it, I jumped on the possibility that there might be a job involved for me, so I asked whether anyone had been hired to write the incidental music. Petrarca looked at me for a second, then said, “No, and you should do it, you’d be perfect.” I love it when that happens.

I then took the script back to my apartment and was surprised to find out that it was more than just a good play; it was a moving and honest and beautiful piece that was also a totally insane and ridiculous comedy. Lindsay-Abaire had managed to create something that was utterly his own voice while still telling a compelling and powerful story. I knew exactly what the music should be.

I envisioned some kind of circus atmosphere, but distorted and disjunct – the defining event of the play happens at a carnival, and it causes the heroine to lose her memory. I wanted something with the spirit of Americana, but as though it were in pieces, like a puzzle that had yet to be assembled.

Back in New York, I called Tony Trischka and asked him if he’d come play on a session for me. I’d never met Tony, but everyone I asked said he was the greatest banjo player in New York, if not the world, so I got his number out of the Union directory and gave him a ring. I then asked the great jazz cellist Nioka Workman to join in as well. And I set up an old Korg T3 synthesizer that I had lying around in storage, and rented a glockenspiel.

For the central waltz theme, Tony and I played the melody in unison (he on banjo, me on glock), while Nioka played a bass figure. I then overdubbed a calliope part while one of the engineers in the studio gently moved the tuning wheel up and down on the keyboard in the range of a quarter-tone.

For the chase sequences, I thought it would be fun to rip off Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” music, so Nioka and I played a bass line that walks the line between homage and plagiarism and Tony let fly with some fantastic solos.

All told, I wrote about ten minutes of music for the play, but I condensed most of the major material into this little suite that I created for a demo reel. So here’s two minutes and twelve seconds of my first professional incidental music.*

“Suite from Fuddy Meers(1999)
Music by Jason Robert Brown
JRB: piano, synthesizer, glockenspiel
Tony Trischka: banjo
Nioka Workman: cello
Digital editing by Dan Sklar
Recorded at Warehouse Studios, NY, NY, 10/4/99

The day after Fuddy Meers opened, I was delighted to find that the critics agreed with me about how special and wonderful this play was. (I also got a positive mention in the Times, the first time that had ever happened.) The play moved to a commercial production Off-Broadway, and has since been produced a zillion times. I’m proud to have been part of it, and hope that I’ll continue to work with Messrs. Petrarca and Lindsay-Abaire many more times. (We did all work together once more, on Kimberly Akimbo two years later, but that’ll have to wait for another blog!)

I’ll get back to the songwriting class blogs soon!

*UPDATE: Seth Christenfeld correctly notes in the comments below that Fuddy Meers was not in fact my first professional incidental music. Why he knows this, I have no idea.