Entertaining a musical revival
The Advertiser
02 June 2003

"IT seems to me we are entertaining ourselves silly. We are entertaining ourselves into oblivion." So says Jason Robert Brown, the modern face of musicals on Broadway. The famed musical-theatre partnerships have long gone, along with great new musicals.

"Nobody writes shows for Broadway and has this whole fabulous life. Nobody does this any more," says Brown. "I live this very arcane, strange existence. I certainly can't explain it to anyone in my family. I am a guy who writes shows, and what does that mean any more? When you were Richard Rodgers and you wrote shows, that meant something. I'm just a guy trying to get the bills paid."

Jason Robert Brown is at home in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a comfortable apartment he shares with his dog. "To be completely honest, there's a lot of crap out there," he says over the phone. "Ultimately, there aren't any new shows being written. There are shows that on the surface seem like new shows but the music is either so relentlessly derivative or deliberately derivative. They are not meant to last."

Brown is already veteran of one big musical, Parade. Possibly it was not a good choice of title. It smacks of happy movie-musical follies, when it's a sombre piece of music theatre about a murder in Atlanta. Broadway legend Hal Prince directed the production at the Lincoln Centre in 1998-99, and it bombed – by Broadway standards, at least.

"It lasted three months," says Brown. But the show did win him a Tony, Broadway's top accolade, for best score in 1999, and has since toured the US.

In all, he has three musical theatre works he calls his own. Aside from Parade, there are Songs for a New World and The Last 5 Years. He is bringing those second two to Adelaide as part of the Cabaret Festival. Songs for a New World is a loose-knit song cycle rather than a theatre work. The Last 5 Years is an intimate musical about the end of a relationship. Brown's other forays into musical theatre have made him more money than his own works, particularly as musical director for the Broadway hit Urban Cowboy. "I thought there were several moments in the show that needed clarifying," he says. "In the end, I wrote five songs."

His other notable excursion was heading the band for Yoko Ono's New York Rock musical – "as trying an experience as you can imagine," he comments.

So now the composer, singer, pianist and musical director just needs a huge musical-theatre hit to save Broadway and make his career. "I spent all my 20s pushing and pushing and pushing because that's what you do, and I reached my 30s and I thought 'I don't have to do that any more'," Brown says. "I've won a Tony Award and all that industry recognition, and I feel I can relax a bit."

He started out wanting to be a Billy Joel or Joni Mitchell rock star. "I started writing songs and I found I only wanted to write about real situations; there had to be something dramatic," he says.

"This was a problem. First of all, they don't sound like any other pop songs and, second, they are very long. I thought to myself 'I am not a pop music writer. I must be a music theatre writer'."

Brown attended Eastman School of Music at Rochester for two years, then taught music in a Miami high school before turning to music professionally in New York in 1992. He put his non-pop songs together as Songs for a New World, winning awards off-Broadway, and being produced around the world, including Australia. He formed a scratch band, which he jokingly called the Caucasian Rhythm Kings – a title that has stuck, become famous, and is now regretted by its inventor.

In all its outings, however, Songs for a New World has not been performed with a large orchestra. The piece was written for his band, but when Brown was asked to arrange the introduction for an orchestra of 60, he was pleased with the result. So he gradually re-scored all the songs for orchestra.

"I thought it would be wonderful to do the whole work," he says. "When Adelaide came up, I said 'Maybe this is an opportunity to do that'."

So Adelaide has a Broadway premiere of sorts. The first complete performance of Songs for a New World scored for an orchestra – the Adelaide Art Orchestra, accompanied by the Caucasian Rhythm Kings. Singers include Brown, his friend and Broadway musical star, Lauren Kennedy, and Spencer McLaren, best known as Ritchie from TV series Secret Life of Us.

Brown will also partner Lauren Kennedy in The Last 5 Years. The show weaves together a broken relationship, telling the story in two time-lines, from meeting to separation by the man, and separation to meeting by the woman.

To top these shows off, Brown will stage the Cabaret Festival finale, a concert including numbers from Parade and Urban Cowboy.

* Songs for a New World is at the Playhouse on June 14 and 15, The Last 5 Years is at the Space from June 18 to 21 and The Last Night Concert is at the Playhouse on June 22.