Jason Robert Brown
April 22, 2004
Manhattan User's Guide
Jason Robert Brown, composer of "The Last Five Years" and winner of the Tony
award for his score to "Parade" will be performing along with some hot-stuff
Broadway talent, including Carolee Carmello, Brian d'Arcy James, and Darius
deHaas, on April 26, 8pm, at Le Jazz Au Bar, 41 E. 58th [Park/Mad] 212.308.9455.
There'll be some surprise guests, you'll hear numbers from Mr. Brown's upcoming
new musicals, and other great songs from the highly talented Mr. Brown. Should
be a lot of fun – and it's only $20. We spoke with Mr. Brown recently about
his work and the state of the art.
Was there an "aha" moment when you decided to become a composer?
I prefer the more downmarket title of "songwriter" to "composer," since a
songwriter is what I really planned on being. I sat down at the piano when
I was seven years old and it instantly occurred to me that I could write
songs on it, and that way I could be like Carole King (a constantly invoked
presence in our household, since she grew up in the same Brooklyn brownstone
as my father) or Billy Joel or Elton John or whatever. So I lifted the lid
of the piano and started writing songs, and at some point, I got good at
it. Also at some point, I became a Composer, but I'm not sure when or how.
As long as someone's singing what I wrote, I guess you can call me whatever
you want. (And some people certainly have.)
What are you working on now?
Three separate things: first, a solo album, which has been a long-deferred
dream of mine. We're just now finishing the recording, and it's been really
magical, big orchestras and great soloists and amazing bands, all that sort
of thing. Then, I'm writing a musical with the novelist Dan Elish about a
group of thirteen-year-old kids in the Midwest – a real comedy, but not a
patronizing kind of kiddie musical, something that I hope really means something
to teenagers. And finally, I'm writing a big Broadway musical comedy with
the screenwriter and director Andrew Bergman; we hope to have a draft finished
in the fall and then do a production a year later somewhere. If it's one
twenty-fifth as funny as "The In-Laws," I'll be very happy.
What have you seen recently that you liked?
I think part of why I write is that I keep hoping to create the kind of musical
theater that I myself want to see. I don't think I've been entirely successful
writing it yet, and I don't like a whole lot of what's out there either,
but I never really have – I think I really like only about half a dozen shows
("West Side Story," "Sweeney Todd," "The Fantasticks," "Once on this Island,"
"Floyd Collins," "On The Town," maybe one or two more), so it's not surprising
that I don't go around swooning over much of what's on stage these days.
I tend to listen for the music before everything else, so if the notes aren't
really exciting, I tune out pretty quickly.
What's the future of musical theatre? Is there one?
Sure. There's too much money to be made for there to be no future in musical
theatre. I don't think the conditions of the so-called Golden Age of the
40's and 50's can ever be replicated, but I think there will be new musicals
and every couple of years one of them will permeate the cultural consciousness
and bring more people in to the party. The tragedy is that when musical theatre
was the center of popular culture, it could afford to take risks and go interesting
places, knowing that there would be an audience willing to experiment. Now
that musical theatre is such a marginal piece of the entertainment world,
there are no guarantees that an audience will be there if you go out on a
limb, so the necessary strategy for a big Broadway musical is to go backward,
do the safer thing, draw the audience in with the easy stuff, make them comfortable.
I think it's possible that if we get them comfortable enough, we might be
able to take some risks again. Or we might get them so comfortable that they
fall asleep. Interesting fork in the road; I'm wondering which way things
will go, same way everyone else is. Meanwhile, I just keep writing the things
that are interesting to me, and hopefully people will come see them.
Variation of Desert Island Disc: what ten original cast recordings would
you take to a desert island?
Well, you know, now you can dump it all on my Desert Island iPod. Just give
me a bunch of Bernstein, Sondheim, Gershwin, Steve Reich, Joni Mitchell,
XTC, and Stevie Wonder, I'll be fine until the coconuts run out.