Stage Preview: Rising composer's play headed here
Thursday, March 11, 2004
By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The composer was in Copenhagen, then New York, the interviewer in Pittsburgh,
then London, and time differences and schedules kept interfering; but when
finally contacted, Jason Robert Brown was frank and pleasant.
Though known better by the cognoscenti than the average musical theater
fan, Brown is a Tony-winning composer for "Parade" (1999), on which he collaborated
with librettist Alfred Uhry and director Hal Prince. It's a sensitive musical
treatment of the story of Leo Frank, the guiltless accountant lynched in
Atlanta in 1915. Though a critical success on Broadway, "Parade" closed quickly.
People who saw it were moved, but too few thought they wanted to see it --
as also happened when the national tour came to Pittsburgh in August 2000.
Pittsburgh now gets another chance to hear the talented Brown, 33,
when the professional Jewish Theatre tonight opens his two-person drama of
love found and lost, "The Last Five Years," for a three-week run.
This story tells of the courtship, marriage and separation of Jamie
(Jewish) and Cathy (Roman Catholic), shaped so that Jamie tells the story
chronologically while Cathy tells it backwards. Each provides counterpoints
and anticipates the other, with the two intersecting poignantly in the middle.
There have already been about 100 productions of "Last Five Years"
across the United States. Why so many?
"Well, it's cheap," Brown jokes. "It needs only two actors. In any
given musical theater community, there are at least two actors a producer
wants to showcase. It's a great opportunity."
But he also admits it's a popular show, and touching, as anyone can
testify who's listened to the CD (Sh-K-Boom Records) starring Norbert Leo
Butz and Sherie Rene Scott. Those roles will be played here by Marcus Stevens
and Daina Griffith, both recent grads of the Point Park musical theater program,
directed by Scott Wise, with Douglas Levine as musical director.
The show is also popular, Brown says, because the audience "doesn't
have to reach very far into their experience to understand something very
universal, [about] two people who want very much to be together. ... That
they are two people of such different backgrounds is a key of the piece.
That draws them together and keeps them apart."
He identifies himself as "a Jewish guy constantly involved with non-Jewish
women" and says he understands the attraction found in "doing the forbidden
thing, something other than what you grew up with."
Brown is always listed with Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel and
others as the wunderkinder of the American musical. He may not yet have had
a major Broadway success, but his songs are heard all over -- not just those
from "Parade" and "Last Five Years," but also from his popular 1995 song
cycle, "Songs for a New World," and on albums by Audra McDonald and others.
He always writes his own lyrics.
"It's the only way I know how. It's not so much a control thing as
that the ideas flow on top of each other. I have a situation and a piece
that needs to get written, and the musical textures and words come together."
Brown is a jack of all musical trades -- arranger, orchestrator and
conductor as well as composer. That's often been a way to pay the bills,
but Brown says, "I just love working on shows." He was the arranger for William
Finn's "A New Brain"; orchestrator for Yoko Ono's "New York Rock" and for
"Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall"; and musical director for LaChiusa's
"The Petrified Prince."
He also does a busy sideline in master classes at some 40 colleges. When
interviewed, he had just taught how to act songs at the Musical Academy of
Denmark and was next heading off to Boston Conservatory.
All this is because, he says, "I came of age when the predominant musical
voices were singer-songwriters like Carol King, Billy Joel and Paul Simon,
so I never extracted the idea of performing from writing."
Many composers don't do their own arranging because they can't, but
Brown can, and does. When "Parade" went on tour, he chose to conduct.
"I loved doing it, being able to drive the show each night, to make
sure it was what I wanted it to be. ... The general sense in New York was
it would have been odd for a composer to music-direct his own show, so I
hired a conductor, and I had to sit there every night and take notes. It
was valuable, but I really felt I wanted to be involved."
So when they did "Last Five Years" in New York, he directed and played
the whole run, except for a couple of shows when he hired someone to cover
so he could sit out front and listen.
"Last Five Years" is scored for piano, electric bass, acoustic guitar,
two cellos and a violin. "That musical creation with the musicians is as
much a part of the show as the two performers," Brown says, so he would be
pleased to hear the Jewish Theatre will use that full orchestra.
As to the two performers, Brown warns, "each has seven songs, each
at least 4 1/2 minutes long. It's brutally hard singing and very difficult
(Post-Gazette drama editor Christopher Rawson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Last Five Years
WHERE: Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh, Katz Performing Arts Center, JCC, 5738
Darlington Road, Squirrell Hill.
WHEN: Through March 28; 8 p.m. Wed., Thurs. and Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun.
TICKETS: $20; seniors, students $18; 412-394-3353.
The Last Five Years