Sunday, January 4, 2004
Despite his early Broadway success, Jason Robert Brown has found a more welcoming
audience far from New York.
By PAUL HODGINS
The Orange County Register
You'd think that any young composer who'd been plucked from relative obscurity
to replace Stephen Sondheim in a new Broadway musical, then landed a Tony
Award for his efforts, would thank his lucky stars.
Not Jason Robert Brown.
"Broadway is an inhospitable place to work," said Brown, 33, who stepped
in for a departing Sondheim to finish "Parade," based on the infamous murder
trial and lynching of Leo Frank; Brown won a 1999 Tony for original musical
score. "Broadway isn't kind or forgiving to new or smart work. It's unsophisticated
and sort of, well, stupid. Everyone in the business knows that. I don't have
any aspiration to write the kind of material that's successful on Broadway
Brown is biting the hand that feeds him for a good reason: It hasn't been
feeding him all that well. Despite its accolades (including another Tony
for Alfred Uhry, who wrote the book), "Parade's" debut production at Lincoln
Center closed quickly. And Brown's next effort, "The Last Five Years," opened
off-Broadway, received so-so reviews, and folded in the red after only two
Happily, Brown's financial fortunes have benefited from a saving grace: "The
Last Five Years" has been popular almost everywhere outside New York City.
Since its 2001 debut in Chicago, it has dominated the country's regional
theaters. "This is probably the 60th production. I've lost count," Brown
said of the show's California premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, where it
"The Last Five Years" was a reaction of sorts to Brown's experience with
"I wanted something more portable, (something) that I could do anyplace.
'Parade' had 35 actors and a big orchestra and a lot of collaborators. I
wanted to do something of my own ... without listening to what anyone else
had to say. And I wanted to write a song cycle for two singers."
Though the show's staging requirements are simplicity itself, its plot demands
that you pay attention. It's the story of a relationship, but each partner
goes in opposite directions. The man begins at their first date, the woman
begins with their breakup. The actors sing only one duet, in the middle of
the show, when their two stories meet chronologically at the altar.
Though Brown insists such pretzel logic isn't his forte, he confesses a fondness
for complicated plots.
"I'm always very moved in the theater by pieces that play with time and pieces
that show cause and effect. Stoppard's work, for example: 'The Real Thing'
Another huge influence is Sondheim, a composer to whom Brown has often been
compared. Many have noted a passing similarity between "The Last Five Years"
and Sondheim's poorly received 1981 musical, "Merrily We Roll Along," which
also juggles time and the order of events. Brown admits there's a connection.
"'Merrily' was a very powerful (influence) on me as a kid. It's always meant
a lot to me." There's even a reference to it in "The Last Five Years" - apparently
an obscure one. "I have yet to meet anybody who's spotted it," Brown said.
Turning his back on broadway
Brown's career path has been as circuitous and unlikely as the plot of his
musical. He went to the Eastman School of Music, one of the country's most
prestigious conservatories, but dropped out after two years. "One of my teachers
told me, 'Why do you want to write musicals? Serious music takes time, but
a musical you can write in a day.' I knew it was the wrong place for me."
Brown moved to New York to work as a composer, pianist and conductor.
Brown's first show, "Songs for a New World," almost sank into obscurity.
"It was done at a small theater with only about 100 seats, but it was never
full. I said, 'This represents too much work, and the results are too good,
for me to just lose it. Before this closes we have to get it recorded.' "
Brown scrounged up $30,000 for the recording session, then peddled the result
to RCA. "They said, 'Let's do it.' Because of that record, the show became
something. People started hearing it and coming to see it."
"Parade" was another example of the curious combination of serendipity and
persistence that have characterized Brown's career. He met Harold Prince,
one of Broadway's most respected directors, during rehearsals for Prince's
production of "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Brown was only the rehearsal pianist,
but his lowly position didn't stop him from promoting himself.
"I just kept pushing, observing, hanging around. Then when Steve dropped
out (of 'Parade'), they asked me if I wanted to write a couple of songs.
I said, 'Sure!' I'll never know what made me the next person to go to. I
don't know how I was able to be up in that league; it was an amazing opportunity."
The speed of Brown's rise, however, has been tempered by the disappointments
of "Parade," "The Last Five Years" and other projects. Those setbacks have
given rise to a surprising level of cynicism, or at least sober realism,
concerning his profession.
"I think 'The Last Five Years' is successful in regionals because it's perceived
as being easily done. It's very well reviewed, and it comes off as being
"Regional theaters love doing musicals because they make money, but they
don't know how to do them all that well. They're no good at developing them,
I find. I'm not all that interested in teaching a theater company the bones
of how to set up a show. We started 'The Last Five Years' in Chicago, and
while it was a great experience, we had to spend a lot of time teaching them
what to do."
Brown singled out San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse as
two of the few American regional theaters that successfully produce new musicals
of quality on a regular basis.
Perhaps the coming year will cheer Brown up and redirect his energies. He
is moving with his new wife, composer Georgia Stitt, to Italy. There are
several projects that interest him, including a musical about Betty Boop,
which he will write with his friend, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Brown
wrote the incidental music for Lindsay-Abaire's "Kimberly Akimbo," seen at
South Coast Repertory in 2001).
But judging by his current predilections, Broadway may not play a large part
in Brown's future.
"I thought I was going to love the business as much as I love the work. The
surprise is I don't love the business at all. There's a lot of crap, and
a lot of people desperate for their thing to be more successful than yours.
"I'm still optimistic that success (on Broadway) will happen. But in the
meantime, I want to do other things. I've gotten to the point where I don't
have to live in New York anymore. Italy for a year - why not? Spiritually,
it's about as far from New York City as you can get. That's what I want right
The Last Five Years