For composer, flop pointed way to top
Dallas Morning News, September 15, 1999
By Lawson Taitte / The Dallas Morning News

For Jason Robert Brown, a notorious flop has been a great career move.

This composer-lyricist's first Broadway show, Parade, was last season's most
eagerly awaited musical. It closed after two months, losing $5 million.

But in June, at age 29, Mr. Brown became one of the youngest winners of the
Tony Award for best score ever. The new piece he's working on will probably
have immediate entree onto a Lincoln Center stage next year.

For the time being, however, he still has to do musical odd jobs to hold
body and soul together. That's why he has been in Dallas working as musical
director for the Dallas Theater Center's Dinah Was, which opened at the
Kalita Humphreys Theater Tuesday.

"There weren't any wake-up-the-next-day benefits to the Tony," Mr. Brown
says. "But as[writer-director] Richard Maltby said to me, 'They can't take
it away from you.' It does make a difference in negotiations about the
things you don't want to bother with."

Parade was the brainchild of producer Garth Drabinsky, director Harold
Prince and playwright Alfred Uhry. Mr. Drabinsky was then the boss of Livent
Inc. It has since gone bankrupt, with Mr. Drabinsky indicted for mismanaging
funds. While Livent was riding high, though, Mr. Drabinsky touted Parade as
the third in a trilogy of historical musicals including
Show Boat and Ragtime.

The other two shows have their somber sides, but Parade is by far the
darkest. It is based on the real-life arrest, trial and lynching of a Jewish
man falsely accused of rape and murder in Atlanta. Reviews were mixed, but
Mr. Brown is convinced that if Livent had survived and stayed behind the
show, it would have eventually found its audience.

"Titanic did it, and word of mouth was terrible on that show," he says. "The
thing about Parade was that there was nothing else on Broadway to see.
Plenty of people adore Hal [Prince] and see all his work. Once the CD came
out, people kept telling me, 'I wish I had seen it.' "

The then-unknown Mr. Brown was asked to do the score in the first place
because Mr. Prince believed in the native of Rockford County, N.Y. (a suburb
of New York City). The director's daughter, Daisy, heard Mr. Brown playing
in a Manhattan piano bar and introduced him to her father. She directed his
first off-Broadway show, Songs for a New World, herself. (Plano Repertory
Theatre is planning the North Texas premiere of that piece late in 2000.)

The genesis of a big Broadway musical these days is a long process - too
long for a show's creative health, according to Mr. Brown. After the first
workshop, he was just sitting around.

"My marriage was breaking up, and I didn't want to be at home doing
nothing," he says.

The opportunity to work on Dinah Was came along, and Mr. Brown jumped at it.
The show is a stage biography of jazz singer Dinah Washington.

"This is a musical that doesn't have a composer. It has 16 songs in it,
written by different people. My job is to make a unified piece out of all
these numbers. It's very specific, technical, gnarly kind of work," Mr.
Brown says.

"I do this because I love doing this. But I admit that if I could pay for
Tavern on the Green [a topflight New York restaurant] every night, no, I
wouldn't be in Dallas right now."

The Theater Center has hired the cream of Dallas' jazz instrumentalists for
the band backing up the songs. After a rehearsal, Mr. Brown jumps onstage to
give the performers very specific instructions as to how the pieces should
go - gesticulating wildly, dancing around, even singing the songs in his own
cracked voice.

"It's a blast to listen to [Dinah Washington's] records," Mr. Brown says.
"It was an era when pop music was still about live players, musicianship,
arrangements. But I didn't imitate the original arrangements. I assimilated
the style."

Mr. Brown has worked on Dinah Was off and on for 2 1/2 years and will go to
the other cities where this new staging will play to train the bands there.
Ironically, Dinah Was has netted him more income than the more glamorous
Parade - partly because of Livent's collapse.

But Parade is still the key to Mr. Brown's future in the theater. It has
branded him as one of a generation of innovative young composers such as
Adam Guettel (Richard Rodgers' grandson) and Michael John La.Chiusa. Mr.
Brown was the first to make it to Broadway, though Mr. La.Chiusa has two
shows scheduled for the Great White Way during the upcoming season - Marie
Christine, starring Audra McDonald, and The Wild Party (one of two new shows
based on the same story).

"We all know each other, return each other's phone calls and are awfully
nice to each other," Mr. Brown says of the group. "It's hard to let go of
that feeling in your heart that if somebody else gets something, then
there's less for you - there's more than the necessary amount of
Schadenfreude [a perverse delight in others' misfortune] going around.

"I think we all tend to come off as a little heady. That tendency magnified
can be a bad thing. Also, the danger of being seen as the hot new thing is
that none of us are paying our rent very well. It would be even better if I
didn't have to have pizza for lunch every day."

Maybe things will pick up for Mr. Brown when Parade begins its national tour
in Atlanta next year, with Dallas as one of its expected stops. Or maybe if
his new two-character show - which New York scuttlebutt is calling his
"divorcical" - really does open downstairs at Lincoln Center as early as

Traditionally in New York, success is going from rags to riches. For Mr.
Brown, it will mean graduating from pizza to the Tavern on the Green.

Performance information

Dinah Was, presented by the Dallas Theater Center at the Kalita Humphreys
Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd., through Oct. 3. Performances at 7:30 p.m.
Tuesday-Thursday and Sundays, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, with matinees at 2 p.m
Saturday-Sunday. Tickets $16 to $52. Call 214-522-8499.