Jason Robert Brown's new musical receives a praise

by Alison Damast
Daily Editorial Board

If Broadway could take out its own personal ad in the newspaper, it would run something like this: Looking for talented, young, and exciting composer to write a meaningful musical that does not resemble in any way shape or form a Sondheim show, a Rodgers & Hammerstein revival, or a London import.

An ad such as this one would normally be ignored in the high-risk playing field of the musical theater scene today... that is, unless the world-famous director, Harold Prince, decided to take a chance on a completely unknown composer to write the music and lyrics to a show. Enter Jason Robert Brown, the 28 year old composer of the new and critically acclaimed Broadway musical, Parade. The musical is based on the life of the southern Jew, Leo Frank, a victim of anti-Semitism who was falsely accused of the murder of Mary Phagan, a 14 year old girl who worked in his pencil factory.

Brown, sitting in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at the Lincoln Center for the theater's Platform Series Talks, has the unassuming look of a college student. He is dressed casually in a green sweater and blue jeans and seems eager to talk about his latest musical venture. At first glance, one would never know that this young man has received acclaim from famous theater critics such as Linda Weiner of Newsday, who called Roberts, "the real thing," and by Ben Brantley of the New York Times, who called him "a composer of talent and invention."

Brown never imagined that he would end up where he is today. When he was a young boy, Billy Joel was his role model. Brown recalled the first time he sat down at the piano for the first time at the age of seven. After an hour or two, he was able to pound out the theme to Star Wars at the piano. He doesn't, however, see himself as a great pianist. "My interpretive talent has always outshone my technical ability," said Brown.

As Brown grew older, his desire to be an actor emerged and he couldn't settle on just being the next Billy Joel. Instead of choosing between the two careers, he made a smart move and fused his desire to be a songwriter like Billy Joel and an actor into one by "writing songs I could act."

To further his musical abilities, Brown attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. for two years as a composition major with a minor in piano. And then, like any artist who wants to break into the theater scene, he headed down to New York City to try his luck.

And lucky he was. Brown recalled the momentous day four years ago when he was playing piano at a club downtown and was discovered by Daisy Prince, the daughter of the Broadway director, Harold Prince. Daisy Prince quickly recognized his extraordinary music-writing talent.

The two started collaborating on the project, Songs For a New World, which was a collection of songs by Brown that came from what he calls "absolutely terrible ideas for shows." The revue eventually made its way to an off-Broadway stage, where it was a success and was eventually recorded by RCA Victor onto CD.

Brown found himself being invited to the Prince's Christmas parties and he soon became friendly with Harold Prince. Prince recognized talent when he saw it and slowly started to help boost Brown's career. Brown became the rehearsal pianist of Prince's Broadway show, Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Brown recalled how Prince bought him a dog, which he subsequently named Bernstein (after the great maestro, Leonard Bernstein). Brown would take the dog for walks in the park and would often arrange to meet Prince (who was very fond of Bernstein, the dog). One day, while the two were walking in the park, Prince mentioned to Brown that he was interested in his composing an American Opera.

Brown then met Prince in his office to discuss the project.

"I was overwhelmed when I walked into his office and saw 20 Tony Awards piled around his office," said Brown.

Alfred Uhry, the author of the book, was also at the meeting and the two men encouraged Brown to write a song based on the outline of the story of Parade. Brown says that his first song that he wrote for the show was terrible and was completely off the mark. Though the first song he wrote was an initial failure, he pursued the project, writing other songs that eventually convinced Prince and Uhry that he was the right man for the project.

Surprisingly, Brown did not do an extensive amount of research for the show. For background on the story of Leo Frank, he read the two books that had been written on the subject matter, I Fell on Georgia, and Little Girl Who's Dead. He also read a stack of newspaper articles from Tennessee that mentioned how a man came forward on his death bed saying that 70 years ago, he had seen a man who was not Leo Frank kill Mary Phagan.

In terms of musical research, Brown focused mainly on learning the Southern dialect. Southern dialect was foreign to him as a self-described "New York City cultural Jew". In order to get a feeling for the music of that time period, Brown said, "I studied the music of Charles Ives, a composer I feel truly had a sense of the adventure of the American spirit."

When asked about the relationship between him and Alfred Uhry (the author), Brown said frankly that in many ways, "it is one of theft." Brown said that Parade was really Alfred's show, even though they worked everything out together. He said that Alfred would write out a scene and there would be an obvious blank spot, which is where the song would end up. While writing the song, Brown said he followed the structure of the monologue Uhry wrote and would often steal many of Alfred's ideas for lyrics.

Georgia's rich history also provided inspiration for Brown's music and lyrics. Brown said, "the rich history of the South was often better than the stuff I could come up with." He cited the example of the opening number of the show, "The Red Hills of Home." One of the inscriptions on Mary Phagan's grave mentioned something about "the old red hills of Georgia," inspiring Brown to write a song which used that part of the inscription as its title.

In terms of the musical process, Brown likes to work by himself on both the music and lyrics, rather than collaborating with a lyricist. Brown said that "I sing when I write and can't write without singing. This is why I don't collaborate. I want a natural emotional build in my music." When writing a song, Brown always comes up with a title first and then sings the title, playing around with various tunes until he finds the melody that he is looking for. "Musical style," said Brown, "is vaguely inevitable for me. I don't have to spend much time thinking about it."

One of the most rewarding experiences for Brown when he was writing Parade was working with an experienced director like Hal Prince. Prince was often able to point the young composer in the right direction. With no shame, Brown said that "Hal was great at telling us we screwed up. He'd say 'Oh....that's not great. You went off the trail,'". After Hal would cut some of Brown's songs, Uhry would take Brown out for a milkshake so that he would feel better. "In retrospect," Brown said, "Hal was good at goading us to someplace better. He had a real feel for how the narrative drive should work. I wouldn't have known to cut some songs that were not as strong as others."

When asked about the climate for young composers on Broadway today, Brown shrugged his shoulders despondently, and said "I am a lucky person. There are not many directors like Hal Prince around." Brown said emphatically, "there are many very talented people around. People, however, don't want to put millions into a chancy composer."

One of the great blows to the current Broadway scene, Brown believes, has been the death of Jonathan Larson, the composer of Rent. "Unfortunately," he says, "Jonathan Larson is dead and can't be leading us on. People don't look at me the same way that they looked at Larson." Brown firmly believes that young writers can write successful musicals, but the downside to this optimistic hope is the ugly reality that producers won't take risks.

As a piece of advice to young composers, he said, "Every theater these days wants new shows. It is up to us to get ideas for shows to the right place. There are ways to do it. Just do it and don't worry about the climate of theater today, because at the end of the day, your work will be the only thing that will matter to you."

The hesitation that is found among producers in the theater field can also be found in the record industry. Parade has not yet been recorded onto CD and half a million dollars is needed to record the show. Unfortunately, Ben Brantley's review of Parade in the New York Times was not "exceptionally kind," said Brown and it ultimately discouraged RCA Victor from spending the money to record the show. Brown hopes that the show will either be able to raise the money to record the show or some other record label will be "foolhardy enough to record the show."

Brown is especially grateful to the Broadway star, Audra Macdonald, for her album of songs that showcases the songs of the talented, unknown composers of the musical theater scene today rather than the standard musical theater greats such as Gershwin and Porter. Two of Brown's songs are on her album, including his song from Parade, "You Don't Know This Man." Brown said that the reaction to the album has been "spectacular" and he is very thankful for what she has done for young composers.

Critics see Parade as milestone in American theater, saying that it has created a new form of theater -- the American Opera. Brown, however, sees it as more of an "American folk Piece of Theater. It is only an 'opera' in the sense that it is epic and grand." One of the wonderful things about Parade, Brown said, is that the music contains so many different things at the same time.

Brown realizes that Parade is a show that is far from a "conventionally told piece of theater." "I love to tell things. I didn't come to Broadway to do a show like Crazy For You. I want my work to be gutsy."

Brown, in many ways, represents the future of musical theater... the new blood. But will this new blood succeed? It is a tricky question and one without a definite answer. There is no doubt, however, that the future of these new and courageous composers lies in the hands of the public. If Parade fails, it is one more strike against the successful future of musical theater... the danger being that musicals will become a relic from the past. Brown realizes this sad truth the best of all, saying "we are courageous only if we fail."