PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER
With Jason Robert Brown
Chicago critics have been writing love letters to composer-lyricist
Robert Brown in recent weeks, praising his new two-character musical, The
Last Five Years, an intimate portrait of the rise and fall of a modern
marriage. The original musical, which Lincoln Center Theater commissioned
and the non-profit Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL, is staging in a world
premiere through July 1, is a stark contrast to the socially and
politically-charged Parade, the 1998-1999 musical for which Brown won the
Tony Award for Best Score. When the dean of Chicago theatre critics, Richard
Christiansen, writes that The Last Five Years offers "exhilaration so
intense that it brings tears of joy," it seems clear that the talent for
which Brown was rewarded was not a fluke. And producers are once again
pricking up their ears. The conceit of The Last Five Years has the wife,
Kathleen, an Irish-Catholic actress, telling the story of the marriage from
the end of the relationship to the beginning. Husband Jamie, a Jewish
novelist, tells the tale from the beginning to the end. In the middle, they
only sing together once ‹ at their wedding. The Last Five Years has a
contemporary, urban sound more akin to Brown's Off-Broadway revue, Songs For
a New World, which was directed by Daisy Prince, who also helms the new
80-minute show. Will the new show have a commercial future? Did the Tony
promise a future? Brown spoke to Playbill On-Line from Skokie, where he is
in residence, playing piano and conducting the show's band.
Playbill On-Line: Parade was such a huge, sprawling, ambitious show.
purposely want your next show to be small and intimate?
Jason Robert Brown: Oh, yeah. This was an attempt to the anti Parade.
loved doing Parade, but I really wanted something that was much more
controllable, something that wasn't scaled so large. I ended up spending a
lot of energy in Parade on the ensemble stuff ‹ there were 37 people
standing there. I felt like I wanted to get to the meat of those two people
[the main characters of Parade] and it was harder to do that when there were
all those people surrounding them and there were so many other stories to
tell. So I wanted to do a show where I didn't have to worry about anybody
PBOL: And not the sound cynical, but the word "producable" also comes
mind ‹ two actors, a small band.
JRB: It certainly does sound more shrewd of me to do it. I don't know
conscious a choice that was. I won't deny that's there.
PBOL: The title page of the program at the Northlight in Skokie says
and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown," but doesn't credit a book. Is there a
JRB: It depends how you define "book." There's not a lot of dialogue.
There's a very strong structural element ‹ which is what I sort of consider
a book to be ‹ which I created. It could be said to function like a song
cycle, but it's not quite that cut and dried. One person sings, and another
person sings...and intercut within some of those songs are some monologues.
It's not as straightforward as a song cycle, but the impetus was to write a
song cycle ‹ a piece for two singers and a chamber ensemble. As I went on
with it, it gradually became more theatrical.
PBOL: Did you know it would be about a marriage?
JRB: I wanted it to be a man and a woman, and I didn't know exactly
their relationship was going to be. One of the first things I figured out
was the temporal shifts, which I thought would be exciting and fun. That was
a way I could tell a story about a relationship.
PBOL: Do you make choices about things such as "blame" and "fault" ‹
are always parts of relationships ‹ or do you leave it up to the audience to
figure the relationship's shape?
JRB: What I do is, I present a relationship. I painted both people as
their irreconcilable warts and let them fight it out until they can't do it
anymore. Thematically, the show was always going to be about two people who
can't be together. That was what the structure suggested. I'm constantly
showing not why he's a prick, or why she's an idiot, but why they just can't
be together. Why they love each other so much and can't stick it out.
PBOL: Are you playing piano at every performance?
JRB: Just about. I have a very talented musical director, who covers
for some shows so I can get out and watch it and take notes.
PBOL: Being a musician is still a huge part of your passion.
JRB: Very much. I came of age in the era of singer-songwriters. I believe
when I write a song and I play it, I bring something very specific to it
that even if somebody else is playing the exact same notes they don't bring
to it. I love playing my own stuff.
PBOL: Did your folks take you to the theatre when you were a kid?
JRB: They did. I think we went about once a year. I remember I saw a
of West Side Story with Debbie Allen, and Barnum. That was sort of a part of
life ‹ it was expected you'd do it, to see a Broadway show every year. We
only lived an hour outside of the city, in Rockland County.
PBOL: Was it magical when you first saw shows?
JRB: I was just reading Frank Rich's book and he talks about going and
seeing Gwen Verdon and what a life changing experience that was. I don't
know if it was that for me. It was thrilling, I loved being there. I
remember when the star drop came up in the balcony scene of West Side Story
and thinking it was the coolest thing in the world. But more than anything
else, it was a place that made sense to me. It was the most normal, usual
place in the world for me ‹ I felt right at home there. It's not that I
hadn't felt that before, but there was a comfort level sitting in the dark,
watching something unfold. It was comforting. It all made sense. I certainly
wasn't a very popular kid and I didn't have the world's happiest family
life, but I wasn't going in to escape anything, I walked in and I said, "Oh,
I get this place."
PBOL: And you said you were influenced by singer-songwriters, like Billy
Joel, not theatrical writers?
JRB: My bent had always been more musical. I always wanted to be a rock
star, then I wanted to be an orchestral composer. I always thought of myself
as a musician first. Then it turns out that whatever theatrical sense I had
was inescapable. The stuff that I wrote was extremely theatrical. That's the
kind of creature I had become.
PBOL: What are some of the first things you wrote, that a lot of people
don't know about? Is there some cheesy, terrible show?
JRB: I was 15, I wrote a show for the summer camp I went to, and that
terrifically bad. It was a very intense narrative about the silent movie
business. It was terrible in all the right ways. And when I was in college,
I wrote the freshman show, and that was also screamingly, laughably bad.
Once I got to New York, I was still writing screamingly, laughably bad
things, but within them, I would notice good things were coming out. I
salvaged the best of those good things and that's what eventually became
Songs for a New World.
PBOL: Your marriage did not work out. Is The Last Five Years
autobiographical? Did you take anything from your life and put it in?
JRB: Everything I write comes from my life. Obviously, I can't take
somebody else's, I only know what resonates emotionally for me, presumably
because I've experienced it. But I'm not narcissistic or sadistic enough to
make the contents of my marriage a matter of public record, you know what I
mean? That wasn't the aim of the piece. I think in writing a show about s
couple that fall apart, I was hoping that I'd maybe be able to come to terms
with that in my own life. But I wasn't going to come to terms with it by
writing something about me.
PBOL: The Last Five Years is not a roman a clef.
PBOL: Your next show is about the convicted financier Michael Milken?
JRB: I'm not sure that it's my next piece. I had worked a couple of
ago on a ballet that was something about Michael Milken and Wall Street in
the '80s. All the music still exists even though the ballet never
[happened]. There have been a lot of attempts over the years to get the
music into a show that makes me happy. But there's something automatically
off-putting about jerry-rigging a piece of theatre like that. It's material
I've got and I'm very happy with, so I wouldn't be ashamed if it had a home.
It was a ballet with music and songs. It was a large piece of dance theatre.
PBOL: What's your hope for The Last Five Years?
JRB: What's my hope? [Laughs.] I hope it makes me a billionaire!
Realistically, I just want to have it out there. After Parade, which was
such an emotional rollercoaster, I decided not to invest that way in the
work that I do. I invest my emotions in the work itself and not in my hopes
for what the work is going to do to my life. I have my own life, which is a
very happy and wonderful place. I'll make room for the show, whatever
PBOL: There has been a lot of talk in the past couple of seasons about
a Broadway show should be. Theatregoers, not just media people, have
wondered if such intimate shows as Dirty Blonde or A Class Act really
"belong on Broadway." Is The Last Five Years a Broadway show? Given the
short life of Parade on Broadway, would you resist a producer who wanted to
put this on Broadway?
JRB: I would resist it if I felt being in a Broadway theatre and closing
after a week and a half was going to hurt the property. That would be a bad
idea. If I thought it was [a producer] who knew what they were doing, then I
think anything can be ‹ I think a smart producer who knows what they want to
do with it is going to make a choice based on what they can do. If you cast
Catherine Zeta-Jones, then it's a Broadway show. I don't think A Class Act
was an Off-Broadway show, and I don't think that Dirty Blonde was an
Off-Broadway show, but I think that people's expectations of what they were
may not have been up to what the shows actually were when you saw them.
PBOL: I have this perception that if you win the Tony, you have lots
money and all these doors open to you.
JRB: Without seeming churlish about it, the Tony Award has done little
nothing for me. I mean, it gets me interviews. It's used for publicity. I
make less money now than I did then. It certainly hasn't assured me of a
long and fruitful career in the theatre. It's nice, it's fine. It sits up on
my mantlepiece and I'm very proud of it and I feel very lucky to have it.
PBOL: You're a guy who is still pitching shows and working as a musician?
JRB: One of the reasons I'm playing out in Skokie, IL, is because I
more money playing the show rather than sitting at home.
PBOL: Do you read reviews?
JRB: Oh, yes. And I remember every single one. Somebody has said, that
the best review is never really good enough. It never makes up for the bad
reviews you've had. What I want to be doing is reaching an audience. To the
extent that the reviews will get an audience in that will then be more
favorably inclined to respond, then great.
PBOL: Because Parade was dark, historical and political, and the new
charts the joy and ache of a relationship that splinters, people might
perceive you as being only interested in serious stuff. Does frivolous
subject matter interest you ‹ might you write The Archies, the Musical, or
something like that?
JRB: I wouldn't be against it. I feel if people want to see it, I have
problem with it. I don't like feeling like I'm the resident egghead. I'm
not. I'm just as cheap and low-class as anybody else. God knows, if the
people had given me the rights to my Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical, I
would be a very a happy man right now.
PBOL: You really did look into that?
JRB: Oh, yeah. And I'm negotiations for another piece that's as fluffy
piece can be. It's not to say I like writing superficial. But I like writing
"fun." There's nothing wrong with "fun."
By Kenneth Jones
The Last Five Years