A Conversation with
Jason Robert Brown
January 13, 1999 - Platform #6
Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at the Theater before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the January 13, 1999 Platform with Jason Robert Brown:
THOMAS COTT: Hi, everybody. I'm Thomas Cott from Lincoln Center Theater. Welcome to another evening in our Platform series. For those of you who did not hear, Alfred Uhry (who was supposed to be here today) is, unfortunately, home sick with the flu, but Jason Robert Brown, who was scheduled to speak in two weeks, has been kind enough to switch.
JASON ROBERT BROWN: ...I'm worth it! [audience laughter]
TC: And we're delighted to have him here with us on any day! For those who don't know, this Platform series began last summer as a way for our audiences to meet some of the artists working here at the theater. And this winter, we've already had Hal Prince, the director of Parade, and James McMullan, who did the poster for Parade and many other shows of ours.
We make transcripts of each Platform; they're available online and we also sell them in published form at our lobby shop during performance times. The Platform series, by the way, is sponsored by the Charles E. Culpeper Foundation, which has been very generous in underwriting a lot of our educational activities, and we want thank them for their support. So now I get to embarrass Jason with a little bit of...
TC: Puffery. Well, let's start with some facts. You were born 28 years ago, in Ossining, New York.... I feel like Ralph Edwards! [laughter] Raised in Rockland County. Spent two years at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, before coming to New York about five years ago, and in the classic Lana Turner tradition, you were "discovered" while playing piano at a club downtown and started working in theater about four years ago.
Your show Songs for a New World was produced at the WPA Theatre off-Broadway... a wonderful revue. The show was recorded and I encourage you all to pick up a copy. We sell it here at our shop, and it's also at all major record stores. In addition, two of Jason's songs are included on Audra McDonald's new album, including a song from Parade. As you all probably know, Parade marks Jason's Broadway debut. Here are a few things people have said about him: the Times has called Jason "a composer of talent and invention." Newsday wrote that "Jason Robert Brown turns out to be the real thing: a theater creature who understands how to get under the skin of traditional American songs and make them sing with the nervous rhythms of today." And musical theater historian Ken Mandelbaum declared, "Perhaps the biggest news about Parade is the introduction to Broadway of a young composer/lyricist named Jason Robert Brown, whose score indicates that Broadway has found a gifted new talent. His work is fascinating, complex and unfailingly theatrical." Please welcome Jason Robert Brown! [applause]
Okay, I have to ask you one thing: You were interviewed recently by the Daily News, and you explained that when you were seven years old, you begged your parents for a piano. And when one was dragged up from the basement, you immediately sat down and played a song?
JRB: No, I'd say it took about 2 or 3 hours before I was successfully through the theme from Star Wars. [laughter] But I had interpretive talent even then that far outshone my technical ability. [laughter]
TC: It said your ambition was either to be Billy Joel or Fats Domino.
JRB: You know, I don't remember saying the Fats Domino part, but I'm sure she didn't make it up. But yeah, Billy Joel was always the model. I thought, "Gee, there's a career for me!" You could just play piano and write these cool songs and people would scream and you could be kind of a funny-looking, nebbishy guy, and I thought, "That's a career for me!" It didn't quite work out that way, but there you have it.
TC: What's interesting is, you didn't include theater in that ambition.
JRB: Emphatically not. The problem is I wanted to be Billy Joel, but I also wanted to be an actor. I'd watch TV and think, "You know, they could really use another guy like me -- a smart-ass kid. That's what I could be." So I wanted to be an actor. And the two of them just kind of fused, so I wrote songs that I could act. Which, unfortunately, made them completely not suitable for any radio station that any of you might listen to. And thus this bizarre career choice in which I am currently enmeshed.
TC: What was the first piece you wrote for the theater?
JRB: Well, I wrote some terrible things while I was at Eastman. I don't think those count. The first complete show that I wrote was Songs for a New World, which we did 3˝ years ago at the WPA. And even that was a collection of songs. It was stuff that I had written for shows that I had never finished because they were terrible ideas. I think that if you go to most young composer/lyricists and ask them what they're working on, you'll roll your eyes and go, "Well, that sounds like a terrible idea," and I was as much a victim of that as anybody else is. So I wrote a lot of shows that were terrible ideas. And then I also started writing other songs that I just thought would be fun. I was working at piano bars and thought, "Oh, this would be good for this singer to do." And somehow the songs just all started making sense together, with kind of an emotional narrative to the whole piece. That's how Songs for a New World came about.
It was directed by Hal Prince's daughter, Daisy. Which is how I met Hal. I met Daisy at a piano bar, and she seemed to have good advice for everybody [audience laughter], and I said "Gee, you've got good advice. Maybe you could direct my show." And I didn't realize that it was Daisy Prince, she was just "Daisy". She said, "Sure, I'll direct your show!" And we just started working on it, and soon I was being invited to Christmas parties at Daisy's folks' house, and it suddenly dawned on me that I had STUMBLED ONTO A GOLD MINE! [audience laughter]
TC: And so one day Hal just called you up and said, "I want you to come write a show for me."
JRB: Well, it didn't work quite like that. I had music directed for Hal, and I was the rehearsal pianist on Kiss of the Spider Woman. This is the power of really nudging everyone around you. Once I had gone to the Christmas parties, I decided that I would, you know, just dig my way in. I really needed the job! So they made me rehearsal pianist on Spider Woman, and then Hal asked me if I would music direct a show at the Public called The Petrified Prince, which Michael John LaChiusa wrote. And I said yes.
And in the course of doing that, one day Hal got me... a dog. [audience laughter] He loved this dog – this was a dog that came from a shelter. He found this wonderful dog and gave it to me. And he used to arrange appointments where I would walk the dog across the park and meet him, so he could say hello to the dog. He has two dogs of his own, incidentally, but for some reason he and his wife had a severe attraction to my dog. So I would walk...Bernstein was his name [laughter]...across the park.
One time when I walked Bernstein across the park, Hal said, "I want to talk to you in two or three days, why don't you come by the office. There's something I want to talk to you about writing," he said. "It's like an American opera." And I thought, "Um, okay, sure! Sounds good." And I went in, and Hal's office at the time, was –- he's still in Rockefeller Center, but he used to have Tony Awards piled, I mean you can't even imagine, twenty Tony Awards staring at you, glaring back at you, mocking you as you walked through the door. [laughter] I think that's why he took them down eventually, because people used to just go in and stare at them. So I went in and Alfred was there and they told me the bones of the story and they threw a pile of research this big at me, and said "So think about it, think what you wanna do." And that was how I got drafted into this.
TC: And if I understand the story correctly, you went home that night and wrote a song?
JRB: Well, it wasn't that night, it was like two or three days later. But it was a bad song, I want to stress that. I hate telling this story because it makes me sound like such a mercenary... which I am. [laughter] Hal had said, "Look, if you write for the project, we'll give you some money," and I thought, "Well, I can't wait too long, I've got rent to pay." So I wrote what I thought was the perfect opening number and I brought it in and Hal and Alfred looked at me and said, "Well, that's completely, um, wrong... But I guess we'll give you some money." So Hal loaned me some money as an advance on working on the show, and that was able to sustain me for the next couple of months, until we went into rehearsal with Petrified Prince.
TC: And did you do a lot of research right before you started writing, or how did that work?
JRB: I read the materials they gave me, which consisted primarily of Night Fell on Georgia, which is a wonderful book about the case. There is another book by Harry Goldman called A Little Girl is Dead, which I read. And there were a whole stack of newspaper articles from The Tennesseean, which had come out when a man came forward years after the murder to say he had seen Jim Conley with the body of the girl.
TC: Now wait a minute. How many people here have seen Parade? [Most of the audience raises their hands.] Okay, so we're not giving away too much of the plot here…
JRB: Those of you who haven't seen it, none of this means anything anyway. But at any rate, a man had come forward on his deathbed and said that 70 years previous, he had seen somebody other than Leo Frank commit the crime. The Tennesseean did a special series on it, and they published pages of research about the case. And that was most of what I read. The Atlanta Jewish Museum was also kind enough to send a videotape; it was only 8 or 9 minutes, part of their newsreels that they show. I watched that to give me some flavor of what it looked like. But that was the only historical research.
I did a small amount of musical research. It was mostly for dialect, because I'm very northern, I'm really Yankee, and I did not know how Southerners talked, other than how I had heard in some bad movie, [affects a thick Southern drawl] someone talkin' in an accent like this. I didn't really know how to do a Southern dialect. So I did a lot of work on that, just to make sure that I wasn't going to be putting things into people's mouths that would sound all wrong.
And I did some musical work, I focused on just certain composers of the period who I thought could really help me. And the best of them was Charles Ives. I had loved him all through college. The place is wrong— Ives is a famous New Englander. But his sense of adventure, of the American spirit, what American music should be, I thought he represented what 1913 might have been about, musically. There was all this kind of bursting at the edges, ragtime was just coming out, and at the same time there was still all of the old European tradition, and people singing parlor songs around the piano. So there was all of these kinds of things garbled together and mixing and starting to become a music of their own.
For the "chain gang song" in Parade, and things like that, I had an album which is a wonderful collection called Sounds of the South. It's four CDs, and it was originally done in the '50s. A guy with a stereo microphone just wandered through the South, into the gullies, into the plantations, into the swamplands, and he just found people who sang or played strange indigenous instruments made out of bamboo sticks or straws, or whatever it is that they played on. And he recorded them. That kind of sound, I didn't get a lot of chance to use it in the show, which was unfortunate, because it's very rich stuff. But I did use it for the chain gang number, and for some of the other songs like "A-Rumblin' and A-Rollin'." A lot of the black material comes from stuff that I pulled from there.
TC: You finished a first draft of the score, and Alfred finished a draft of the book and there was an initial reading in Philadelphia, is that right?
JRB: Yeah... in Philadelphia, June of '96.
TC: At which, I read, your mother went to see it, and she had to be helped out of the theater, because she was so overcome?
JRB: I was married to a non-Jewish woman at the time. I was never the most ardent or faithful Jew that you would find in New York. I mean, I was a New York City "cultural Jew". My grandfather, though, had been very Orthodox. He was first-generation American, coming over from the Old World. And my mother was not Orthodox, but she was a little more observant than I was. I think my mother had always felt, somewhere in her, that we were discarding all the traditions, that we were disrespecting my grandfather in some way. And my grandfather and I didn't really have any kind of reconciliation before he died. I was in college, I had hair halfway down my back, and he thought I was some kind of weirdo, strange rebel kid. And we never really got to have heart-to-hearts, where I said, "Hey, tell me about the old times," or whatever it was I was supposed to be sharing with him. It just didn't get communicated. It was too much distance to bridge.
And I think when my Mom came and saw Parade that first time, I think she sensed me trying to cross that bridge back to my grandfather, and I think that was very emotional for her. I think it meant that there was some way to kind of... bring things back together. That mattered a lot to her. So yeah, she was a big wreck.
TC: Your grandfather, then, was a reference point for you for Leo?
JRB: Yeah. And much more so after that reading than he was before. As I look back on it now, I see that even then I had used him a lot. But it became a lot more clear to me, the longer it went on, that he was a very valuable resource to me emotionally.
TC: Did you write the score in sequence, or did you write the big numbers and then fill in around them, or how do you work?
JRB: We wrote in sequence and then threw everything out and started over again. [laughter] That's not actually true. I'd say the first act is very much the way we wrote it except for Leo and Lucille's material. Both of the first songs, Leo's first song, "How Can I Call This Home?" and Lucille's "What Am I Waiting For?" –- both of those are later additions to the show. But with those things excepted, most of the first act runs pretty much the way we wrote it in our first draft. Obviously there's a great many little changes, but structurally, musically, it's very similar.
Leo and Lucille were the last two things to come in. I had spent so much time worrying about the character of the South and the energy of Atlanta and trying to make sure that I got that right, that I didn't worry too much about Leo and Lucille, and after we did our first reading we realized that we didn't have Leo and Lucille. So we immediately set about remedying it. We first fixed Lucille's "arc" -- I hate such words -- [affects British accent] or her dramatic journey, if you will... and it was only after we fixed Lucille's part that we then looked and said, "Ugh, we still don't have Leo." "How Can I Call This Home?" is one of the last songs that I finished for the show. I finished it, I think, in June. And some of the lyrics come from rehearsal in October.
There were very few changes in the show during the rehearsal process. This was not a show where we were throwing out numbers, not a new song came in during the rehearsal process. We had done a reading in Philadelphia, a reading in New York, and a workshop in Toronto -– we knew what we had. We knew what we wanted to say. I know that certain members of the press have taken us to task for not having refined the show further during previews, but what we did during previews was make sure that we had the show we wanted. And I think we found out, by and large, that we did. So there wasn't a lot of rewriting going on. That was outside of the rehearsal process, we did that before we came here.
TC: A lot of the actors have been with the show from the beginning, right, but not Brent Carver?
JRB: Well, actually, Brent was sort of with the show from the beginning, this is more a Hal thing. I mean, he wasn't with the show, but the first meeting we had Hal said, "I know the perfect guy, it's Brent Carver." And Alfred and I went, okay, meanwhile who are we going to cast for the lead? Nobody really thought Brent was going to do it, and I personally, thought Brent was too old. I was wrong, incidentally. I see it every night that I watch the show, I see that he's absolutely perfect and I was an idiot. But that's why we have Hal Prince, to tell me I'm an idiot. Because I really thought, "Leo was 28 years old!" He is as old as I am now. And I really thought, "Oh, we want to do that. We want to show that on stage." But I think it was a better choice not to go quite that young with him. I think that doing that would've pulled us away from it a little bit.
TC: I understand that some relatives of Leo Frank came to see the show recently. Did you get a chance to speak to them?
JRB: I didn't talk to them much. His niece and his great-niece came to the show. The great-niece lives out in New Jersey. She actually came twice, the great-niece. Before she would bring the niece, she wanted to see it and make sure it was okay. And she came and said that it was very hard to watch -- actually, she said it turned out to be an easier show to watch than she expected, but she was very nervous that something horrible and painful was going to come up and kind of attack her. If she had reacted that way, I would have understood completely... it's certainly not a show that pulls a lot of punches, so I think we would've been understanding.
TC: I don't want to hog the microphone here. Are there any questions from the house? Sir?
AM #1: I was just wondering, do you sing when you write, and also, do you use any music software when you write?
JRB: Those are two questions, so let me take one at a time. I do sing when I'm writing, in fact I can't write without singing. Everything I write -– it's why I haven't collaborated with another lyricist, in spite of the many people who bite at my ankles and tell me I should! Everything comes pretty much at the same time. I sit and I bang and I play very loud and I sing much higher than I can actually reach and I just scream. It's why my numbers have the build that they do. I really do want an emotional build from one end to the other and that's all very natural. That's why I set text the way I do, which is I think different than a lot of theater composers. It comes out of my mouth. That's just the way that I write.
As for the more technical question about whether I use music software: I know how to. I've used Finale, I've used some Midi transcribing programs. They take so much longer, to be honest, for me. I'm much better at just sitting at the piano and banging it out. I'm a very proficient pianist at my own... I mean, I'm not good at Bach, but I'm very good at me. [laughter] It's all too time-consuming, otherwise, to sit and do all the necessary… The thing about Finale that I found – for those who don't know, Finale is a notation program that electronically writes down what you play. And the thing about it is that it can be perfect. You can actually make your music look perfect, and because I'm anal-retentive I do. And I'd spend several thousand hours optimizing the pages, and cleaning up the… it takes too long. So, no. Thank God I work at Lincoln Center Theater, and they pay a copyist to take care of all of that for me.
AM #2: Do you write the lyrics first? Or do you write everything at the same time?
JRB: I write everything at the same time. I'd say what I do first is I come up with a title, which I'll generally throw out halfway through. I have a title, and I'll sit at the piano, and I'll just come up with some chord that makes me happy, and I'll sing the title. And I'll sing it over and over again until I have another line to come after the title. And then I'll find lines that come around the title, until I've got a structure that I can just start playing with.
TC: Do you also decide on a musical style at the outset, or does it just sort of evolve?
JRB: There's not that much to decide, as far as musical styles are concerned. These things feel vaguely inevitable to me. I think when you're dealing with a story that is as strict in its musical structure as this is – when you say, "All right, here's this angle. We're going to have the girls come out, and they're going to sing this weird thing about how he's evil and he's creepy and he's mysterious. And then Leo's going to come out, and he's going to sing a number about 'why don't you come up to my office,' " it seemed inevitable to me what that musical style should be. So I don't have to spend a lot of time thinking about it. That's the instinctive part. Music for me... I think everyone says this: music is much easier than lyrics. Music just feels right. Either it does or it doesn't, and you know when it does, and you go with it. And if it doesn't, you throw it out.
AM #3: What is the relationship between a book writer and lyricist?
JRB: Well, in my case with Alfred, it's one of theft. [laughter]
TC: But isn't that pretty standard between book writer and composer?
JRB: Well you know, I've never worked with any other book writers. But this was really Alfred's story and Alfred knew what he wanted to say with it. It didn't always happen, but what I would generally do is, we would work out what the scene was going to be, what would take place in the scene, whether there was going to be a song or whether it was just going to be a kind of recitative. And then I would say, okay, write that. And he'd go and write it. And in the middle of the scene, there would usually be this big blank spot. And I'd say, "Now what happens in the blank spot again?" And he'd say, "Well, you said it should be this." And I'd say, "Yeah, I know, but how do they say that, and what do they say?" And so usually he'd give me a monologue. And then I would follow, not the specific words of the monologue, but the structure of the monologue emotionally. For example, in Newt Lee's song: "I'm trying to remember... we did this... and then I walked down into the basement... and then I checked over here and then I…" So I'll use the structure of how he sets things up, because he's really great at structure. That's one of the things that Alfred really does well. So I'll just use it and steal it all, and show it to him, and he'll say "No, this is crap," and then I'll rewrite it.
TC: Some of the material also came from real-life things. The title of the first number, "The Old Red Hills of Home," actually comes from…
JRB: Well, the opening number was actually a lot less Alfred's than some of the other stuff. There are a few numbers in the show that were really kind of mine. The opening is kind of mine, and Mrs. Phagan's number in the courtroom is kind of mine.
TC: The title for the opening came from Mary Phagan's tomb?
JRB: Yeah. It says on the gravestone, "She died for the glory of the old red hills of home." Or something like that. We would steal from wherever we could. There's a very rich, rich history.
TC: I think it makes it resonate more because it's true.
JRB: Yeah, but I mean beyond that, it's better than anything I would have come up with. [laughter] There's no point in not using the really good stuff. It's there. As it is, the stuff we didn't use in this show, you could write four other shows with the testimonies that we couldn't use, the strange people who showed up in the middle of this... it was very odd. [To AM #4] Yes?
AM #4: You're saying you relied on the author a lot for structure and for the substance of the piece, but for something like Songs for a New World, the structure is dramatically in all of the songs there so strong – what did you look to for some of those?
JRB: Well, musical structure I can do. Lyrical structure I can do also. With Songs for a New World, a lot of that stuff just came from stories I wanted to tell, or thoughts I had. But again, this being a much larger [British accent again] journey to tell, I relied a lot more on Alfred to tell me how we go through each of those things. But it was very collaborative, I'm giving a lot more of it to Alfred than is actually true. But it was his ball game, and I just kind of swung the bat. [laughs] That was good!
TC: A great metaphor... How much did Hal add to that process as well?
JRB: Hal was really good at telling us we screwed up. [laughter] That's really what Hal did. We would come in, we'd have a scene, we'd give it to Hal, and Hal would say, "Yes, that's great!" And then we'd all go away and we'd be really happy, and Alfred would buy me a milkshake. And then we'd come in the next week, and we'd show it to Hal and he goes, "Oh... That's not great." And we'd look at each other, and we'd go "Well, why isn't it great, Hal?" And he'd say "You went off the trail, and you should do it this way." And Hal would say "You should do it this way." At which point Alfred and I would go and we'd be miserable, and he'd buy me a milkshake. And he would say, "Well, Hal says we should do it this way." And I'd say, "Yes, but what if we do it this way instead of this way?" So Hal was really good at goading us to push it to some place better.
Everything that Hal asked for, in terms of numbers that I cut – and I'm very defensive about cutting songs – but every time he made me cut a number we really did put a better one in its place. Which I can't say is always true of every process I've been through. But Hal was really good at saying – because it wasn't about the music not being good enough, but it was really about the way that the line… You know, Hal is so great at focus. He's just really great at the drive, the narrative drive of something, the narrative energy. So he could tell when we had been going one way and we had kind of started veering off. And now that I look back at it, I see that the songs when we veered off weren't as good, they weren't as strong. I wouldn't have known that. But you can see it now, having pushed forward straight through as hard as we did.
TC: If you were to do this process over again, would you have done it differently? Or is this the way you think you're going to work…
JRB: Well, I would have been older!
JRB: It would have made a lot of – I mean, I'd never done this process before. So if I did it again, I would have done a lot of things differently.
TC: So the next show you do, will you do it the same way?
JRB: Well, no one does anything the way Hal Prince does anything because Hal is a director who wields a lot of power, and he has a lot of instincts, and you have to trust that Hal knows what he's doing. At 28 years old – or earlier in this process, at 26 years old – I was not going to come into a meeting and have Hal Prince say to me, "You know, I really think it should go this way," and I'd go "You're wrong!" [laughter] I mean I fought – we fought a lot, and I don't want to minimize that. But there's a point at which you have to trust the people you work with, and that point gets reached a lot earlier in a collaboration with a guy who won a Pulitzer Prize and a guy who won 20 Tony Awards than it will in a case when I'm with people who are my age and who are all just struggling, and starting up from the bottom…
God knows it might have been a different – needless to say, it would have been a different show if I did it with younger people. But even if Hal Prince had been 27 years old and Alfred Uhry had been 27 years old, it would have been a very different show for the three of us to be writing when we were all at the same kind of place. Because first of all, I am obnoxious and I'm pushy, and I would have demanded a lot of things that in this case I really backed off, and thought, "Gee, I really want to use this experience to learn how to do this better, and not to just say "I'm always right, and what the hell do you guys know?" Believe me, I'm grateful for that. Whether or not I'll be able to stick with that process [laughter] is an entirely different question. So we'll find out.
AM #5: I was just wondering who you thought actually did the murder.
JRB: Well, some people here haven't seen the actual play. I can tell you that the "chain gang" scene is as clear an indicator as I can give you without giving it away.
TC: More questions. Sir.
AM #6: Are there any plans to record the score?
JRB: Oh Lord, you're asking the most controversial question. Tom is sitting here wishing you didn't ask that question.
TC: No, I was hoping somebody would, actually.
JRB: The answer is, there are plans to record the score, there just aren't any labels to record the score. There are a lot of backroom dealings that are involved in this. And a lot of labels that would have come in earlier in the process and said, "Hey, this is great, we really want to get on board," weren't allowed to get on board until after we opened. And as some of you may know, the Times was not exceptionally kind to us. A lot of papers were wonderfully kind to us, most papers were wonderfully kind to us, I can even say. However, because we came in without a "money review" from the Times, a lot of labels have been skittish. It's an expensive record to make, it costs almost half a million dollars to make a cast album for a show this big. So I think a lot of labels have been skittish about committing to that if they're not sure the show's going to run until the Tony Awards. Or they're not sure it's going to run after the Tony Awards. So the answer is yes, God willing, and if anyone here wants to put forth a couple of hundred thousand…
TC: We're taking collections after tonight's talk.
JRB: Knock on wood, it will happen. Songs for a New World was not recorded by RCA/Victor, for example. It was recorded through the generosity of a lot of people who put up the $40,000 so we could do it. That was a much smaller show, so it didn't cost that much. And then when we had the master, we brought it to RCA and they distributed it for us. But Parade's so big that it's really hard to do that, unless somebody really wants to bankroll that kind of investment. So we're hoping that some label is either foolhardy or enthusiastic enough to pick it up.
TC: I believe it will be recorded. In my heart of hearts.
AM #7: You mentioned the Eastman School of Music, and I just wanted to know, were you a composition major or a piano major?
JRB: I was a composition major with a piano minor. I studied with Sam Adler, Joe Schwantner, and David Liptak, but I was not cut out for higher learning. I wasn't cut out for lower learning either. [laughter] I was always a terrible student, and in high school – my mother pulled out more hair than she still has on her head. I'm usually terrible at that kind of structure in my life. I want to make money, that's what it really was about, and I thought that the stakes were too low. To get a grade was never a high enough stake for me. So I just ended up sloughing a lot of it off.
I want to tell this story, because it's very important: I failed out of a theory class because of attendance. It was at 8:30 in the morning, and I just couldn't wake up. [laughter] So I came in and I aced the final. I hadn't shown up almost all semester, and I aced the final, and they still failed me. And at Eastman, you need to take Theory every semester or you can't graduate. I was going to have to stay an extra year to make it up, and I was not only incensed, but I was so bored at that point I said "Well, that must be my cue." And I left. A good lesson: drop out! [laughter]
TC: The Eastman School's loss is our gain. [To AM #8] Sir.
AM #8: You've done orchestrations and vocal arrangements, and now writing the score. What do you prefer, or do you see yourself being kind of a Renaissance guy and do it all?
TC: Jason does wear a lot of hats, and what you don't know is that he even plays the piano in the orchestra pit at some performances. It's unusual for a composer to do, but I think it's wonderful. Anyway, the question was do you think you'll concentrate on one facet of your work or do you want to keep being a "Renaissance Man," as the man asked.
JRB: Well, being a Renaissance Man implies being a gun-for-hire, to a certain extent. And I love orchestrating, and I love music directing, but as my price goes up, it gets a lot harder to justify doing that. There's not a lot of music directing jobs in the world, and there's certainly not a lot of them at a high level. And now that I am a Broadway composer, I think that in a certain sense I get scratched off a lot of lists. And I'm not interested in going back and music directing at the WPA, where I've done plenty, but they pay you $200 a week and I can't live on that, at this point. So a certain amount of the gun-for-hire stuff has to go out the window. I love playing, and I love orchestrating, and I hope to do a lot of that. In fact, I'm doing some concerts at Joe's Pub in May, where I'll be playing and singing. So I hope to do a little more of the performing thing, which has been kind of sucked under while I got Parade up.
The vocal arranging stuff, honestly, I'm telling you all here: I'm a brilliant vocal arranger. [laughter] Anybody who needs a vocal arranger, I'm your man. I love doing it more than anything. Working with voices is my favorite thing in the whole world. If anyone called me tomorrow and said, "We've got $3 in the bank, and we really want you to do the vocal arrangements," I would say: "Yes, damn it, I will." So I have to do everything! Honestly, I hope a lot of people come to me and ask me to write shows for them, so I won't have time to do the other stuff. But that isn't happening yet, so in the meantime I'm open to anything. I love it all.
AM #8: And how do you find collaborating with orchestrators, vocal arrangers and musical directors?
JRB: It's easy, you just get the best people. You get people who are better than you are, and it's easy. You know, I'm not as good as Don Sebesky. I'm not as good an orchestrator as he is. In fact, I don't think there is anyone in the world who's as good an orchestrator as Don is. And I looked at every orchestrator in New York and in Europe and on the planet Earth before I settled on Don to orchestrate the show, because I wanted to not feel like I had to take over orchestrating. I wanted to not feel like I was under that kind of pressure. And Sebesky came through with flying colors.
Likewise, Eric Stern is the best conductor in New York. I never doubted it for a minute. He's unbelievable! I hunted him down – he was doing Showboat at the Gershwin when we started our first reading, and I went to his dressing room and played through the first act which I had just finished, and I said "I really want you to do this. I know you're the best in New York." And he listened to it and he said, "I want to do it." And I never had to look any further. But that's the answer. I don't work with vocal arrangers, I have never worked with a dance arranger. I refuse. I don't think that's the way a show gets written. I think that that's a lazy way out.
TC: You did the vocal arrangements for Parade.
JRB: I did vocal arrangements and whatever dance arrangements there are.
AM #9: Can you explain what orchestrating means?
JRB: Well, I write on the piano. Or sometimes I don't, but by and large I sit and play something on the piano, and that's how it sounds all the way through rehearsal. Unfortunately, they hire these twenty other guys to sit in the pit. [laughter] And somebody has to make things go from the piano until it works among the twenty guys in the pit. The orchestrator Jonathan Tunick says it's like making deviled eggs, you take the ingredients and mush them all up and put them back in the egg. There's a little bit of that. But it's beyond that, it's also about making sure you find the musical "colors" to really say what you want them to. The piano is this great functional instrument, but it's not the most colorful instrument. So now you've got all these colors: you've got flutes, horns, violins, trumpets to figure out what's right, how does it all work out well...
TC: I want to add, because Jason wouldn't say it himself, that his actual piano scoring of the songs is very rich itself. A lot of composers do a minimal piano accompaniment to go with the songs when they compose, but in Jason's case it's already there. It's already in the song. If you hear the original demo tapes he recorded, it's very powerful, very affecting already, even without the orchestra. It's a great gift.
AM #10: What do you think of the climate today for young composers like yourself who are kind of struggling to make it, but there's not enough financial backing. What do you see as the future?
JRB: [pause] It's a delicate question, so I want to answer it responsibly. I'm a very lucky person to be standing here and telling you anything. Because there are not young composers who are writing Broadway musicals. And the reason for that is there are not a lot of directors like Harold Prince who are insisting that there be young composers who write Broadway musicals. I think there are a great many young talented people. Everyone knows who Adam Guettel is, and everyone knows who Michael John LaChiusa is – well, not everyone does, but people in the business certainly know who they are. There are very talented people around.
But I don't know that people want to put their ten-million-dollar shows in the hands of untried or risky or edgy writers. I have to say that the subject matter I normally gravitate to -– and Parade is a relatively good representative of that -– I like dark, heavy, really meaty stuff that means something. A lot of producers don't even want to take chances on that kind of stuff, much less on writers like me who are going to do it in five keys going on at once and everyone screaming.
What do I think of the climate? I think there are people who would love to hear new writers, and I think there are a lot of people who would love to go see shows by new writers. But I don't know that a lot of people actually do. And I don't know that a lot of people actually will.
And if Parade, for example, is not a financial success, then it's always starting at the same level. You're always starting at the same place: "Well, he's never done anything." And they'll say, "...and look at what happened with Parade." It'll be nice if Parade becomes an enormous financial success and we move it to a big Broadway house and it becomes a movie, that's true. [laughter] But unfortunately, [Rent's] Jonathan Larson is dead. And he can't point the way for anybody, because he's dead. He can't be writing new pieces and lead us on. We have a leg up over at the Nederlander, but we can't really use it. Rent was proof that a young composer could…that we can get people into the theater, and we can give people what they want to hear, and we can do something tuneful and lovely and wonderful. And unfortunately, it's somewhat wasted.
I don't think people look at me the way they look at Rent. Parade is a very differently constructed piece. As are anything that Michael John does or Adam does. We're different writers than that. But the central thesis is that young writers can do it. We can do it. And I don't think that a lot of producers are willing to trust in that. It's a hard business, God knows.
I'll elaborate in one more way, which is just to say that every theater that I know of, that I've worked at in all these years, is looking for writers, and is looking for new musicals. I've yet to go to a theater where they didn't pull me aside and say, "Anything you come up with, we really want to see it. We really want to take a look at it." They all want it. But it's kind of up to us to not only come up with the ideas, but really realize them in a very specific way. Gather the teams, work as our own kind of producers, to get ideas to certain places. They may never show up on Broadway. And if they don't show up on Broadway, honestly it's very hard to make a living. But if you write because you have to, because you are compelled to, which is why I write, then there are places to put that work. And there are ways to do it. So just do it, and don't worry about the climate. Don't worry about the economics. Just worry about doing it, because at the end of the day that's all that really is going to matter to you.
AM #11: The show is marked by a great sensitivity to the material, which is itself very sensitive. I think it took a great deal of courage to do a show like this. Did you set out to make a statement or...?
JRB: The show is courageous in a lot of ways to me. I think the subject matter... but also theatrically, the way we do it is fairly courageous. We keep saying it's wrapped up in a love story, but it's far from a conventionally-told piece of theater. That interested me. I love to say things. I want to be able to say things. I think that's the reason I do this. I didn't come into theater to do Crazy for You. Theater for me really has to hit here [indicates gut], or I can just watch an MGM musical, which are great. I want theater to be special. Gutsy. And I love that you say it took courage, because that's what I want. I want you to say "Look, he put himself out on a limb. They all went out there, and they did something that was scary and it was hard."
There are a lot of things that are very scary in the show. The opening of the second act, I hear people who say, "Oh, I find that racist," or "I think that's derogatory," and it's not. It just takes a lot of listening to make sure you're getting the right message out of it. And people don't always listen very closely in the theater or on television or in the movies. People sometimes take things at face value and don't dig in. That was our challenge. That's the challenge that faces anybody writing a show that demands something of an audience. You have to meet us... in this case, much more than halfway. So it's courageous in that, if we fail, the show closes! If we fail, then we've written a lousy piece of art. It's not like Footloose. If you fail at writing a great show in Footloose, everyone's still gonna come and they're gonna clap and they're gonna dance in the aisles, but if you fail at writing Parade, people are gonna come and say, "Well, they really blew it." And we didn't want people to say that. We care desperately about what we do. And we wanted everyone to care about it that much. That's the investment we make in it.
TC: A number of critics talked about Parade as a milestone, drawing upon the heritage of the theater but also inventing its own form. When we interviewed Hal Prince back in December, he resisted categorizing it. It's musical theater, it's operatic, it's through-composed, it's a book musical, it's all different things at the same time.
JRB: People ask me whether it's an opera. My answer is that structurally in some senses it is, but you could never do it at City Opera, because you'd never find people who could sing like this. The idiom is very pop, very throaty, very belty in a way that Sweeney Todd, for example, is not. Sweeney Todd draws on a substantial European tradition, whereas this is very much an American folk piece of theater, and it has a different sense. Also the orchestrations, I have to say, would be very challenging to pull off at City Opera. They call for a lot of doubling, which a lot of classically trained musicians are not trained to do. And again, they're very idiomatic. They need a lot of swing -– there's a lot of places where there's just a bunch of slashes written in, and the players are supposed to figure out what notes they're supposed to play from there. It's very improvised in certain aspects. So it's not an opera in any way, other than the inspiration is epic, it's grand, the way a good piece of music theater can be.
AM #13: What is your take on the ASCAP and BMI workshops?
JRB: I wasn't a product of either of them, and my knowledge about how they work is a little bit secondhand, but to the best of my knowledge the way they work is you present something and a bunch of people tell you what they thought about it, and then you go and rewrite it or you don't. That isn't valuable to me, because I don't care. [laughter]
I care about whether a song works. I'm going to know if it works, and anyone who's a writer has to be able to look at it really honestly and say "This is it." Or they have to look at it and say "This is not it." And that's one of the reasons I sing when I write, because you can feel it's wrong coming out of your mouth. And having written a lot of stuff that a lot of people take exception to –- a lot of stuff in Songs for a New World was not anybody's cup of tea when I originally wrote it, and now I get e-mails and letters all the time telling me how wonderful those self-same songs are -– I feel that what I don't want is to have my convictions undermined. Not only by people who I respect... It's one thing to have Stephen Sondheim say to you, "You know, that song kind of blows and you should rewrite that lyric." That I respect...
TC: I would pay money to hear Stephen Sondheim say that. [laughter]
JRB: But it's a whole other thing where people who are the same age as you are, or younger, or slightly older, or bitter, or jealous, tell you the same things. I'm resistant to that kind of thing. My work stands because I say it does. Hopefully Hal Prince agrees with me, and hopefully Alfred agrees with me, or hopefully Bernie Gersten agrees with me. Hopefully the people I work with, work with me because they think I know what I'm doing, because I'm doing it.
The only way to learn anything in this business is to do the thing that you do. And there's an awful lot of ways to over-scrutinize, a lot of ways to get caught up in minutiae and detail. And for some people, God knows Alan Menken found it exceptionally valuable, and I'm not deriding the process by any measure but my own. It's just not useful to me. I want my work to stand for me. I care whether other people like it, but there's too many agendas going on in a workshop like that for me to be comfortable.
AM #14: What's the reaction been to Audra McDonald's album, which includes two of your songs on it?
JRB: To the best of my knowledge, the reaction has been spectacular. Everyone thinks that Audra's an unbelievably talented woman, and I agree with that, and I think that they're all very grateful that she did something that so much indicates a love of theater. It's not an album that's just a collection of Harold Arlen songs, it really says that "I love this form, and I love what this form can do and can be. So I want to do the stuff that takes it to its furthest." My parents, for example, were very challenged by it. They listened to it a couple of times, and they said: "Well we liked your songs, but what are these other things?"
TC: Well, they're your parents, what are they going to say?
JRB: And the reason they like my songs is they've heard them a lot, and so they're familiar with that vocabulary, and they understand it. Whereas Adam's stuff or Michael John's stuff, it kind of took them a while. But I'm very grateful for that record, God knows. That took a lot of guts to make, and I'm very proud of being on it.
TC: And we're very grateful to Jason for being here tonight. Thank you so much for coming. [applause] Thanks very much to you all for being here tonight.
Copyright ©1998 The Vivian Beaumont Theater Inc., d/b/a Lincoln Center Theater