JASON ROBERT BROWN
Interview for The DRAMATIST Magazine by Gregory Bossler
Jason Robert Brown made his Broadway debut as a composer with Parade and
received the 1999 Tony Award for Best Score. His first musical, Songs for
a New World, debuted Off-Broadway at the WPA Theatre in 1995. For his work
on that show and others in progress, Brown received the 1996 Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla
Musical Theatre Award. He also has worked as arranger for William Finn’s
A New Brain (Lincoln Center), as orchestrator for Andrew Lippa’s john and
jen (Lamb’s) and Yoko Ono’s New York Rock (WPA), and as musical director
for Michael John LaChiusa’s The Petrified Prince (Public) and Howard Crabtree’s
When Pigs Fly. Upcoming projects include The Moneyman Dances, a musical about
Michael Milken, and the national tour of Parade, which will begin in Atlanta
and play Pittsburgh, Denver, Chicago, and Seattle, among other stops.
GREGORY BOSSLER: I’ve read that, when you were 7 years old, you asked for
JASON ROBERT BROWN: Yes, something told me I wanted to play the piano. I
don’t know what it was. It sounds cliched and mystical, but I thought, “I
really want to be sitting at a piano and playing. They seem fun and cool.”
My grandfather had one, so my folks dragged it out of his basement in Brooklyn
and put it in our living room.
BOSSLER: Had your grandfather played for you?
BROWN: No, I don’t have a very musical family. My great-grandfather on my
mother’s side was a klezmer violinist back in the old country who played
for village weddings. That’s about all my musical background, though I am
very distantly related through marriage to Yip Harburg.
BOSSLER: Did your family support your interest?
BROWN: They didn’t actively discourage it, but for a long time, I wasn‘t
any good. I don’t want to give the impression that I sat down at the piano
at 7 years old and started playing Mozart. I wasn’t any good for a very long
time. I’d say, “Oh, I’ll play! I’ll play!” and my family would roll their
eyes, “All right, Jason, you can play something, if you want.” [laughs]
BOSSLER: I’ve read that Billy Joel was your role model.
BROWN: That’s what I heard on the radio. That sounded like something I wanted
to do. That sounded like me. I wanted to be a guy who played the piano and
sang, while people screamed. That sounded like fun. I loved the pop music
I heard on the radio. In 1979 I could name any song within the first two
beats: “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls, ” “Born to Be Alive.” I wasn’t doing my homework.
so I had time to listen to WABC. At a certain point, I started listening
to everything. I started exploring show music and classical music. I began
playing the piano also because I wanted to show off. I was a ham. I wanted
to be an actor. I was a brilliant Banquo in sixth grade. I tore down the
house! I wanted to be an actor, and I wanted to be a songwriter. They fused
into musical theater. I began writing musicals, fifteen-minute things about
a high school kid who has a crush on this girl, dumb stuff like that.
BOSSLER: Were any of those done at school?
BROWN: No, my first produced piece of theater was Innovations, about the
transition from silent movies to talking movies. It was done at my summer
camp, French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts, when I was 16. I thought
it was the greatest thing, and I expected David Merrick to be knocking on
my door the next morning saying, “I heard about this great show.” Looking
back on it, it’s almost unrelentingly terrible, but that’s a relief, in a
sense. It’s nice to think I’ve grown in the past twelve years.
BOSSLER: You then went to Eastman School of Music.
BROWN: I went to Eastman as a composition major. I didn’t know what else
to do. My grades were terrible in high school, and that didn’t make my mother
very happy. She’s an English teacher. I wasn’t into anything about school,
except music. Once I got t o Eastman, I realized I wasn’t into anything about
school, period. Grades never seemed enough of an incentive. A degree never
seemed enough of an incentive. I never expected to go into a career that
required a degree, so college never really mattered to me.
BOSSLER: You left Eastman after two years.
BROWN: Yes, two years at Eastman is long enough to learn a great deal. Whether
I learned all the intricacies of theory I don’t know but if I ever need to
analyze Stockhausen, I guess I could go back to school. In those two years
at Eastman, I had some wonderful teachers who opened me as a composer, opened
my ears to many things. That was most important, being exposed to a lot of
music, listening to things I wouldn’t have heard elsewhere. Sydney Hodkinson,
the conductor of Musica Nova, was very helpful. I had orchestration classes
with Christopher Rouse and Joseph Schwantner, the cream of the crop at Eastman.
I learned a lot, but after two years, I felt, “It‘s time for me to do what
I want to do.”
BOSSLER: Did you write any shows for Eastman ?
BROWN: No, it was real classical composition. I’ve always liked vocal music,
so I wrote song cycles from Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
In my first composition lesson, Samuel Adler, this imposing strict German,
asked, “What work do you want to do?” I said, “I think I’d like to do musical
theater work.” He said, “Ach! Musical theater! I’ll tell you something. You
want to write a musical? You sit down one afternoon, you write a musical.”
However, Eastman was a good place to sharpen my chops. Those two years help
me enormously, when I’m now called to orchestrate, vocal arrange, or play
here in New York.
BOSSLER: Did you come to New York right after Eastman?
BROWN: No, I was determined to leave Eastman, but I didn’t have a plan for
what I wanted to do. I lived in Boston for a couple of months, then ended
up in Miami at New World School of the Arts. I spent a year teaching and
accompanying classes. There are many theater people in Miami, many people
who retired there from New York. I talked to them about what the theater
scene was like, what to expect. I also continued to compose, to build up
my writing chops. After a year, I thought, “It’s time.”
BOSSLER: What did you do first when you came to New York?
BROWN: Starved. [laughs] I got an apartment in Greenwich Village and started
playing at Eighty-Eights. For three years, I did the piano bar and
cabaret scene. I was just a kid who played show tunes to pay the rent, while
I wrote. I also played for the vocal group, The Tonics. Through them, I met
Daisy Prince. I told her, “Do you want to help me do something with these
songs I’m writing?” She helped me pull the songs into a show. Over the years,
we put in songs, took out songs, until we had Songs for a New World. A couple
of years earlier, I realized that what I thought were pop songs, the songs
I wrote in college, didn’t belong on the radio. I told myself, “Stop trying
to be what you’re not. You’re not going to write for Paula Abdul.” If anything,
my model was Jimmy Webb or Randy Newman, people who write story songs. I
thought, “I’ll do that and see where it takes me.” That was the impetus to
start writing what became Songs for a New World. From the time I approached
Daisy until the production at WPA, it was about four years. That’s a long
time for a revue, but it was a hard show to sell, because who was I?
Nobody knew who I was.
BOSSLER: While you were writing that show, you were also arranging and orchestrating
for many other people’s shows.
BROWN: When you’re trying to pay the rent, you do whatever you can. I had
met Dick Gallagher in the piano bar, and he recommended me to the WPA. They
needed a pianist for a Yoko Ono musical. I came to play auditions, and they
asked me to play the show. I also did arranging and orchestrating for that.
I met Hal [Prince] through Daisy, and he asked if I wanted to music direct
The Petrified Prince, Michael John LaChiusa’s piece. That was another great
opportunity. I worked on New Brain, Muscle, and the Brave Little Toaster
movies with Bill Finn, and I orchestrated john and jen for Andrew Lippa.
I learned a lot working with these people. The more you’re exposed to and
the more different things you hear, you think, “That’s something I’ve never
tried, but that could be fun.” I’m aggressively competitive with everybody
on the entire planet. Every time I hear Adam Guettel do something, I think,
“Oh, I hate him! He did something I don’t know how to do. He did something
better than I would’ve done it.” I think we all listen to each other and
raise the bar for each other. I love that competition. I love that sense
of community. So many people say there’s no musical theater today, but there
is. We all aren’t produced on Broadway, but God knows there are many of us
BOSSLER: It seems there aren’t many producers like Hal Prince out there,
producers that are giving young voices the exposure and opportunities.
BROWN: It’s not that Hal is the only person willing to take a chance on writers.
It’s that Hal is the only person willing to take a chance on material. Broadway
producers want saleable material. I can’t blame them for hearing Parade and
saying “It’s very talented, but I can’t do anything with it.” It’s shortsighted,
but they want a sure thing. They want what sounds most accessible and most
obvious. That’s not me. I think what I do is accessible, but the obvious
doesn’t intrigue me. All I can do is write what intrigues me. I think
Parade didn’t attract a larger audience because it was about a tough subject.
We didn’t try to beat that. At no point did any of the producers or writers
say, “Let’s giggle our way out of a tough subject.” I think if we had written
about a more saleable subject, there wouldn’t be any questions about whether
the music was accessible or not. I don’t think that the music in Parade is
any less accessible than in Ragtime. I’m not trying to write something alien.
I don’t write twelve-tone, minimalist music. What I write is obviously familiar
to me, not only because I’m writing it but also because my influences are
not that different from those of most theatergoers.
BOSSLER: You credit Charles Ives as one of your influences.
BROWN: All right, that one’s a little different. I’ve loved his music my
whole life. Ives pushed the frontiers of American symphonic music. He was
at the forefront of the rebirth of intellectual culture after the Civil War.
Until about 1890 to 1910, there was very little progress in American culture.
Europe was going crazy, but America had settled into nostalgia for life before
the war. I think that’s what Ives and others, like Henry Cowell, were reacting
to. When I looked at the period of Parade, Ives seemed right, though he was
from the wrong milieu. Ives is Massachusetts, and Parade is Georgia. I knew
I had to adapt his music and make it more Southern, but the stylistic impulse
was right, his impulse of all this music happening at the same time: marching
bands, rags, and waltzes playing against more sinister, symphonic sounds.
I thought that, at heart, the texture of the show should be collisions, many
things jumping on top of each other and never really ending. Keys abruptly
change, and there are no buttons on any of the songs in the show. Well, maybe
two songs have buttons, but it’s a show about transitions from one thing
to another. There’s all this overlapping. There’s all this cacophony. I don’t
think you can put Ives in the theater and have it hold interest the same
way that I hope Parade does, but I wanted the impulse to be theatrically
BOSSLER: When Alfred Uhry talked to The Dramatist, he said that the book
was structured cinematically, that things came on top of each other. The
music, you’re saying, is also structured that way?
BROWN: Absolutely. I didn’t think of the songs and the book as separate.
I thought of the whole show as one large structure. We were all thinking
cinematically. That’s why there aren’t many spaces for applause, and there
aren’t many blackouts. It moves fast. We all wanted that. The Alfred Hitchcock
movie The Wrong Man, with Henry Fonda, seemed appropriate to me. The structure
of that movie informed the structure of my music. The movie also has a Bernard
Herrmann score, and there’s a theatrical structure to his music. I always
thought of Parade as a Hitchcock musical. Hal says his instinct was Citizen
BOSSLER: In the liner notes to the Parade CD, you wrote that you dreamed
your first Broadway show would be with “one of the great theatrical titans,
maybe that Harold Prince guy,” and it came true.
BROWN: I also wrote that I didn’t have time to notice that my dream was coming
true. I had too much work to do. I didn’t sit around and think, “Wow, this
is the coolest thing in the world!” It was more nerve-wracking than exhilarating.
Some nights I would wake up sweating, be-cause I had a show coming into Broadway,
a show being directed by Hal Prince. I felt a lot of pressure, but jumping
around, dancing on my rooftop . . . I never really did that. I was too busy
writing, which is probably for the best. No one needs to hear me jumping
around saying, “Hal Prince is doing my show!”
BOSSLER: I understand that Hal first mentioned Parade while you were working
on Petrified Prince?
BROWN: Yes, in the hiatus between the work-shop and the production of Petrified
Prince, Hal first talked to me about Parade. Stephen Sondheim had dropped
out. I think Hal and Alfred really wanted to get moving, so they said, “Let’s
give the brat a chance.” I thought, “I’m not going to wait on this,” so I
wrote a song right away to show them. I looked at the research and thought,
“Maybe this is what I should do.” It was terrible, but terrible in all the
right ways. I think it showed them that I knew what I was doing theatrically,
but it was terrible because it didn’t come from any book.
BOSSLER: How did the book take shape?
BROWN: Alfred and I would talk about what each scene involved. We’d summarize
it on paper, and Alfred would go home to write the scene. Where the song
would be, he’d write a monologue. Sometimes he’d write a lyric, since he’s
also a lyricist. I wouldn’t use his lyrics, but it gave me a sense of the
shape of the scene. He also structured his monologues like songs. I tended
to use his structures. Then I’d play him what I wrote, and he would say,
“That’s not exactly what I had in mind.” I’d say, “Good, because the dialogue
you wrote wasn’t what I had in mind, either,” and we’d all throw it away
and start over again. It was all about getting the right shape and the right
structure. Then we’d show it to Hal, and he’d tell us to go back to the drawing
board! [laugh] From the beginning, Alfred and Hal treated me as an equal
partner. When people ask what it was like to work with them, I always say
it was like working with two people who were doing the same work I was. It
wasn’t scary. It was like going to work. They were great guys. They wanted
to write the same show that I wanted to write. That made it easy.
BOSSLER: Did you write straight from beginning to end, or did you go back
to rewrite scenes?
BROWN: We did the first draft from beginning to end, scene by scene, and
didn’t go back. Actually, we went back for one scene, what is now “You Don’t
Know This Man.” Other than that, we kept moving forward. After we had the
first draft, we did a reading in Philadelphia, and that really told us most
of what we needed to know. A year later, we did another reading in New York
and then a workshop in Toronto.
BOSSLER: I’ve read that it took some time to discover the characters of Leo
and Lucille Frank.
BROWN: Yes, we didn’t have them right away. Leo was very hard to find musically,
to figure out how he sang. I think the problem with our first draft was that
Leo never sang. Some people suggest a problem with the show now is that Leo
still doesn’t sing enough, but I can’t imagine him singing more than he does.
He always seemed to me to be a very buttoned-up, closed person, someone who
doesn’t naturally sing. We gave him “Come Up to My Office” and “It’s Hard
to Speak My Heart” in the first act and “All the Wasted Time” in the second
act. Then his character changed a lot when we put in “This Is Not Over Yet”
and, especially, “How Can I Call This Home.” Lucille was much easier, because
she’s someone who naturally sings. We just didn’t write her enough songs
initially. We quickly figured that out and wrote her two more songs, which
really opened her character. Alfred’s book also opened her a lot.
BOSSLER: How does your background in orchestrating and arranging affect your
BROWN: I don’t treat composing as separate from orchestrating. I wrote a
lot of the Parade score on five staves, which no pianist could actually play,
but it showed everything going on. I think texturally, not pianistically.
I don’t think of music as separate elements that are put together. In old-time
show biz, the composer wrote a song and gave it to the arranger, who then
gave it to the orchestrator. I’m very uncomfortable with that, because the
music is out of my control too long. I’d rather know how it’s all going to
work, so that I can say it’s my complete artistic statement. That may sound
pretentious, but it’s important to me that what I write is a whole. In the
entire score of Parade, nobody wrote any dance music, nobody wrote any underscoring,
nobody wrote anything but me. The point was to make something that sounds
like a whole.
BOSSLER: If you don’t think pianistically, do you compose on the piano or
away from the piano?
BROWN: It depends. For example, I wanted “Big News!” to be a barrelhouse
number, so I wrote it at the piano and let my fingers have fun. For “Do It
Alone,” I was at the piano a bit, but I did most of the work away from the
keyboard. I think of my songs primarily as vocal lines. I’ll begin with the
vocal line, the chords, and an idea of the feeling underneath. I don’t write
down the piano part until the last possible second. When I finally do, it
may not bear much resemblance to what I’ve been playing. The process of putting
down the piano part, codifying the song, often leads to places that my fingers
don’t necessarily go on the keyboard. Deciding the piano part, the written
representation of a song, is a very long process, but the vocal lines are
what the song is about. Those I have from the beginning, but I leave the
piano part unspecific. I was the only one who played the Parade score at
the first three readings. It wasn’t until the workshop in Toronto that somebody
else had their hands on the music, because I wanted it in my hands. I wanted
to know the score wasn’t generic and obvious. I wanted to know that I didn’t
make the first choices but the best choices I could.
BOSSLER: Is it hard to be objective about the music when you’re at the piano
for so much of the process? With Songs for a New World, you were even at
the piano performing onstage.
BROWN: It’s hard, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way on Songs for
a New World, though I regretted not having someone take over in rehearsals,
so I could watch the show. With Parade, the intention always was that I would
eventually get away from the piano. In the early stages, Hal and Alfred made
the decisions about book and structure, because they watched the show. If
I had watched the show, I probably would’ve focused too much on what was
happening musically, so it was just as well that I was at the piano, because
that’s where my mind was.
BOSSLER: What was running though your mind after the Tony Awards? Was it
contentment about what you’d done, anxiety about what you’d do next, or both?
BROWN: I thought all of that. Before the show opened, I worried, “People
are going to hear Parade, and they’ll wonder how I can follow it.” Unfortunately,
it turned out to be anticlimactic. So few people actually heard Parade that
it hasn’t been an issue. Winning the Tony Award was wonderful, and I’m certainly
not giving it back, but producers aren’t calling me everyday, “You won a
Tony Award! We want you to work for us!” That hasn’t happened at all. I had
a wonderful opportunity, and I’m very grateful for it. It’s a great show
and I’m very proud of it. However, it hasn’t been a rocket launch to stardom.
BOSSLER: At the Tonys, Alfred announced that Parade might go on tour and
even return to Broadway.
BROWN: It seems somewhat certain that we’ll open in Atlanta next summer,
as part of what’s now a sixteen-week tour, which we hope to extend. There’s
also talk about returning to Broadway, but I don’t know. I don’t want to
be beaten up twice by the same critics, though I look forward to the tour.
I’d like it to go to Chicago and California, places we got exceptionally
good reviews, places where it has a chance of finding its mark. However,
I really look forward to my next show. Parade has been five years of my life.
BOSSLER: Most people don’t realize it can take that long.
BROWN: It shouldn’t. Producers are scared about losing money, so they make
everything drag on to prevent actually doing the show. They do a reading.
They do a workshop. They’re doing the show without actually doing it. Shows
with 75 people need time to develop, but I still think five years is overwrought.
I hope that the show I’ve just started will be produced by next spring. You
can become caught up in readings and workshops for eternity. A show that’s
been in development for five years has no chance of retaining its initial
impulse, unless its creators are very strong, like Alfred and Hal are. The
biggest danger in too much development is that it sucks the life out of the
show. You should do the show while the impulse is fresh. Then if it doesn’t
work, you can go onto the next one.
BOSSLER: I know you don’t like to talk about what you’re writing next.
BROWN: I have three or four projects I’m working on now. It seemed very hard
to follow up Parade. I couldn’t think of what my next project would be. It
wasn’t until maybe three weeks ago that I figured out what I wanted to be
working on, what intrigued me enough.
BOSSLER: Will you be working again with Daisy on one of them?
BROWN: Yes, Daisy is directing my next piece. She’s a wonderful director.
I also hope to work with Alfred again on something else.
BOSSLER: You won’t say more than that, though?
BROWN: No, not under any circumstances. [laugh]