Seattle Gay News
September 29, 2000

Jason Robert Brown: The passion behind Parade
By Mark Finley

Contributing Writer

Given the chance of a lifetime by legendary director Harold Prince to take over a project turned down by another legend, Stephen Sondheim, composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown had a tough task before him. The project was a musical, or as Prince called it "an American opera," about a Southern Jew, Leo Frank, who was wrongfully accused of murder and lynched by an angry mob in 1915. Not your usual subject matter. Some of the best musicals of the past century have also had questionable subjects. Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street comes to mind immediately.

Yet, stories like these fill the heart and mind with a passion that is strong and bold. At the heart of Parade, opening this weekend at The 5th Avenue Theatre, is Jason Robert Brown who won the Tony Award for Best Score for his freshman Broadway attempt. I caught up with this amazing talent shortly before the show made it’s move to Seattle.


MARK: Is this your first time coming to Seattle?


JASON: Outside of a little press visit, yes.

M: Are you excited to be here?


J: I am actually. It’s one of the weird things about being on tour. When I was a child a traveling around I would say, "Oh I like this place. I want to live there." On this tour, every place we’ve gone I’ve said, "Geez, I don’t want to live here." But Seattle is a place I could conceivably settle down. (He giggles at the thought.)


M: That’s what most people I’ve talked to say. Yet, I always remind them that they are seeing it at our best time of the year. (We both laugh.)


J: There seems to be a natural cultural heartbeat to the city.

M: You’re right. We have a very energetic theatrical community here.


J: That makes a big difference to me. That pulse is important. Most every city looks the same. But Seattle seems a little different.

M: So, Parade. You won a Tony.


J: Yeah. Not bad, huh?

M: And a drama desk and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award! That’s amazing!


J: I still haven’t gotten my Drama Critics Circle Award. All of the critics have to sign off on it. I think that some of them are so pissed off I won they don’t want to sign it. (I lose it.) Ben Bradley is holding out.

M: What was your inspiration in writing Parade?


J: Parade was a "job" for me. I could tell you the back story, but my end of it was that I got hired. Which was the most thrilling thing in the world, as far as I’m concerned. The back story is actually in Alfred’s family. (Alfred Uhry wrote the book of the musical.) His great uncle actually ran the National Pencil Factory that employed Leo Frank. He was also involved in the case and testified.

Alfred was telling the story to Hal (Harold Prince, the director) one day to illustrate why Jews in Atlanta are so desperate to assimilate all the time. And Hal jumped up and said, "I love this story. It’s going to be my next musical." Why he thinks that - we’re always mystified as to why he thinks these things. (We both laugh.) He called up Steve Sondheim who was supposed to write it with Alfred. They had a few meetings and started working on it.

Passion opened and Steve said, "You know, I’ve written enough depressing shows for a while. I want to move on to something happy." So Hal and Alfred started looking for someone else. Hal knew me because I had been working with his daughter, Daisy. We did a show together called Songs For A New World. Hal had seen the show. I was sort of stalking the house and would play songs from my show. He said, "Well there’s this kid who’s putzing around all the time. Maybe we’ll let him write a few songs." And that is how I made my Broadway debut.

M: What was it like working with a legend like Hal Prince? Was it difficult? Was he difficult?


J: Everybody really talented is difficult in some ways. Especially when you are really talented too. Because you’re all wanting to say something. But at the same time, we’re all very easy to work with because respectively we’re good. I mean, we had alot of fights. He’d say, "You gotta cut this." And I’d say, "The hell I do." Or I’d say, "That doesn’t look right." And he’d say, "What the hell do you know about it?" We had alot of that. But it’s really quite easy to work with someone you know has the "goods." There is no question he’s got the "goods."

The hard part is that I went into this saying to myself that this was not the time for me to act like I know everything. Shove it up everyone’s ass and say I really know my gig. This is the time for me to take in what both of these guys have to offer. They have both been in the business so long and they both know their jobs so well that I could really learn a lot if I just shut up and listen. So that was the lesson I wanted to learn. Not to come in there all cocky and brassy and say this is my thing.


I have to say, every day I learned something wonderful from both of them. It’s spoiled me completely for ever working with anyone who’s not that talented. The theatre, as you know, is comprised of plenty of people who are not that talented.


M: But think they are.


J: Yes. I was very lucky to work with these too giants on my first show.


M: You’re now working on a project called The Last Five Years. What is that about?


J: I wanted to do something that was the opposite of Parade - a period piece with a million people in it, a panoramic epic thing. I want to do something that is sort of small and personal. The Last Five Years is a two character chamber piece. It’s a contemporary story about a man and a woman who fall in love, get married and then fall out of love. The trick of the story is that you are always coming into the story at different points. The woman tells her story from the end of the marriage backwards. The man tells his from the beginning of the marriage forward. We’re always catching up with them in alternating places. They meet up together at the marriage in the middle of the show, then split off again.


M: Are you writing the book for this show?


J: There’s not alot of book, in the dialogue sense. It’s mainly just song. All me.


M: Do you like having that control?


J: I do and I don’t. I like having the control. But I don’t like it when I suddenly can’t figure out what to do. It’s much better being able to say, "Well it’s Alfred’s fault. He hasn’t written that scene yet." (I laugh.) I don’t have the easy way out anymore.

M: Your bio says that you worked on When Pigs Fly (the late Howard Crabtree’s Gay extravaganza). What was that experience like for you?


J: I took over as musical director for three months at the end of ‘97. I love the show. It’s like the Gay Muppets. It just makes me so happy. The cast in New York was great. Jay Rogers is an old friend of mine who I just worship.

M: I did a show with Jay a million years ago in New York, as well. He’s hysterical.


J: Everybody in the cast was great. It was a sweet, lovely kind of show. It was the last thing anyone expected me to be doing. They’d look in the program and there I would be sitting up on stage eating malted milk balls and playing for the pigs. They were just baffled. But I had a wonderful time. (I lose it.)


M: Why? Is it because you tend to be a little more "arty?"


J: It isn’t that I tend to be "arty," it’s that I tend to be straight! (We both laugh.)


M: You’ve also worked with Yoko Ono. What was that like?


J: She’s the most passive aggressive in the entire world. But she has no talent.


M: (Laughing) I’ve worked with the woman as well.


J: She’s great. If you like crazy people that have no talent.

M: In other words, it was a job.


J: It was a job. I thought she was very generous. She’d pay for dinners for the entire cast all the time. For what it was worth, she wanted to get it right. She had no gauge of what was right because while she lacked talent, she also lacked taste. It was bizarre. But I got a record out of it.


M: Back to talent. Are you excited to be doing this tour? (Jason is touring with the show as music director and conductor.) Are you happy that more people are getting to see a show that was basically overlooked?


J: Yes, obviously. Beyond that I think it’s putting a sense of closure on the show for me. We closed so quickly in New York. I felt like we were slipping on ice the entire time we were running. We were trying to grab on to anything. One week we made money, the next we lost money. This week the critics bashed us, next week the critics loved us. Then all of a sudden we were gone. It was so fast, traumatic and crazy that I never really got to say good-bye to it, in the grand sense of the word.

With this tour, which I think has a better cast than we did in New York, I’ve got my hands around it. I’ll be able to close the book, lock it and say we did our job. It was so bizarre to get up and win a Tony Award for a show that I’m sure most of the people in the audience had never seen. Never mind the television audience. The audience sitting in the Gershwin - most of them had never seen it. So it has been very gratifying to know that more people are getting the chance to see it.


M: I remember when I lived in New York I always went to see everything because I didn’t want to miss a gem that for whatever reason would close immediately.


J: It’s hard to see everything in New York these days. First, there’s not that much going on and a lot of it is shit. Then you have to spend $80 to see the crap that you wouldn’t have gone to for free. I understand why people are wary to go see shows. I just wish that I hadn’t been a victim of it.


M: True. Well it’s time for your ten questions. What’s your favorite word?


J: It’s so arbitrary. Whatever I say, if you ask me again in five minutes I’ll give you a different word. But I want to give you a good one. Let’s just go with arbitrary.

M: What’s your least favorite word?


J: It’s not really my least favorite word, but the way Midwesterners say "spoilage" drives me insane.

M: What’s the sound or noise you love?


J: The lowest note on a Bechstein.

M: What’s the sound or noise that you hate?


J: Without question, two violins playing in unison. (We both let out a big laugh.)


M: What turns you on?


J: The knowledge that a whole bunch of people are watching and waiting for me to come up with something.

M: What turns you off?


J: The knowledge that a whole bunch of people are sitting there with knives ready to carve my ass if I don’t come up with something good.

M: What profession would you like to try?


J: I’m not a terrifically religious person but I always thought I would make a great clergyman.

M: What profession would you never like to do?


J: Being a woman.

M: What’s your favorite curse word?


J: Everyone probably says the same thing, but there is no way it’s not "cocksucker."

M: If Heaven exists, what do you want them to say to you as you enter the pearly gates?


J: Turn around and go back down for another hundred years. You didn’t get it right.

M: That sounds perfect.

Stepping into the shoes of Stephen Sondheim is no easy task, but Jason Robert Brown has done it with such ease I’m sure he’s going to be the next voice of the Broadway musical for our generation. The passion and conviction of this tremendous talent can be heard in the beautiful music of Parade which is playing at The 5th Avenue Theatre through October 15. Don’t miss this amazing story of courage and integrity that took the town by storm in its short three month run in New York. Get your tickets today!