Coming up against a WALL
by Robert Nesti
from Bay Windows

                      To author Jason Robert Brown,
                      ‘Songs for a New World’ is about
                      ‘Moment X,’ which many of us at
                      some time will have to face

                      Songs for a New World,” Jason Robert
                      Brown’s 18-song revue, premiered at
                      off-Broadway’s WPA Theater in 1995 for
                      just 28 performances; and would have
                      vanished from memory if Brown hadn’t
                      raised the money to record it. He did
                      and brought it to the attention of RCA,
                      who picked it up and released it. And
                      the result was a CD that trumpeted the
                      enormous talents of the then 24-year-old
                      composer/lyricist. It was a stunning debut, distinguished by a series of
                      theater songs that beautifully evoked a pop music sensibility.

                      Now barely 30, Brown has been compared to other members of the
                      “Bratpack” generation of new theater songwriters, such as Adam Guettel,
                      Michael John LaChiusa, and Ricky Ian Gordon. But it is Henry Krieger, the
                      composer of “Dreamgirls” and “Sideshow,” who comes to mind when hearing
                      his dynamic score for this revue. Like Krieger, Brown’s songs are direct,
                      highly theatrical, and eminently modern in their sensibilities. Perhaps too
                      modern, since “Songs for a New World” has appeared to baffle producers and
                      directors who find this dense, seemingly plotless series of songs impossible
                      to stage. When I suggested it to a local director some time back, he replied
                      that he loved it, but couldn’t conceive how to stage it; and it has yet to have a
                      Boston production.

                      But come tomorrow night, November 10, that wait will be over, when the
                      SpeakEasy Stage Company will produce a concert version of the show at the
                      Copley Theatre for two performances as part of the company’s InConcert
                      series that highlights the work of an individual songwriter. And unlike the
                      original, which was comprised of four performers, the concert cast has been
                      expanded to 17 local singer-actors under the direction of SpeakEasy’s
                      artistic director Paul Daigneault, assisted by musical director Mark Haddad
                      and conductor Paul Katz.

                      Bay Windows caught up with Brown late one night last week from New York
                      where he was found burning the midnight oil, preparing orchestrations for an
                      upcoming New York Pops concert (on November 19) that will feature his work
                      along with that of his colleagues LaChiusa, Guettel, and Gordon. Yet despite
                      the late hour he was cordial and highly articulate in his analysis of his own
                      work and the state of the American musical theater.

                      “Songs for a New World” came about, he acknowledged, after he struck up a
                      friendship with Daisy Prince, the director and daughter of Hal Prince.

                      Thanks to Daisy

                      “Ours was a relationship based on the fact that I was writing these weird
                      songs and she thought they were fun,” he recalled. “Because she had spent
                      her life around people who wrote theatrical songs she wanted to get to know
                      me and the stuff that I did, and we became friends.”

                      They decided to work on a musical revue of those songs, and they interested
                      the WPA, one of New York’s leading off-Broadway theaters, into producing it.
                      Threading songs from his college days with newer material, the pair came up
                      with a revue with a theme that wasn’t apparent at first.

                      “The connections between the songs started out not to be conscious,” he
                      explained, “but I sought to strengthen them after I saw where the show was
                      going. I would say the songs are about people who are up against the wall.
                      It’s about people who can’t get past Moment X—you get up this point and
                      you say I can either do something I don’t believe in, or I can stand there and
                      be terrified of doing what I know is the thing I have to do. That to me is what
                      the show’s about.

                      “And,” he continued, “it’s not hard to see it in an autobiographical way. I was
                      in New York at the time and I was struggling to have people hear my music
                      and see who I was. It’s a very tough town to live in, and a very tough town to
                      make it in, and not an easy business in which to make it. So I felt myself
                      coming up against those brick walls. Listening to ‘Songs for a New World’
                      now... some of the metaphors are a little pretentious, and some of it is a bit
                      of a stretch; but I see it most specifically as a reflection of who I was when I
                      was 23 and 24 years old.”

                      Two things jump out when you hear Brown’s songs for the first time: one is
                      the often dark subject matters, which include a wildly funny comic number
                      where a woman stands on the ledge of a building waiting to jump, or another
                      where a man rants from a prison cell about his incarceration.

                      And the other is the rich pop sensibility he brings to the material. The sounds
                      of rock, rhythm and blues, Motown, and gospel echo throughout the songs.

                      “The pop influence is the predominate influence in my work because I grew
                      up a rock and roll kid. I was a gospel pianist and a blues guy. Popular music
                      is more of what I got into. I never had a solid grounding in the classics, and
                      my introduction to technical composition came fairly late. And even now I
                      don’t respond to 19th-century stuff. I respond very strongly to stuff written in
                      the 20th century, and that started with show tunes and grew from there, from
                      Bernstein to Copland, Ives and Steve Reich. But I would say my influences
                      first and foremost are Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell and Paul McCartney, and
                      all that gang.

                      “You know, if you were a nerdy looking ethnic kid from the suburbs and
                      played the piano, you wanted to be Billy Joel. And I wanted to be Billy Joel,”
                      he added with a laugh.

                      A palpable hit

                      If the score has produced a “hit,” it is “Stars and the Moon,” the rueful, ironic
                      song about a woman who realizes she’s traded her spiritual happiness for
                      material wealth. It is quickly becoming a cabaret standard. Just this past
                      year it turned up in concerts by Audra MacDonald (who recorded it) and
                      Betty Buckley. And its success somewhat baffles Brown.

                      I haven’t the vaguest idea why it is so popular. The fact that people can pick
                      out 4 minutes out of that CD and say, that’s the thing.... I don’t think it’s
                      more melodic than anything else I wrote, or more accessible; but I think that
                      it rings bells with people. They see themselves in it.”

                      Since “Songs for a New World,” Brown went on to win a Tony Award for
                      “Parade,” the 1998 musical about anti-Semitism in the South in the years
                      following the First World War. It was, in a way, a bittersweet victory: while
                      his work would win an award, the show lost the best musical Tony to
                      “Fosse,” and didn’t run long enough to attract a wide audience.

                      But a subsequent national tour of some nine cities helped restore Brown’s
                      faith in the show.

                      “The reviews we got on the road were almost exclusively wonderful, and the
                      audience responded with real power and emotion. So I think that ‘Parade’
                      won’t be perceived as a noble failure, but instead as a show that works and
                      works beautifully. And that’s the happiest thing—that people will see the
                      show as everything its creators thought it would be, and that’s good enough
                      for them.”

                      His next musical, “The Last Five Years,” is scheduled to premiere this
                      coming May in Chicago and move to the Lincoln Center Theater next fall. It
                      concerns a married couple on the verge of a divorce, but tells its story in an
                      unusual way: moving backward (from her point of view) and forward (from his
                      point of view) at the same time.

                      He hopes that the runaway success of “The Full Monty” will, at long last,
                      bring the new generation of songwriters to Broadway; but he’s also a bit
                      pessimistic about the state of the commercial theater.

                      “Broadway is children’s theater. There isn’t a single idea going on up there.
                      And I have to say that there is a lot of pressure on all of us ‘new generation’
                      to write something financially successful. I’ve tried to circumvent all that
                      because since ‘Parade’ obviously was not, I decided that I wasn’t going to
                      play that game at this point.”

                      Nor does he see himself moving towards the more lucrative avenues of pop
                      music and movies.

                      “I love writing for theater, and hope that I can continue to make my living
                      doing it. And I don’t see it as a stepping stone to some other thing. I don’t
                      really like writing cabaret material. I want to write movie scores or rock and
                      roll tunes. Writing for the theater is a wonderful thing to be able to do. It took
                      me a couple of minutes to figure it out, but once I did, I thought, well this is
                      not so bad.” t For tix ($35; $30 for students and seniors) to ‘Songs for a New
                      World,’ the ‘InConcert event’ SpeakEasy Stage Company, is bringing to the
                      Copley Theater, Boston, November 11 (at 8 pm) and November12 (at 7 pm),
                      call 437-7731. The Copley Theater is at 225 Clarendon Street, Boston.

songs for a new world