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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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