Composer makes his music matter
Tony Award winner traveling to Duluth for UMD production

By Chris Casey
News Tribune staff writer

Jason Robert Brown's best friend growing up was an inanimate object that
could fill up a room.

In fact, his zeal for that musical instrument helped Brown get where he is
today -- a theatrical composer who is being touted as the next Stephen
Sondheim. Sondheim is the composer of many acclaimed musicals, including ``A
Little Night Music,'' ``Into the Woods,'' ``Sweeney Todd'' and ``Company.''

``I don't even know if I had any talent for (piano), but I just wouldn't let
go,'' Brown said Monday in a phone interview from New York City. ``I
wouldn't stop playing it, much to my brother's perpetual chagrin.... It was
this constant in my life.

``I wasn't a very popular kid. I was sort of a brat and I was arrogant and
difficult, but, you know, the best friend I had were those 88 keys sitting
over there. So I used to go talk to them every day after school.''

Brown, 30, will speak with University of Minnesota Duluth students this week
in conjunction with the Stage II production of his first musical, ``Songs
for a New World.'' Stage II is the student-run branch of the UMD Theatre

Brown, who won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Original Score for ``Parade,''
debuted ``Songs for a New World'' off Broadway in 1995.

Just a few years after arriving in New York -- he had studied music
composition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., for a couple
years before dropping out -- Brown felt he had a group of songs that flowed

A 16-song revue, directed by Daisy Prince, daughter of legendary Broadway
director Harold Prince, was born. Some songs had been written with the idea
of being part of another show; others were cabaret tunes Brown had written.
Early in his New York career, Brown played piano at Joe's Pub, where he
performed some material from the emerging song cycle.

``Some of (the songs) were kind of fever dreams where I woke up in the
middle of the night and had to write,'' Brown said.

The theme of ``Songs for a New World,'' which features four lead singers, is

``It's about what you do when you come into one... and what choice are you
going to make about how you're going to cross it, get over it, or turn back
and forget about it,'' he said. ``There is a struggle against what's the
easy path and what's the hard path.''

For Brown, the matter of what he was going to do for a living grew clearer
at age 7. He loved the ``West Side Story'' album his parents owned.

``I remember going to the public library and getting the script and saying
all the words to the script and putting the record on at the right times and
just thinking that that was the greatest thing in the world -- to tell a
story with music like that. Once the seed was planted, it was sort of hard
to dislodge.''

Brown thrilled to the idea of writing stories through song. While he enjoyed
pop songs, they didn't build as high and didn't travel as far as theatrical

``As far as I'm concerned, good theater songs take you someplace. You've got
to start in one place and end someplace else,'' he said. ``And I think
that's always a challenge: How do you find what the moment is about? How do
you find the important thing that you want this song to say? It's a
challenge I love conquering.''

Brown calls that challenge ``the monster at the doorway.''

Meanwhile, Andrew Bennett, the UMD student directing ``Songs for a New
World,'' calls Brown the next great American musical composer.

``He does a lot of the technical work that Sondheim does with mixed meters
and the way he writes his lyrics,'' Bennett said. ``Nothing is wasted...
every lyric serves a purpose.''

The pieces in ``Songs'' move from the whimsical ``Surabaya-Santa'' to the
intimate ``She Cries'' to the stirring ``Flying Home.''

Brown has achieved much fame since crafting the musical revue in the early
'90s. Harold Prince recruited Brown to write the score for ``Parade,'' which
won the 1999 Drama Desk and New York Drama Critic's Circle awards for Best
New Musical.

New York's Lincoln Center Theater commissioned Brown's next musical, ``The
Last Five Years.'' The show, about the unraveling marriage between a Jewish
man and an Irish woman, will open in Chicago in May.

Brown said his favorite component of theater is vocal arranging -- because
voices can ``do a billion different things.''

``If you gave me 16 clarinets, I could basically make them sound like 16
clarinets,'' he said. ``But if you give me 16 singers, I can sort of do
anything with them.''

Having completed the music for ``The Moneyman,'' his first dance musical,
Brown plans to continue moving in that direction.

``I love writing dance music,'' he said. ``It's one of the things that I
hope to really start conquering in some of my next shows -- just making them
move and making them dance because I think it's a lot of fun.''

Asked what he's learned in the 10 years since he arrived in New York
determined to write a Broadway musical, Brown said, simply, be true to your

``It sounds trite, but you just have to try and do something that motivates
and moves you personally,'' he said. ``You can't just try and do something
because you think it will make you a lot of money, and you can't do it
because you think it will get you a lot of prestige. You just have to do it
because it matters to you.''

What: ``Songs for a New World,'' presented by Stage II at UMD.
When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday; today's preview performance will be preceded at 7
p.m. by a free public forum with the show's composer, Jason Robert Brown.
Where: UMD's Dudley Experimental Theatre.
How much: Today's pre-show forum and preview performance are free; call 726-8564 to reserve. Shows on Thursday through Saturday are $5. Call 726-8564.

songs for a new world