Composer dazzles with musicals for `New World'
by Terry Byrne
Friday, November 10, 2000

                 Composer Jason Robert Brown considers himself a storyteller.

                 ``I love to get inside a character's world,'' he says.

                 But Brown's stories always follow complex characters who are living
                 complicated lives. His first musical, ``Songs for a New World,'' looked
                 at young people facing life-changing decisions about patriotism,
                 marriage and success. ``Parade,'' his high-profile, 1998 Broadway
                 debut, follows the true story of Leo Frank, an innocent man convicted
                 of murder. And his newest work, ``The Last Five Years,'' traces the
                 dissolution of a marriage.

                 Despite the weighty nature of his topics, Brown, who is just 30, says,
                 ``I don't think I'm an ivory-tower weirdo. I want to be popular.''

                 Brown's first musical, ``Songs for a New World,'' will have its
                 professional Boston debut tomorrow and Sunday at the Copley
                 Theater in a concert version presented by SpeakEasy Stage
                 Company. Among the cast are some of Boston's stellar singers,
                 including Belle Linda Halpern, Kerry Dowling and Elliot Norton
                 Award-winner Bridget Beirne.

                 Although ``Songs for a New World'' is not a traditional book musical,
                 Brown says he wrote it as more than just a collection of songs.

                 ``It's a revue in that it's 16 songs loosely hung together,'' he says.
                 ``But there is an emotional narrative that builds in a specific way. It
                 tends to be a powerful and effective piece.''

                 ``Songs for a New World'' was written as a showcase for four actors
                 and each of the songs focuses on choices people are faced with at
                 critical moments in their lives. Songs include ``I'm Not Afraid of
                 Anything,'' ``She Cries'' and ``Stars and the Moon,'' which has
                 become a popular cabaret number.

                 ``The point of the show was to make it feel like 16 little one-act
                 plays,'' says Brown. ``That means you have to introduce everybody
                 all the time, and that's why the songs are so long.''

                 Although a few of the songs were written to explore characters in
                 musicals Brown was sketching, he says he doesn't want to return to
                 any of these characters for a new work.

                 ``I love getting a chance to look back at how I was then,'' he says.
                 ``I was more idealistic and less realistic. The concerns are those of
                 people who want to conquer the world, and now I like to write things
                 that are smaller and more intimate.''

                 ``Parade'' was a more intimate story, but despite Brown's teaming
                 with Broadway directing legend Harold Prince and award-winner Alfred
                 Uhry (``Driving Miss Daisy''), the show closed quickly and was
                 considered a flop.

                 ``Parade,'' says Brown, ``is a wonderful calling card, and in some
                 way made me legit.'' (It also earned him a Tony Award for best music
                 and lyrics.) ``But Broadway is designed for epics, and none of the
                 projects I'm working on now smells like Broadway.''

                 Brown's new musical, ``The Last Five Years,'' which he is working on
                 with Daisy Prince (Harold's daughter), will open in Chicago and bow in
                 New York in the fall.

                 ``It's my anti-`Parade,' '' he says. ``It's my Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon
                 voice, while `Parade' was my Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein
                 voice. I think I'm reflecting the folk music I grew up with now.''

                 The amazing arc this composer's work has taken, just through his
                 20s, bodes well for the next decade of musicals. But Brown shrugs off
                 any sense of pressure he and his contemporaries might feel as the
                 great hopes of the future of the American musical theater.

                 ``It would be worse if I were Richard Rodgers and people had seen
                 my last 12 shows and were expecting me to take the musical in a new
                 direction,'' he says. ``As it is, nobody really knows what I do, yet.''

                 ``Songs for a New World,'' presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company
                 at the Copley Theatre tomorrow and Sunday. Tickets: $35. Call (617)

songs for a new world