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