Interview:  Jason Robert Brown

Jason Robert Brown is arguably the best of America’s bright new musical theatre composers. His talents can currently be seen at the Bridewell Theatre, who present the European premiere of his first show, ‘Songs for a New World’ until 15 September. Read our review of ‘Songs for a New World.’

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What was the motivation for writing ‘Songs for a New World’?

‘SFANW’ didn’t start out literally as a show. It was just songs that I’d written. I used to play in a piano bar in Greenwich Village and I knew that a few years before a show called ‘Closer Than Ever’ had started there and eventually moved off-Broadway for a financially successful run. I thought, ‘I can write a show that can make a little money.’ So I stole the idea. I thought I’ll put four people on stage with a little band, and it’ll be exactly the same.

So I took the room upstairs and started to put ‘Songs’ together and, of course, found out that it wasn’t as easy as it looks! So then I started throwing songs out and writing new ones. Gradually over a number of years a very clear emotional arc began to run right through the show. At the end of the day I had written more than half of the songs specifically for it, which was certainly never the intention.

How many sources were there for the original songs?

There were a bunch but it’s safe to say that none of them ever got finished which I think is good for all of us. The Christopher Columbus number at the top and the Bessie Ross thing at the end were originally from a dreadful idea I had for a musical revue about American history. I did these two songs and then thought, `Who cares about the rest. This is just silly.`

‘Flying Home’ was from a show that I still might write one of these days about a girl and a faith healer. It was very wild and fun. ‘The River Won’t Flow’ came from this modern Pinocchio thing which all these homeless guys sang. ‘She Cries’ was from a show about a piano player and a cabaret singer, and has nothing to do with my life. Other songs were written for occasions: ‘Hear My Song’ was written for a benefit concert and things like that. But I think that’s most of it.

Were you always a writer?

Yes. What I like about watching the show now is that it`s sort of a picture of me at 24. That’s how I wrote, how I thought, and what I was. But it’s hard to watch it as a writer now because I know there are writers watching who are thinking, ‘He didn’t do this, he didn’t do that and he couldn’t have done that rhyme’, but I did!

How did you get into the musical theatre business?

I wanted to be Billy Joel, a rock star that played the piano and who chicks threw their underwear at. If not that, then an actor because I’m a huge ham. Once I get on stage I just have to take it.

Somewhere between wanting to be a rock star and wanting to be an actor it just came together. I had spent a lot more time on the musical ends of things, summer camps for gifted composers etc. and so I was already in musical theatre. I wanted to do that.

I went to college as a composer and thought that I was going to be an egg head composer with the horn-rimmed glasses and the pencil behind the ear, but that thankfully didn’t work out for me so I kept gravitating back towards musicals. I played in piano bars until someone would let me musically direct a show, be a rehearsal pianist or an audition pianist and that kept happening. And that’s it!

Obviously your biggest success was ‘Parade’ winning the Tony in 1999. How did that come about?

It’s a long, complicated story involving a dog, but I went to see Harold Prince in his office – with his 20 Tony Awards staring at me - to talk about an exciting new American opera that Steve (Sondheim) had decided not to do. He thought I might be interested and I said yes. So that’s basically how I got suckered into doing ‘Parade’.

‘Parade’ has a remarkable score. How do you feel you got from ‘SFANW’ to ‘Parade’?

In the same way as I think of ‘SFANW’ being me at 25, I think of `Parade` as me being me at 28.

‘SFANW’ was so hard to write because all of the songs were self-contained. ‘Parade’ was a relief because I could write stuff for characters that could evolve over the course of an evening. So not only did all the songs not have to be seven-and-a-half minutes long, but they could also develop in little pieces here and there so that the characters became much richer. I learnt a lot just being able to do that. It gave me a lot of strength.

What are you working on at the moment?

I would like to write something that was a little lighter and a sucked a little less of my blood out. I know you commit to something and give it your all, but I would love to do something where at the end of every performance I didn’t feel like I’d actually want to slit my throat. I’d love to write more of a musical comedy.

This is an extract taken from a platform interview with Jason Robert Brown and Clive Paget at the Bridewell theatre on 11 August 2001.

Songs for a New World, by Jason Robert Brown
The Bridewell
Bride Lane, off Fleet Street
London, EC4Y 8EQ
020 7936 3456

8 August-15 September 2001

songs for a new world