Friday, October 27, 1995

Gifted Composer Shows His Wares

EVERYONE IS talking about Jason Robert Brown.  Well, not exactly everyone but those inside the smarter show-business circles. Young (25-year-old) Mr. Brown is the gifted composer-lyricist who is only a few years out of the Eastman School of Music, yet is already virtually assured of his first Broadway show.  No less than Harold Prince has commissioned it.

As a matter of fact, this show is his off-Broadway debut – an introduction to the work of Mr. Brown by the enterprising WPA Theatre.  Songs for a New World is a revue built around the young man’s words and music.

It is obvious from the outset that he is a gifted, trained and theatrical composer, as well as a skilled and precise lyricist.  The subjects of his songs are of the angst-ridden urban variety – a woman, for instance, is about to commit suicide because of her cheap, cheating husband.  Another song deals simply with anxiety.

This is serious business, and generally speaking, Mr. Brown’s lyrics are much darker than his music. They are also less sophisticated.  The composer has himself written the orchestrations, and that is impressive and important.  It is not common for our stage composers to be thus trained and Mr. Brown’s musical writing is sophisticated.  But while he doesn’t write fancy just to show off, at this point his facility is what impresses more than any personal artistic signature.

It is the technique, then, that is what makes Mr. Brown so striking, and that only stands to reason in one so young.  Musical wholeness or lyric-writing substance come only with experience.

The prodigious technicality extends to his pianism.  Performing himself with a group of excellent musicians, he proves himself a phenomenal pianist with a fabulous left hand and a sense of syncopation that seems practically biological.

But overall, most of his songs sound alike and there is not much in the way of melody.  This explains the scarcity of slow songs or ballads, for they preclude harmony and rhythm from camouflaging a lack of melody.

This is not a handicap.  Contrary to popular fiction, melody is not available to only the inspired, snatched from the air.  One may have a gift for it, but the gift is knowing how to work it out.  Mr. Brown will have to put that work into his composing.  As for his lyrics, he currently knows how to say things but does not yet say much.  Both of these are youthful shortcomings that can be corrected and developed with experience.

The show itself has been staged by Daisy Prince with economy and ingenuity, never moving just for the sake of movement and always standing by to serve the music.  The singers themselves – Brooks Ashmanskas, Andrea Burns, Jessica Molaskey and Billy Porter – are very good.

songs for a new world