TIME OUT NEW YORK
October 25 – November 1, 1995
Composer Jason Robert Brown is the musical dauphin to Harold Prince
Jason Robert Brown would love to go to his high school reunion and tell his former classmates that he’s currently writing the score for a new Broadway musical to be directed by stage veteran Harold Prince.
There’s only one problem. He’s hardly old enough for a high school reunion. At the tender age of 25, this musical whiz kid is indeed collaborating with Prince and Alfred Uhry on a new musical, to be called I Love A Parade, about the true case of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory owner who was lynched after being wrongfully convicted for the murder of a young girl. But that show is till in the formative stage. In the meantime, he’s written the music and lyrics for a musical revue, Songs for a New World, opening October 26 at the WPA Theater. The director is another Prince; Daisy, Hal’s daughter, making her New York directorial debut.
The show is described, rather vaguely, as taking us on a “journey of discovery,” and even the composer is hard-pressed to say exactly what it is. “If Eric Bogosian wrote musicals, this is what they’d be like. The show has 17 character sketches; there’s not a whole lot linking them – other than that I wrote them – but for some reason they have an emotional journey. I can’t describe it to you, but I know that they work onstage.”
The music in the show is a hodgepodge of styles, including rock, swing, gospel and funk, but, Brown says, “It’s not like the funk is unbridled Sly Stone funk. The music is very theatrical, in a way that relates to the music I heard when I was growing up, but it has a lot of balls to it.”
This isn’t the first time Brown has worked at the WPA. He was the conductor and orchestrator for Yoko Ono’s musical New York Rock, which played there a couple of seasons back. Although he describes it as “a trying experience” without elaborating, he did establish a good relationship with Kyle Renick, the artistic director of the WPA.
Brown is an instrumentalist, arranger, conductor and composer – all after only two years in music school, although he says he didn’t learn much there: “I don’t want to sound cocky, but I mastered all those arts before I went to music school. Music is all I did from the time I was twelve years old.”
He came to New York when he was 21, and supported himself playing in piano bars. He also conducted and arranged music for various productions and workshops, including a musical version of Star Wars written by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (one of the songs was called “Being a Droid”). He met Daisy Prince through the vocal group The Tonics, for whom he served as musical director, and subsequently worked for her father as the conductor for The Petrified Prince.
“The luckiest thing that ever happened to me was meeting the Princes,” Brown says. “You can’t imagine what it means to be supported by them. It is their pride and joy to have as many children in their extended family as they can.” The ties were further tangled when Brown married Prince’s secretary, Terri O’Neill.
Working for one of the titans of musical theater would seem a terrifying proposition, but Brown is taking it in stride. “It’s not intimidating so much as it’s constantly educational,” he says. “At this point, he’s ‘Uncle Hal.’”
Brown is nothing if not confident, a trait that he attributes to his difficult adolescence. Not a raging success at school, he explains, “I was forced to become exceptionally arrogant just in order to have faith in myself at the end of the say. It took an enormous toll on me, but the reality is, I’m 25 years old and I have a sense of accomplishment. I’m doing the things that I want to do, that I’m best suited to do, and it’s a tremendous feeling. I don’t feel like I’m in over my head; I haven’t risen to my level of incompetence. And it will only get better.”
- Frank Scheck
songs for a new world