by Jonathan Frank
I am sure that Jason Robert Brown is as tired of references to his age as he is to his being labeled part of the current 'Bratpack' of musical theater writers. But I am afraid that I can't resist: his accomplishments in the past decade have been incredible for an individual of any age, much less a writer barely into his thirties. As an arranger, Jason worked on A New Brain and Dinah Was. His orchestrations can be heard on john and jen and Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall. He music directed The Petrified Prince and When Pigs Fly. And, oh yes, he won a Tony for writing the music and lyrics for his first Broadway show, Parade. Toss in the fact that one of his songs, "Stars and the Moon," has become a cabaret and concert staple, and you have a truly amazing body of work at any age. So hopefully he will forgive my mentioning it ... repeatedly.
Jonathan Frank: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Jason. I heard a rumor that you're a lurker on here on Talkin' Broadway.
Jason Robert Brown: I show up every now and then. I like to see what "the kids" have to say.
JF: I don't know how you do it. I can't imagine visiting a website and seeing your work - your baby - discussed and dissected by a thousand posters!
JRB: At least it's by people who care about the art form! I've seen my work dissected by Ben Brantley who couldn't give a shit one way or the other. At least the people who are posting care about musical theater and support it.
JF: You have been touring the country conducting Parade. You didn't get a chance to conduct the Lincoln Center production, right?
JRB: No. I had wanted to conduct it in New York but the run was too short for it not to be disruptive. It's not like I didn't have the best conductor in the world doing it anyway, so I just let him do his job and I would show up every now and then and sulk.
JF: But you did get the chance to play piano for it in New York, correct?
JRB: Yeah. Otherwise I was just sitting there; it was driving me crazy! I said that if the pianist ever needed a sub I happened to know how the songs went, so they threw me in there a couple of times.
JF: How long will Parade be touring?
JRB: After Seattle, we do two weeks in Cleveland ... unless somebody wants to keep it going!
JF: How have the audiences responded to Parade on the road?
JRB: Well, the critical response has been exceptional. The press has been amazing every town we go to, except for Minneapolis, where for some reason they didn't like us much. If I had gotten the kind of reviews in New York that we received in Dallas, I would be a much wealthier man. So that's been lovely. The audiences go back and forth. The audiences in Atlanta were very involved in it emotionally, for obvious reasons, and were very receptive to it. It plays so differently in the South; it all of a sudden became a show about Southerners. Before, it had always been a show about this Yankee, Leo Frank, who was out of place. When we got to Atlanta, Memphis, and Dallas it became a show about the South.
JF: So they accepted it ... it wasn't perceived as a slam on them or anything?
JRB: No. Alfred Uhry is a Southerner and writes as one of them, and they responded to him as such, whereas at Lincoln Center it played more as a show by three Jews writing about this topic. In the Northern cities, the responses have been very positive but the audiences haven't been great, since a lot of the theaters haven't had the money to push the production.
JF: And the title probably doesn't help ... no offense. I have had to clear up many misperceptions by friends here in Seattle who think that, with a name like Parade, it's going to be a show along the lines of Hello Dolly ... a very 'happy' and up show. Which begs the question ... how on earth did you come up with the title Parade?
JRB: It's called Parade because the whole show is staged as the Confederate Memorial Parade, that being the day when Mary gets killed. And there is a continuous series of parades in the show; the trial itself can be thought of a parade.
The more honest answer, however, is this: the title that Alfred and I originally came up with was The Devil and Little Mary, which was not the greatest title, but it was evocative and had a lot going on. But Hal for some reason thought it should be called I Love a Parade, which I thought was easily the most misleading title that you could give a show. We actually did a reading with that title. I guess Hal had a lot of people tell him that it might have been the worst title we could have come up with; that we would have been better off naming the show Shogun. Finally Hal said, "We'll just call it Parade, then."
Songs for a New World is not one of my favorite titles either, and I feel like I have yet to find a good title for any of my shows. I want that Frank Wildhorn thing of having great titles for everything; when you go see The Civil War, at least you know what you are going to be seeing.
JF: I know that Songs for a New World, which is essentially a revue, contains material written for shows that were in development. But had you ever written a complete honest-to-God book musical before Parade?
JRB: I wrote a ballet called The Moneyman, which is sort of finished, but I threw out the book and I'm now waiting for a better book so I can rewrite it.
JF: When was that written?
JRB: 1996. It was all about Michael Milken and Wall Street in the '80s. It's a very exciting piece, but I haven't found the right time for it yet.
JF: Were you working with other people on that?
JRB: I was, but at the end of the day, I just took my stuff and left. But I keep hoping I will find somebody to work with who really gets it.
JF: So then Parade was really your first full-fledged book musical.
JRB: Yeah. But at the time it didn't occur to me that it was. Now that I'm able to distinguish between my juvenilia and my real stuff, it obviously is. But at the time I thought, "Oh I know how to do this! I know how to write a show!" Little did I know ...
JF: I read somewhere that you had wanted to be a performer at one point. When you moved to New York at 20, did you still have aspirations of being a performer?
JRB: I had planned on being a performer when I was a kid; you know, be Billy Joel or a rock star. But by the time I went to college I had already decided that that wasn't going to happen. It was obvious to me that the stuff I wanted to be writing was not radio songs ...
JF: Because it showed intelligence and contained meaningful lyrics?
JRB: Ye-ah ... but even more than that, it has build. Pop songs by their nature are about establishing a mood, sustaining it, and finishing with it. Theater songs are about the opposite; good theater songs go from one end of an idea to a different place. I wanted to write songs that had movement; that had journeys to them. I realized I was not going to be Elton John, or Billy Joel, or Randy Newman ... I'll be some guy who does whatever weird thing it is that I do ... I still don't know what that is, but the closest thing I found was writing musicals.
JF: Does Songs for a New World have any story or connective tissue, or is the show pretty close to what you hear on the CD?
JRB: There's a little bit of connective tissue ... it's a very different show on stage than on record. On stage it's about the relationship between the four people. That doesn't come across on the record and it sounds like just 17 songs, when in fact it's about one thing that leads to another person, which leads to another person and their overall relationships, which becomes clearer over the course of the evening.
The biggest challenge I have with musical theater is that the stuff I write, by its nature, is not going to be seen by too many people in its original production. Hopefully other people will do it and it will continue to have a life.