by Jonathan Frank
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.
JF: Are you currently working on a new project?
JRB: Yes. In May I will have a new show opening at the Northlight Theatre in Chicago, which Daisy [Prince, the original director of Songs for a New World] is directing. It's a character piece called The Last Five Years. In its simplest form it's about a man and a woman who fall in love, get married and then get divorced. The woman tells her side of the story from the end of the marriage backwards, the man tells his from the first date forwards, and they do it in alternating segments. They are never in the same place at the same time except in the middle when they get married. So you get to see from two perspectives how things are created and how they are falling apart.
JF: Are you writing the book as well?
JRB: There's not a whole lot of dialogue per se ...
JF: But you are responsible for coming up with the concept and the story.
JF: Which brings up the ever popular question of what exactly is the dividing line, in terms of responsibilities, between the person who writes book and the person who writes the lyrics.
JRB: It's a structural issue as opposed to a dialogue issue. Anybody who says, "this is what the show looks like in its over-arching form" is responsible, in part at least, for the book. The dialogue is certainly important if you have it ... God knows with Parade, if Alfred's contribution had been limited to the dialogue, he would have been done in an hour and a half. It's brilliant dialogue and it's wonderful, but there's not a lot of it. Obviously his contribution was in determining the structure and the tone of the show.
JF: What song in Songs for a New World represents your earliest work?
JRB: The oldest fragment is "She Cries." Most of it was written in 1989, and the bridge was written in 1992. "I'm not Afraid of Anything" is the oldest complete song, and it was written in 1990.
JF: I heard that a songbook of your music is in the works ...
JRB: I keep talking to my publisher to get the proofs to me. We're having a lot of trouble getting together a book that we actually like because the songs are so long. "She Cries" is twenty some-odd pages ... it doesn't sound like that, but it is ... it's just endless! In trying to create a folio, you want to balance the number of pages with what people are going to be willing to pay. We've been trying to get the songs into forms which are more compact, so we won't have to waste the forests of several small countries.
JF: It is interesting how frequently I have heard "Stars and the Moon" sung recently ... usually by people who are way too young to be singing it.
JRB: It's amazing to me that people can listen to a show and isolate the four minutes that somehow captures their ear. I know it's a very popular song and a very resonant song, but I never felt like it was the best song in the show ... but I'm glad everybody likes it so much.
JF: What song do you consider to be your 'best;' that is the one that you are most proud of writing?
JRB: Some stuff from the new show is very exciting and I am very proud to have written it. Absent that, a song called "Music of Heaven" is what I wish every song of mine could be. It's an amazing song.
JF: Is it recorded?
JRB: No. It needs a choir, which is the difficulty of performing it. But we're doing it with the New York Pops at a big concert that they are doing on November 17th. They are going to be doing a tribute to me and Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa. They will be doing about 25 minutes of my stuff, and the last thing will be "Music of Heaven" with orchestra and choir, so that should be a blast.
JF: Any plans to record that concert?
JRB: I doubt it. It would be nice, but you know, everybody is very enthusiastic about all of us, but nobody has made any money off any of us. So things like records and big advances and commissions are still a ways off ... for me at least. I think we're all treading water until one of us hits.
JF: Is that circle of composers good friends or at least acquaintances?
JRB: We all say nice things about each other! I've known Adam [Guettel] off and on for about 10 years. I wouldn't say we're friends ... we don't travel in the same circles ... but we certainly get on just fine. I think he's just extraordinary. I traveled to Philadelphia by myself, which is completely not like me, to see the first reading of Floyd Collins because I just wanted to see what he did. I was in shock and he still knocks me out. I have a little more interesting relationship with Michael John [LaChiusa]; I was the music director for his show The Petrified Prince at the Public. We admire each other a lot ... at least I hope it's reciprocal ... but I don't think we'll ever be the sort to 'hang out.' Ricky Ian [Gordon] is just the sweetest man you'll ever meet in your life, and I feel lucky just to know him. The other day I got a letter from him out of nowhere saying how much he enjoyed listening to Parade that day, and I wrote back and said "You're the guy!"
You know, the real problem, and I hope they'll forgive me for saying this, but all four of us are exceedingly neurotic, which makes normal friendship difficult when there's any kind of competition or pressure. And let's face it, there's plenty of both of those things.
JF: And here I was hoping that the four of you were constantly hanging out ... the next generation of musical theater composers forming a new Algonquin Round Table or something like that.
JRB: You know, I really resist claiming that we're the "new generation" ...
JF: It's hard not to. For the longest time there was all this bitching and moaning about "Where is the new blood?" The "Where is the next generation of composers to lead us into the millennium" sort of thing. Frank Wildhorn was about the only new voice that appeared for quite a while, and now all of a sudden there is this huge influx of similarly aged writers on the scene.
JRB: It's arbitrary. Steve Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens I think are about the same age as, say, Ricky Ian Gordon. So all this talk that the four of us are the 'new' generation is really weird. I think Steve and Lynn did a lot in paving the way for us. Look, Once on This Island remains one of the greatest things I ever saw, and Ragtime is wonderful; I don't think I would have been as confident in my work without them. It also conveniently ignores a lot of people who are doing things that are just as significant, if not more so, like Andrew Lippa or Matt Sklar or Jake Heggie. I mean I'm very grateful for the attention that I have been getting, but it seems arbitrary that the four of us who happened to show up on Audra's record are the four people who get all the attention.
JF: I noticed in your bio that you did orchestrations for Sondheim at Carnegie Hall. That would have been right when you moved to New York! Don't tell me that the first job you got in New York was arranging the entire concert?
JRB: No, I just did the songs for The Tonics, which was a group I was sort of music directing at the time. I came into town and started playing at piano bars and I met The Tonics. Someone had recommended me to them, since there aren't a lot of people in piano bars or in musical theater that play rock and roll with any kind of facility. And it was a lovely experience, because right when I started working with them they took off and I got to be in the middle of it.
JF: You seem to be quite the master of timing ...
JRB: I kind of think it's the opposite; if I were the true master of timing, Parade would still be running!
JF: Well, I am looking forward to seeing it finally. I saw Fosse again recently and I still can't believe it won the Tony for Best Musical.
JRB: It's fine, but it's not a musical.
Look, here's the thing ... you don't win "Best Musical" because you're the best musical. Everyone who reads this board has figured that out already. You win because the show is valuable to the greatest number of people if you win. The shame about Fosse winning Best Musical is that it isn't valuable to anyone except tour presenters. The show doesn't really add to anyone's understanding of Fosse's work, that's for sure, and it's not some groundbreaking and exciting form of revue; it's just a bunch of dances that you either saw or didn't see the first time around. And that's fine, but it's not a musical. So the lesson learned here is that the tour presenters are extremely influential in deciding how the Tonys are awarded, because nobody else had any reason to vote for Fosse.
I'm not saying they should have voted for Parade, because I don't think any of us expected to win. But Footloose and Civil War were two shows produced by large corporations that could really have used a Best Musical Tony to prop up business, and they couldn't get anyone to care enough about them to vote that way. So instead, a show that had absolutely no original material, which will have no life at all in stock and amateur sales ... that most Broadway people couldn't care less about one way or the other ... beat out three shows containing original material which could theoretically be done in high schools and colleges for the next fifty years. That's instructive.
JF: You did win a Tony, however, for writing the music and lyrics for Parade. I heard that two weeks after you won it you were working as the audition pianist for The Scarlet Pimpernel ...
JRB: That was a favor I did ... well not a favor exactly ... Mark Simon, who was the casting director for Parade was also at the time the casting director for Pimpernel, so as a private joke he would call me in to play for auditions.
JF: It's interesting to hear things like that ... because the perception is that once you win a Tony, you don't have to do things like that ever again.
JRB: But I do have to things like that; the Tony Award does not come with a cash gift. I mean, I don't play auditions for a living; I just love doing it and Mark and I thought it would be fun. The unfortunate side effect is that it was distracting for actors, so I asked Mark not to do it any more; people would come in and start sweating and panting when they saw me at the piano, so I figured that it wasn't fair.
JF: To get back to your new show, The Last Five Years ... Is it a piece commissioned by Northlight, or are there plans to take it anywhere?
JRB: It's a commissioned piece for Lincoln Center. We're starting at the Northlight space in Chicago, which is a wonderful space, so that we have a chance to work it and break it in. The space at Northlight is virtually identical to the space at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, so we'll be able to transfer it from one place to the other. We'll open it in Chicago in May, hopefully run it through the summer, and then bring it to Lincoln Center.
JF: So it's Broadway bound ... .
JRB: Off-Broadway bound. After doing Parade, which was such a big show and which was kind of apart from me ... I mean I loved doing it, but it wasn't my piece. If it was anybody's it was Alfred's, and if it wasn't Alfred's it was Hal's. And then finally somewhere down the line it was mine. It was a job, and I was very lucky to get it, but, when it was all said and done, I wanted to do something that was A) small and that I felt I could control and have a handle on and B) was very personal and something that I felt very connected to. So that's where this came from.
JF: Do you still do work for other composers, like orchestrations, arrangements, music directing, etc?
JRB: I don't do it very much any more. I love arranging, music directing and orchestrating ... the hard thing is that when you do somebody else's work, you have to serve their work instead of your own need to jerk off creatively. And that can be challenging, especially after you've had a taste of doing your own.
The reason I don't do it much any more is that I think I'd feel like the audience, seeing my name as an arranger, would expect the arrangements to sound like 'me.' And you have an obligation to not sound like 'you;' you need to sound like the person that you are serving. When I do dance arrangements for Michael John LaChiusa, for instance, I have to make it not sound like Mr. Rock and Roll came in ... I have to live in his world. It took me a while to learn not to impose my own bullshit over anything I was conducting. And you know, I got very good at that, I think; now conversely I find that it would be hard to conduct somebody else's music and not submerge myself completely in it. And I'm not sure that I want to do that anymore ... at least not very often. I like exploring my own stuff for right now.
JF: When you do arrangements or orchestrations, in what form is the material given to you? Do you get a lead sheet, or do they provide you with well sketched-out ideas?
JRB: It depends ... I did some work for Charlie Strouse and he would give me either a lead sheet or a very complete piece of music and say, "Do what you have to do with this." I just did four arrangements for Larry Grossman for the New York City Gay Men's Chorus. Larry is certainly exceptionally talented musically and he gave me full piano parts with vocal lines and suggestions and told me, "Feel free to throw it all away," which I wouldn't do.
The point is to make a whole: if you add a choral part, you have to make the piano part work with it and build towards and through that. It's about reconceiving it the way Larry wants it versus "If I had written the song ... " And if I work with someone like Yoko Ono, who doesn't read or write music, but sits at the piano or just yells it at me ... I have to make it work in a way that makes her feel good about it, and makes me feel good about it because I have to play that show every night. So if I felt like "I could write any dog shit down, what will she care," I would have been miserable.
JF: It's interesting, because I feel too many people tend to think that when we hear, say Sweeney Todd for example, that every note in the orchestration ... the whole feel of the show is due to the writer, instead of the orchestrator ...
JRB: Well, with Stephen Sondheim, the feel of the show really is his, and Jonathan Tunick, as brilliant as he is, is really just adapting from one medium to another. Yes, when you work with Bill Finn or Liz Swados, you really have to do a lot of the creating. When I write a show, I want to be the person doing the creating; I want to compose from the ground up. And I think Michael John [LaChiusa] and Adam [Guettel] and Andrew [Lippa] feel the same way about it. We don't expect people to come in and clean up our numbers and put a bump on the end to get applause ... we're thinking in much larger terms than that. There's not a note in Parade that I don't have my hands on. When there's underscore, dance music, vocal arrangements ... it's all mine, and I'm very proprietary about that.
JF: Now how to phrase this ...
JRB: Don't worry ... you can always change it when you type it up.
JF: True. OK ... not to sound utterly pretentious ... but ... given that Parade didn't take off on Broadway last year, and that LaChiusa's Wild Party didn't this year ... that the only successful shows on Broadway recently have been revues, revivals or shows based on movies ... that aside from Jekyll and Hyde and Rent, there hasn't really been a bonafide 'new' musical that was a success ...
JRB: There's Ragtime ...
JF: But it is a shaky success at best, and it also failed to win the Tony for Best New Musical ...
JRB: Like I said, I think winning the Tony Award is totally arbitrary and doesn't mean anything in terms of the success, in any sense of the word, of a given show.
JF: I guess my question is whether or not you think there is still hope for new writers who want to create shows for Broadway?
JRB: The answer is yes, because you can make a lot of money on Broadway. That remains the main point; a producer can make a lot more money on Broadway than Off-Broadway. At a certain point producers run out of ideas for revues, so they have to do a new show every now and then. Furthermore, since people like it when new shows are produced, if I'm a producer, it serves me to do that. I think The Rhythm Club will do very nicely if the producers are smart about it. And I think Seussical will do very well, too, and right there you've got two new book shows. There's also The Full Monty so right there you have lots of new writers ... young writers ... coming to Broadway this season.
I think the challenge in getting people to come to a Broadway theater is so immense ... you're talking about getting people to come to a piece of real estate that's within an eight block region of New York City. So your whole audience base has to come from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut or through tourism. And when you can only get that group of people, you're trying to create something that's as broad as possible so that every single one of those people comes. You want to create something that nobody can say, "Oh, I don't want to be a part of that," because you are talking about such a small possible percentage of people. And that's no way to create an artistic statement; it's a way to create a product.
So the way it works is that you have to hit Broadway and you have to hit it hard, and if you don't make it there you are dead, and that's a problem. Until producers find a way to keep New York from being the be-all and end-all, then what happens in New York is going to be prefabricated, predigested material which will appeal to the family audience, who buy four tickets instead of two, or will make the Times' critic happy. Or do limited runs. There are all these strategies to make a show run in New York and it's depressing, because it means that work which doesn't become a hit within that narrow stretch of the world, doesn't get a chance to exist.
If we take, for instance, Prince of Central Park, which was written by a friend of mine, and was a disaster of a show ... I could say that it had as much value on a theatrical level as, say, Footloose. But Footloose was produced very cannily, with an eye on a specific audience, and it had the value of a name; people had seen or heard of that movie. Neither is a good show, but Footloose got a national tour and will or will not make money for the people involved; it won't have lived and died solely based on the first two weeks that it was running in a city in the north-eastern portion of the United States. Are producers going to look at that and say, "Let's produce a new show that's risky and no one's heard of!" or are they going to say, "How can we insulate ourselves best against failure?"
Any new show is better, in my opinion, then Jekyll and Hyde. I run into a lot of people who don't agree with me, which is fine, but my basic point is that I don't see why Jekyll and Hyde is any more worthy than my show or Michael John's or Ricky Ian's. But there's something very important about Jekyll and Hyde; it exists as this 'thing' outside of its relative success in New York. And that's the challenge of any producer who wants to produce new and interesting work; to figure out how to replicate that phenomenon. And I don't think most people are up to it; I don't think most producers are smart or talented enough to do it.
JF: Do you think that is due to the current trend of shows being produced by corporations instead of individuals?
JRB: No. I think it's because shows are being produced by money now, which is not the same as being produced by vision. Corporate, shmorporate ... I don't think that means anything other than being able to raise more money faster. Jekyll and Hyde, which I think is produced exceptionally well, was produced by a corporation. The Wild Party, which was produced maybe not so well, was produced by an independent producer. I don't think that has anything to do with it.
But I also want to say, what the hell do I know about producing? I just want to write, and when I get into all these arcane arguments about economics and contemporary aesthetic, it's just me spouting. All I care about is, "Will there still be a on Broadway for me to do my work?" Is there a support system in place for a serious commercial musical theater? And if I thought the answer was an unqualified yes, then I don't think we'd be talking about money so much. But I don't, which is scary, because I have no idea what else I'm supposed to do with my life.
JF: Hopefully it is to continue to write musicals, because I have enjoyed what I have heard from you so far. Best of Fates, Jason, and I can't wait to see Parade later this month.