Spotlight on Jason Robert Brown
by Jonathan Frank             

(part three)

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?

The Last Five YearsJRB:  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.

Parade Original Broadway Cast
Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello in original Broadway production of Parade
I think we need to accomplish the feat of making theater either a countrywide or an international phenomenon that can happen synergistically. I think that everybody focuses too much on Broadway as a piece of real estate where you have to make it work in order for a show to be a success. Parade didn't work in New York, and so getting this tour to happen was ... not like merely pulling teeth, but reaching in and pulling out livers. It would take an incredible feat to get Parade to become some national phenomenon. Whereas Rent came in with all these great reviews and a Pulitzer Prize and it made splash in New York. So you can do your tour and make your money ... because the tour is where you make your money, not New York.

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.

JRB:  Thanks.