The Arty Semite

The Year of Jason Robert Brown

By Curt Schleier

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This will definitely be composer Jason Robert Brown’s year.

A musical version of Robert James Waller’s “The Bridges of Madison County” (music, lyrics and orchestration by Jason Robert Brown) opens February 20 on Broadway.

“Honeymoon in Vegas” (music, lyrics, dance and vocal orchestration by Jason Robert Brown), which received rapturous reviews during its debut at the Paper Mill Theater in New Jersey, opens on Broadway in the fall.

The film version of his innovative off-Broadway play, “The Last Five Years” (book, music and lyrics by Jason…you get the picture) will be in theaters later this year.

All this on top of the Tony he won (best original music score) for “Parade,” about the Leo Frank trial and “13,” his Broadway follow-up, about a young bar mitzvah-age boy transplanted from New York to the Midwest after his parents divorce.

I first saw Jason perform almost 20 years ago at a small suburban theater not far from Monsey, NY, where he grew up. I wish I could say I purposely sought out the show. Actually, his show was — to my way of thinking — just thrown in as part of a subscription to the plays I really wanted to see. But it wasn’t very long before he blew away with a musical review, “Songs for a New World.”

After that I followed him almost everywhere, walking that fine line between sycophant and stalker. I saw “The Last Five Years,” the story of his first marriage. I sat across the aisle from him at a preview performance of “Parade.” (For the record, that was a coincidence.)

At “13,” the PR folks gave out CDs of the score with the press kit and I rushed to him to get it autographed. He told me I was the first.

Finally, at the Paper Mill, I saw him in the lobby, reminded him of our past and begged him for an interview. He said three magic words I’ll never forget: “See the publicist.”

Well it wasn’t “no.” So here we are, a few weeks before Madison County is slated to open, and Jason is on the phone.

Curt Schleier: When did you realize you’re a genius?

Jason Robert Brown: [Laughs] I’m still waiting for that. People keep telling me that and it’s something I’m always ready to hear.

But there really must have been a time when you realized you had a special gift.

I don’t come from a musical family at all, but I realized early on I was a musician. I started begging for a piano when I was 6 years old. My family was able to support what seemed to be an arcane desire. I don’t think it mattered [to me] if I was any good. All that mattered was that I needed to do it. The jury is still out on whether I’m a genius or not.

You started writing songs almost immediately, didn’t you?

I got a piano when I was 8 and in three weeks I started writing songs on it. Not good songs.

Theatrical?

Only pop songs. I was trying to be Billy Joel.

You sang one at your bar mitzvah.

It was a lamentable song, a heart-breaking ballad [about unrequited love], even though I never had a girl friend.

Do you remember any of the words?

Even if I did, I would not share them with you.

How did you make the transition from Billy Joel to Rodgers and Hammerstein?

Concurrent with my music, I was always something of a ham. I was in school plays a lot. When I was about 11, my mother was trying to figure out what to do with me. She sent me to the French Woods Performing Arts camp where I auditioned for musicals. At the time, it was a toss up whether I was going to be an actor or a piano player. After many summers at French Woods exploring that [acting] side of who I was, I realized I enjoyed the theater of it, I enjoyed being around actors, but, at the end of the day, I didn’t entirely feel I was one. I felt entirely more comfortable with the musicians. But the actors were so much fun I didn’t want to stop hanging around them, so I decided to write for theater.

The New York Times ran a profile of you that made it seem as though you were a little unsure about your place in the theatrical firmament. Is that accurate?

I think it depends on how you define unsure. I’m not doubtful that I am doing what I should be doing, writing for theater, and that I’m doing it in a way no one else does it. Whether anyone else is paying attention or anyone else cares, I’m still ambivalent about that. It’s still an open question. This is a good year to find out. With all that’s going on, it will be pretty obvious whether I belong here or not.

Can you tell me a little about your Jewish background?

My mother’s father was Orthodox. He lived in the Kingsbridge Heights section of the Bronx, and I spent a lot of time there. My mother defined himself at sort of the lower edge of Conservatism. We grew up with separate dishes. I tripped a couple of stacks below that, like most people you interact with in the theater who are culturally very Jewish. In terms of my religious preference, if a year goes by and I don’t have a Seder or I don’t light the menorah, I feel a loss.

Much of your work is infused with Judaism, but “Madison County” is different.

It has been one of the strangest things about writing “Bridges,” the most goyishe musical I could possibly write. There was always a way I could find my way into the character, with “Parade” and especially “The Last Five Years.” I didn’t have that luxury with “Bridges of Madison County” until I thought there is something about the cliff all of these characters are on that seemed familiar. There is something about looking for answers, being unsatisfied with the options in life, in striving for more that is Jewish and very much a part of who I am.

Do you have any superstitions? I ask because I sat opposite you at a preview of “Parade” and you sat in what appeared to be the same seat in the preview of “Bridges” I attended.

I always sit in the seat where the critic for The New York Times is going to be sitting. I want to see the show the way he will. Most writers don’t like to sit in the audience; they’ll stand in the back. The show sounds different in different parts of the theater. I like to know exactly what it’s like in the most expensive seats.

“Madison County” had a very successful run in Willamstown over the summer. Are you still revising?

The old joke is that a show is never finished. It just opens. The out-of-town run was enormously well received. But the New York audience is a different audience. They’re more restless, they can get ahead of you a lot. The work on the show now is mainly about refining and clarifying and maybe cutting. The show is a little long.


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