BWW Interviews: Jason Robert Brown On Current Shows And His Upcoming Performances
Jason Robert Brown is hot right now. Forget the outside temperature - he's got THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY running on Broadway. The could-have-been-a-rocker who's responsible for THE LAST FIVE YEARS, 13, and PARADE, among others, is back, and currently working on the BRIDGES cast album, while in production with his musical version of HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, which debuted last year at Paper Mill Playhouse.
We spoke with Brown during a break from mixing the BRIDGES cast album, talking about his current works, Stephen Sondheim and other influences on him, and his penchant for live performances of his work. He's known for shows that are wildly different from each other - BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, for example. What are the inspirations for such diverse stories and their music? "With every show, it's primarily the characters in it and the world they live in. PARADE is about 1913 Atlanta and about Leo Frank, who doesn't really belong there. He's from Brooklyn, so he's an outsider to it. BRIDGES - what's it like to be in Iowa in the 1960's? What's it like to have grown up in Naples and to move there then? You have to write for those times, those places, those voices. The inspiration has to come from those. It keeps the focus."
Speaking of inspirations, he's said that SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and SWEENEY TODD were what took him from the likelihood of being a band musician and into composing. He's been heavily influenced by Sondheim - but he and Sondheim had a legendarily rocky start, didn't they? Brown had been asked by Sondheim for his opinion of one of Sondheim's shows, to which Sondheim had invited him, and Brown failed to respond, which created an awkward start to their personal relationship. "I wouldn't call it rocky. People are sensitive, and I was a cocky 22-year-old and he was Stephen Sondheim. He's been a very good sounding board for me since our first encounter. People are complicated, and you have to respect that. He's been important for me in a lot of ways, and he's been helpful to me. I've done a lot of growing since he and I met."
What have been the formative musical influences on him besides Sondheim? "Leonard Bernstein was probably the most significant formative influence on me - he was such an encompassing musician. I spent my teenage years absorbing him, and my other interests stemmed off of that. Bernstein led me to Sondheim and to Gershwin, and Sondheim led me to listening to Joni Mitchell. I wondered if Sondheim had listened to Mitchell, so I began listening to her, then. Everything spiraled off of that. One thing led to another, to different artists and to different types of music, but it goes back to Bernstein." So it's a web, with Bernstein at its center? "Absolutely."
While BRIDGES is on Broadway and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS gears up, he's still known for THE LAST FIVE YEARS, which has gone, like many musicals, to a film version. "I was very much involved with the adaptation, and with Richard LaGravanese, who directed and wrote the screenplay. I helped with the screenplay and with the music. It's a beautiful, amazing thing." In this case, another writer tackled the screenplay, but some playwrights do their own film adaptations, and vice versa, as, for example, screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin's doing his own musical adaptation of his film, GHOST. Should playwrights do the movie screenplays of their own works? "You have to understand the medium you're writing for. People jump into writing musicals without realizing how complicated they are. Knowing one form doesn't necessarily mean you know the other. You have to be comfortable with it."
Brown does much more, however, than write and compose - he also performs regularly, unlike many Broadway composers, and he's had an actor's background. If he were in one of his own shows, rather than giving one of his concert performances, which of his characters would he want to be? "When I was younger I'd have been interested in playing Leo, but costumes aren't my thing. That's what got me out of acting and into writing. I don't want costumes and makeup between me and the audience - I want more direct communication. There's something for me about being honest on stage, and I'm at my most honest when I'm behind a piano. So I prefer my concert performances."
Why is live performance, and why is live theatre, so important to Brown? "You know, it may not be as important to other people as it is to me, but to me it's important to be breathing the same air as someone else who's listening. It's participatory. There's that connection. Immediate, simultaneous connection between the audience and a performer is crucial to me. It's why I do what I do. Other things, like recording, are satisfying but they're not the same. I love the connection I get with the audience when I'm sitting behind that piano."
For those who haven't seen Brown's live performances previously, what can they expect from the experience? "You know, I love performing. I love getting up there and playing my music and telling my stories. It's a loose but fun evening of music. I sing from all of my shows - and yes, right now that includes music from BRIDGES - I'm working on the CD for that right now - and from HONEYMOON IN VEGAS. In my upcoming performance in Lancaster [Pennsylvania], there will be some local singers coming to sing with me. It'll be fun - it should be a really great time. I'm looking forward to it."
Brown's upcoming live performance schedule, including his appearance with the PRiMA theatre company in Lancaster, PA on March 29 and the preview concert of HONEYMOON IN VEGAS at 54 Below on April 7, can be found on his official website, www.jasonrobertbrown.com. More information about the PRiMA concert and a master class Brown is doing in connection with it can be found at www.primatheatre.com. Information about 54 Below is at www.54below.com.
Photo Credit: Maia Rosenfeld