InDepth InterView: Jason Robert Brown Talks THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, THE LAST FIVE YEARS Movie & More
Today we are talking to a Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist celebrated for his many impressive musical theatre scores ever since his astonishing debut in the 1990s with SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD and PARADE, the one and only Jason Robert Brown. Discussing some of the finer points of the vastly different scores for his two new stage musicals, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and Honeymoon in Vegas, Brown paints a vivid portrait of his composing process in creating both the romantic drama and musical comedy, respectively. Additionally, Brown outlines his experiences collaborating with theatre legends Harold Prince and Alfred Uhry on his first big Broadway musical, PARADE, and also reflects on the subsequent successful national tour which he himself conducted. Most importantly, Brown sheds some light on the sparkling recent revival and subsequent cast recording of his self-directed production of two-character cult mainstay THE LAST FIVE YEARS and how the last ten years have shaded his perspective on the piece, particularly as anticipation builds for the release of the highly anticipated feature film adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, directed by Richard LaGravenese and set for release next year, which Brown confirms he has completed his scoring duties on this month and offers an enticing endorsement of the indie movie musical, as well. All of that, a discussion of his solo album and first news on a follow-up as well as astute observations on his sporadic collaborations with wife, songwriter and fellow InDepth InterView participant Georgia Stitt and much, much more in this relatively quick catch-up chat with one of Broadway's busiest and best musical craftsmen.
More information on the new Off-Broadway revival recording of Jason Robert Brown's THE LAST FIVE YEARS is available at the official site here.
Moving Too Fast
PC: What does it feel like to know that THE LAST FIVE YEARS has had such an effect on so many thousands of theatergoers, especially through exposure to it byway of many regional and amateur productions of the show?
JRB: Well, it's very gratifying, and, also a little strange. It's a show that always meant a lot to me personally and I always believed that if you really put your heart into your work that people would respond to it, you know?
PC: They'd feel it, too - and, in this case, they did.
JRB: Yeah. So, I am very gratified that it hits as many people as it does. It was a very hard to show to write and it's a very hard show to watch, but it meant a lot to me to say what I wanted to say with it.
PC: Given the astoundingly idiosyncratic nature of the score and the demands the show itself places on the two performers, I was curious if you could tell me if at any point you considered casting actors who were ultimately not up to the demands? Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz were indelible.
JRB: Well, you know, I'll say it this way: in writing the show, I figure that people at the top level are like athletes at the Olympic level - they can do amazing things. So, I didn't want to set out to write a score for a singer who was not on that level. I thought, "No. The point of this show should be that we are dealing with Olympic-level musical theatre performers." And, so, we worked with Norbert and Sherie and Lauren Kennedy, who originated the parts - and Adam and Betsy were, as well; they were all just strong, powerful musicians and actors, which you have to be to do it. It was a pleasure getting to hear them do those parts - all of them. And, Anna [Kendrick] and Jeremy [Jordan] in the film are, as well - they are just top-tier, Olympic-level musical theatre performers.
PC: You yourself have sung the role of Jamie - in concert with Lauren Kennedy, who originated Cathy - correct?
JRB: Yes. Lauren originated the part in Chicago when we first did it, and, then, she couldn't come in with the show because she ended up doing SOUTH PACIFIC in London with Trevor Nunn, so that's how we got Sherie. Sherie auditioned and then we gave Sherie the part. Then, it went from there and it turned out that she and Norbert had a certain kind of electric chemistry...
PC: Did you ever consider playing the part onstage?
JRB: Not in a production, no - but, I've done the part in concerts and stuff like that. But, you know, nobody needs to see me get up onstage...
PC: You don't actively pursue your solo career as a performer then, I take it, sporadic solo albums notwithstanding?
JRB: I guess I just think of myself as being, you know, a singer-songwriter.
PC: That term says it all for you.
JRB: Yeah, I mean, as much as I can act, I don't have anything in me that yearns to be an actor - that sense of needing to be onstage, in costume, in character; that is utterly not interesting to me. So, I prefer to leave it to people who love doing it.
PC: Did you enjoy exploring that side of your craft with a solo album such as on WEARING SOMEONE ELSE'S CLOTHES?
JRB: Oh, I loved WEARING SOMEONE ELSE'S CLOTHES! Putting it together was very important to me, and, again, there is a lot of my heart sort of stuck around that record. Since you asked, I'll tell you that right now I am actually two-thirds of the way through another album...
PC: No way!
JRB: I am. And, you know, it's really been hard focusing on it with all of these shows going up this year and on their way and everything. I mean, between THE LAST FIVE YEARS revival and then THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and now Honeymoon in Vegas, we really haven't had the time to focus on really putting together another album of songs.
PC: Did you find that writing solo material for Lauren Kennedy - essentially two entire albums - opened you up to exploring doing a solo album yourself?
JRB: Not particularly. You know, a solo album was something I always wanted to do, since I was a kid. When I started out, I wanted to be Billy Joel. The plan was to be a singer-songwriter of that ilk, and, then, I got waylaid - that's probably an unfair way to say it - from being a rock star by the musical theatre stuff, which I love doing. But, in the middle of all the musical theatre stuff, I always thought, in the back of my mind, that I wanted to exercise that part of me that is a singer-songwriter, too - you know, that guy who sits at the piano and sings and has a band and everything. But, since the original production of THE LAST FIVE YEARS until now, I really haven't been able to do that - and this year I barely did any concerts at all. Most years, I'll do a lot of concerts, though - in any given year, I'll do between fifty and a hundred concerts; putting my songs out into the world.
PC: Had PARADE so early on in your career not been a Tony-winning success for you personally, do you think you would have actively pursued a career in musicals as much as you did - or at all?
JRB: Well, I think that I had to already be pursuing musical theatre pretty actively up to that point to be winning a Tony for PARADE!
PC: To say the least!
JRB: But I had a variety of options open to me at the time and I felt like musical theatre is the place where I felt most unique. You know, it was the place where I seemed like I was going to be the only one doing what I was doing, so it was like, "Let me try to do my thing there," whereas in the singer-songwriter world there are a lots of Jewish guys who play the piano, so I didn't feel like I would come across as special in that environment.
PC: Hal Prince spoke so highly of PARADE when he did this column, so I was curious to know if you were a big fan of his prior to his involvement directing PARADE originally on Broadway?
JRB: Oh, I certainly knew who he was! I remember having the WEST SIDE STORY album when I was 9 or 10, and, so, I knew what that name meant since then. With PARADE, though, yeah, it was Hal, but I also had Alfred Uhry, too - these two titanic musical theatre talents guiding me and treating me as a total equal. To be able to work in that environment, it's an education you couldn't get at any school in the world. [Pause.] It was the best possible thing that could have ever happened to me.
PC: Given the paucity of serious adult musicals in the decade and a half since, do you see PARADE as signaling the end of not only the last century but a theatrical era on Broadway? After all, the show did not enjoy a very long run, unfortunately, though you conducted the subsequent big scale national tour.
JRB: I think that PARADE was, in a lot of ways, among the last of its kind. It was a very short road for dramatic Broadway musicals of a certain size - but, that's what it was! It was a drama and it was big. You know, part of what we wanted to do was do something that had a lot of scale - something that was almost operatic in scope. So, when you say it that way - you say that you want to do a great, big operatic tragedy - well, there might not be a big audience for that!
PC: You knew going in what the risk and rewards would be with it, more or less.
JRB: Yeah, I mean, I am so glad that I got to be a part of an attempt to do it. You know, there were plenty of people who loved the show and understood what we were trying to do and who were caught up in it - and, since then, it's had a wonderful life. There was just a beautiful production of it in Philadelphia, actually. But, no, I don't think you will see a Broadway show anytime soon - if ever again - with that kind of size and that kind of seriousness of intent.
PC: Stuart Matthew Price's recent recording of "The Old Red Hills Of Home" on his solo album is absolutely fantastic. Were you pleased to personally participate in that track?
JRB: Oh, I love Stuart - you know, he hadn't done anything when we hired him to do PARADE at the Donmar. He is just a great singer and a great, great guy.
PC: Do you perform that song yourself very often anymore? Are there any ones in particular you feel compelled to sing?
JRB: Well, "All The Wasted Time"... by now, though, I have six shows plus the solo album, so I have to pick pretty carefully when I do a show. But, to answer your question, yeah, I do "Old Red Hills Of Home" all the time, actually.
PC: "All The Wasted Time" was such an iconic moment - was the PARADE experience a special case in your career or has another show since perhaps even eclipsed it somehow in your memory?
JRB: Well, to be honest, it's very hard to pick and choose with these experiences - I've been very lucky in this business and I've gotten to work with some really extraordinary people, and it seems like things are always getting better... and that's just amazing.
PC: Carolee Carmello recently raved about PARADE and how unforgettable that experience was when she did this column, too. Did you enjoy writing for her sublime instrument?
JRB: Oh, well, I knew Carolee already because we had done Andrew Lippa's show JOHN & JEN together before that. So, we had known each other then and I thought she was just wonderful. When we cast her in PARADE, I was just looking forward to hearing that extraordinary voice singing my songs... [Pause.] what could be better than that? I mean, to have her and Brent Carver and that amazing group of people... I hope there is more to come with me and Carolee, too, because I think she is just an extraordinary singer. Whatever she brings to my material is always a blessing.
PC: Have you ever written specialty material or envisioned a particular performer singing a specific song as you wrote it?
JRB: I'm sure. You know, there are a lot of people who probably don't know that I have written things for them because I just write and appropriate it in other ways and so then it just sits in the back of my head that, "I wrote this for this person, but they'll never know." I think that when you write for stars I think that you have to be very specific about what they do beautifully and let them bring it to life.
PC: Are there any specific examples you can think of off-hand in your career?
JRB: Well, with Honeymoon in Vegas, through the course of writing the show, Tony [Danza] came onboard and we know that Tony is very special and has a very special kind of energy, so I wanted to really take advantage of what he can do. So, one of his numbers in the show is a soft-shoe called "A Little Luck" and you see him come out and sing it and you think, "That number was tailored to him like a bespoke suit. It perfectly fits."
PC: Are you thrilled with the rave reviews Honeymoon in Vegas has received at Papermill?
JRB: Well, hey, I'm not gonna be upset about it! [Laughs.] Seriously, though, it's a great show and I am glad that everyone is loving it as much as I do.
PC: Do you enjoy incorporating contemporary references into your shows? HONEYMOON and 13 are loaded with them, of course. Furthermore, do you plan on continually updating them as time goes by?
JRB: Well, I think that people have to talk the way that they talk. So, if people are living in 1913 as they do in PARADE or if people are living in 1996 as they do in THE LAST FIVE YEARS or if they are living now as they do in Honeymoon in Vegas - or, the early 1960s like in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY - they have to talk like they talk and you have to use the references that those people would use and you have to use the language and the energy that they would have relative to that time. That is very important to the work that I do - and I think that those sort of things are as specific as costuming and tell you so much about the characters; just what is coming out of their mouths.
PC: In BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY you also take into consideration the language barrier with an Italian-born speaker, as well, with somewhat limited English.
JRB: Well, with that character, she doesn't have limited English, but she has a strong accent and a very idiomatic version of the English language. But, so does everyone else in the show - you know, it's set in Iowa in 1965 and people from Iowa don't speak the way that contemporary New Yorkers speak. So, I had to consider all of those things. The fun thing about writing for that character, though - for Francesca - is that she occasionally will get things wrong or she will sprinkle an Italian phrase into the middle of a sentence and that stuff is really colorful and fun to add in. It's actually more limited writing for the Midwesterners than it is writing for Francesca because they speak in a very flat dialect and it just doesn't sing as easily.
PC: You've spent quite a lot of time in Italy yourself, have you not?
JRB: Yeah, I have - my wife and I lived there for a year. That was a wonderful time - boy, would I go back and do that in a minute!
PC: Speaking of Georgia Stitt, is another collaboration in the cards for you two someday soon? Perhaps a revue or maybe even a whole new show?
JRB: You know, we are very cautious about working together. Of course, we do it and it's always been a success when we do it, but we are very, very careful about when and what we choose to do. So, no, I don't think that we will be writing a whole show together anytime soon, but we both love each other's work so much that there are times that it just seems natural for us to collaborate. So, we'll see what happens, but I don't think that either of us is willing to predict anything just yet.
PC: "Wondering" and "Another Life" are two standouts from the score for THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. Could you take us briefly through the composing process of those two in particular?
JRB: Well, you know, a big part of my process in composing THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is writing on guitar. I always had written on piano prior to THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, but when it came up I knew that I wanted to have a different challenge. So, what I did was that I picked up a guitar - something that I had barely ever done before - and I tried to figure out how to play it. And, so, most of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY was written on the guitar, with me trying to find my way around this new instrument, which was really wonderful. So, to answer your question, both "Wondering" and "Another Life" came specifically out of the new tonalities and sounds that I found having my fingers in a different place on a different machine - it was very instructive and I loved doing it a lot.
PC: What a revelation! You are known so much for the piano-based sound in so many of your songs.
JRB: Well, you know, I don't think anyone is going to hear me playing a guitar in public anytime soon. [Laughs.]
PC: What was the first theme that you wrote for the piece as far as you remember? "Falling Into You"?
JRB: You know, it comes in a very roundabout way - I just start writing songs and gradually just things emerge and I work backwards and incorporate them in throughout and then I start to figure out which ones need to be developed more, and, by that point, certain songs will need to be replaced so I can try to start amplifying thematic ideas throughout the show as they have evolved over the course of writing it. But, one of the first songs I wrote for the show is the first song that Robert sings, called "Temporarily Lost" - and, when I wrote that song, I knew that I had figured out how to write the show.
PC: That cemented it for you?
JRB: It did. Up until then, I wasn't entirely sure of what I was doing and if what I was doing would work, but when I got to that, I thought, "Ah!" and everything sort of started to develop from there. There is something about the specific chromatic language of that song that helped me create the entire show.
PC: What was your jumping off point with the material itself? Did you read the book and then watch the movie or did you familiarize yourself with it in some other way?
JRB: Well, Marsha [Norman] asked me about working on the show, and, I said, "Before I read the book or watch the movie, I want to hear your take on it." So, Marsha actually came up with a treatment of the show herself - a series of ideas about how the show should work - and that guided me more than anything else. I eventually did go back and read the novel, but I found that Marsha's take on the show was what really animated me the most.
PC: Lastly, I was curious if you could tell me your thoughts on the film adaptation of THE LAST FIVE YEARS? Have you seen the final film yet?
JRB: Oh, the movie is just great! Actually, I just finished doing my work on scoring it and all I will say is that I am thrilled with how it turned out!
PC: How fantastic to hear! THE LAST FIVE YEARS revival album out now and new movie coming out next year, Honeymoon in Vegas at Papermill, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY upcoming Broadway opening - wow! Congratulations on all of your continued success, Jason.
JRB: Thanks a lot, Pat. I really appreciate it. Talk to you later. Bye.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride, Stephen Sorokoff, etc.