Composer Jason Robert Brown on his newest works:13, Trumpet of the Swan, his children’s book “Tickety-Tock”and on Open Circle’s unique production of Songs for a New World
By Joel Markowitz
Jason Robert Brown’s beautiful scores of The Last 5 Years and Parade has been produced by several DC theatre companies. Last year Jason’s incredible piano playing was heard at Signature Theatre’s concert version of Songs for a New World at Strathmore, and this year we were treated to an innovative production of the show at Open Circle Theatre. Now, DC audiences will be able to watch Jason conduct a concert version of his new work The Trumpet of the Swan at The Kennedy Center on December 4 thru 6.
Joel: Let’s start with 13. What is it about?
Jason: Well, the story is that Evan Goldman is a nice Jewish kid on the Upper West Side of Manhattan whose parents have a titanic divorce right before his 13th birthday, and his mother drags him with her to live with her college roommate in Appleton, Wisconsin and insists that he have his Bar Mitzvah there. Feeling alone, confused, and anxious about his new life, Evan has to decide between the cool kids in town, with whom he has virtually nothing in common, and the nerdy outcasts, who he connects with immediately but whose presence in his life is social suicide. Through the course of the show, Evan has to learn how to accept who he is and where he belongs, and acknowledge that who we are isn’t necessarily who everyone else thinks we should be.
In the course of telling that story, we’re theoretically showing the lives of a group of 13-year-olds, but in fact, I always feel like the show is really about how to navigate life in general, and I think it applies as much to me at 38 as it does to the characters onstage. I don’t expect audiences to recognize the show as a metaphor, but that’s the way I think of it.
Joel: Is there a lot of Jason Robert Brown in Evan Goldman?
Jason: Bits here and there, certainly. I was a Jewish kid from the New York who always felt like an outsider. But in terms of strict autobiography, really very little: I never had to move to the Midwest, my parents never got divorced, and my Bar Mitzvah wasn’t even particularly traumatic. I feel like all three of the main characters (Evan, Archie and Patrice) have a lot of me in them. I write from a place of real emotional vulnerability, so I think it’s inevitable that I’ll imprint myself on the characters, even the ones who, like the football star and head cheerleader, have very little in common with me on the surface.
Joel: What was your Bar Mitzvah like, and did you face any of the problems Evan faced preparing and awaiting his Bar-Mitzvah?
Jason: My Bar Mitzvah was probably a fairly typical affair for middle-class Jewish kids in New York in the 80’s. It wasn’t particularly garish or voguish, thank God, and I didn’t have a “theme party” or anything retrospectively mortifying like that. I do remember that it felt mostly like an event for my parents rather than being all about me me me. I’m grateful for that now, but at the time, I remember noticing how classmates of mine would have these ridiculously Baroque festivities with rock bands and trips to New York City and … well, I don’t know what else because I wasn’t invited to very many parties (cue the sad violins). The most poignant memory I have of the whole experience is that I had a lot of trouble finding ten kids I could invite as my friends, and among the ten kids that eventually did show up were at least two that I had barely ever spoken to before that day and barely ever spoke to after it.
Joel: What are the different styles of music that comprise your wonderful score for 13?
Jason: There are probably a lot of styles floating around in there, but I tend to think of the whole thing as just sounding sort of like me. When I started working on the score, I realized that a lot of the music I was writing sounded exactly like the Top 40 from 1983, when I was 13, so I decided to go all the way with that and use it as a template. Therefore, you’ll hear things influenced by The Knack, Journey, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, Rufus, Michael Jackson, all of which is filtered through my usual influences: Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Steve Reich. It’s very busy in my brain, as you can imagine.
(Hear segments from four songs here).
Joel: How is the Broadway production different from the LA – Mark Taper production?
Jason: The NY production is different from the LA production in millions of ways, so much so that Dan Elish and I refer to this as 13 v 2.5 (v 2.0 was Goodspeed this summer). I think the main difference, and it’s a very positive one, is that in LA, Evan functioned more as the narrator of Archie’s story, and spent much of the show trying to facilitate Archie’s needs. Much of the work Dan and I did (with the addition of Robert Horn, who came on board this March to help us finish the libretto) was to make the show Evan’s story, and not let it get hijacked by the other characters. What that means in practical terms is that six of the songs from the LA production were cut, and eleven new songs were written (two of those songs were cut from the show in previews, but are recorded on the original cast album).
Joel: Why will theatre goers of all ages love 13?
Jason: Like I said above, I think this show is actually about growing up and learning to accept your best self, which applies equally to 60-year-olds as it does to teens. One of the things I love most about the show is that it’s a real comedy, that you can sit in the back of the theater on any night and hear gales of laughter coming from the audience – that certainly wasn’t the case with Parade. But ultimately, I’m a musician, and the reason I love the show is that the music speaks to me and breaks my heart, and I hope that audiences of any age respond to that the same way I do.
Joel: When I saw you after the first press performance of 13, you looked a little nervous. Now that the reviews are in, how are you doing?
Jason: I’m not sure I’d say I was nervous; I’m actually just antisocial, and having 1000 people sitting in a room staring at my very personal work is profoundly discomfiting. It’s also what I signed up for, so I’m not going to complain about it, especially since 13 is in so many ways a dream come true for me. I’ve always felt very responsible to and for the kids in this show, so any of my nerves are really protective in nature; I want people to love this cast, and I want the cast to feel supported and proud of the work they’re doing. As for the reviews, eh, I honestly don’t get too worked up about them anymore, there are always some critics who really like my work and some who are just completely unaffected by it, but I’ve almost never read any review of my work that really “got it” in the way I meant it, and that’s especially true with this show. Really, the fact is that I’ve been away from home for eight or nine months putting this show together and I just want to go home. I miss my family more than I can possibly say.
Joel: How is the financial crisis affecting 13, and what are you and the producers doing to help fill up seats?
Jason: It’s a shitty time to launch a new musical, that’s for sure, particularly one without a famous television star or one not based on a classic movie. 13 is even more challenging because the most enthusiastic supporters of our show are teenagers, and they can’t come to the show unescorted (for the most part). So weeknights are tough. In trying to fill up seats, we’ve been pricing the show very aggressively (you can get tickets for as little as $25 on any given night), and I also did a series of talkbacks after the shows last week. We’ll keep doing things like that and just trying to build our audience one show at a time. We’re all so proud of the show and we all believe in it so much that we’ll do anything to get other people to see what we see. I do think we’ll be the kind of show that does nicely during the holidays, but I hope people are a little more relaxed about the economy when January and February roll around.
Joel: Last year, DC theatre goers were thrilled when you tickled the ivories at Strathmore, while Broadway stars Alice Ripley, Brian D’Arcy James, TitusBurgess and Laura Griffith sang the heck out of Songs for a New World.What was that night like for you, and did you ever consider recording the score with that fabulous cast?
Jason: The performances of Songs at Strathmore were really magical experiences for me. It was really thrilling to rediscover that music, more than a decade after I’d first performed it, and what an amazing hall! All of us, cast and band, felt deeply fortunate to be a part of those shows. I would have loved a recording of those nights, but that wasn’t in the cards; it would have been prohibitively expensive to get that experience on tape. Nonetheless, I was there and I have it in my memory, as do all of the people who were there that night – in some ways, it’s all the more special for only existing in our heads.
Joel: Open Circle Theatre, a DC based theatre company which casts actors with disabilities, produced a version of Songs for a New World in August 2007, where the show took place in Iraq, and had a cast of 16.
I interviewed Open Circle’s Artistic director Suzanne Richard and she said, “After not hearing from Jason for two weeks, I got my nerve up and emailed him, to which he responded that since he would not be available to work on the project personally, he did not feel comfortable giving me permission, but hinted that maybe if I did it with just Songs and not the other album (Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes), he might be willing. At that point, I took a weekend and redid the concept just using Songs and contacted him again saying I could do it, but I really wanted to use the song “Over” from the other album as well. I got the shortest email in the world back, answering all my questions as, “yes, yes, no, no, yes” and I was off to the races!”
Why did you finally give Suzanne permission to produce this unique interpretation?
Jason: Whenever someone asks to make changes in my show, my first instinct is to summarily dismiss the request, which is partially my ego and partially my concern that an audience member who is a fan of the show might come see a production that changes the material and feel betrayed and angry. But I thought Suzanne’s ideas were very brave and very smart, and I thought it was sufficiently distinctive that no one was going to be confused about what I wrote and what she was bringing to the table. And really, I just wanted to support the work Suzanne was doing, which is necessary and deserving of much encouragement. I wish I’d gotten to see the production, which I heard was very powerful and very beautifully performed, but I certainly haven’t for one second regretted giving Suzanne the chance to bring her vision to life.
Joel: On December 4-6th in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, DC audiences will be able to hear a concert version of The Trumpet of the Swan: A Novel Symphony. Marsha Norman has adapted the book by E.B. White, you have written the music, and it will be directed by Bob Balaban.
How did you get the idea to turn this popular children’s book into a musical? Will this be the first time the show has been heard by a paying audience, and is there a full production in the works?
Jason: To be perfectly clear, The Trumpet of the Swan is not a musical, it’s a concert piece, much like Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” or Poulenc’s “L’Histoire de Babar”. There’s a 35-piece orchestra, which I’ll be conducting, and seven actors narrating the story. Marsha and I have known each other for a number of years (I wrote incidental music to her play “Last Dance” at Manhattan Theater Club), and she’s wanted to dramatize E.B. White’s wonderful book for many years. When she asked me if I was interested in being a part of it, I jumped at the opportunity; it’s a wonderful story, Marsha’s done a beautiful adaptation, and I’m so excited to work with so many sensational symphonic musicians. The Kennedy Center will be hosting the world premiere, which is thrilling since I’ve never worked there before. In addition, I haven’t gotten to use my conducting chops all year, so I’m really jonesing to pick up the old baton again.
Joel: Now that you have a daughter, how has fatherhood influenced the direction you are taking now – writing family shows and a picture book called “Tickety-Tock.” (due to be released mid-December, 2008) ?
Jason: It’s hard to say; both 13 and “Tickety-Tock” were in the works long before we planned to have a child. Nonetheless, I have never been more gratified than when I heard my daughter singing songs from 13 while she was supposed to be taking her nap, and when I took her to see the show, and she sat next to me and clapped and sang along and smiled and laughed through the whole thing, I couldn’t imagine what other gratification I ever possibly found in the work I do; nothing could be better than that.
Intéressant, mais pourquoi les choses tournent comme ca?
Charles Shubow says
Looking forward to the seeing the concert in December at the Kennedy Center.