September 23, 2019

Composer Draws Show Inspiration From Failure

Jason Robert Brown began his musical, The Last Five Years, about a doomed relationship, while in the midst of his own messy divorce seven years ago. Back then, Brown, like the show’s fictional husband, was a “young, ambitious Jewish kid from New York” with a non-Jewish actress wife, he said in a telephone interview from his New York home.

At 29, he had just won the Tony Award for best score for Alfred Uhry’s Parade, one of the youngest composers ever to do so. The 1998 musical placed him among a cadre of innovative young composers, also including Adam Guettel and Jeanine Tesori, critics have called the successors of Stephen Sondheim

But as Brown’s Broadway star appeared to be rising, his marriage to another artist was disintegrating. It could’t have helped that he was, in his words, “angry when I came out of the womb.”

The fictional husband in Years channels this kind of rage into a fierce ambition: “People who are that driven feel … they’ve got to get revenge on something; they’re going to show somebody,” Brown said.One can’t help but wonder whether the composer is speaking, at least in part, of himself.

Yet Brown said that as he envisioned Years, he wasn’t thinking of the last five years with his ex but of his “nightmarish” experience on Parade. Getting the production off the ground had proved excruciating — as had the public’s response to the show, which was based on the 1913 murder of Southern Jew Leo Frank. “People did not care to attend the ‘lynching musical,'” he said, bitterness creeping into his affable but often ironic tone.

Parade opened and closed in the blink of an eye,” he added. “I couldn’t make a living, and I had no prospects. So my initial instinct was to write a song cycle that was inexpensive and doable.” But his traumatic divorce inevitably crept into the work.

The two-character piece — named one of 2001’s best shows by Time magazine — recounts the relationship between novelist Jamie and his actress wife, Catherine. The protagonists alternately sing solo songs without ever directly addressing one another, save for one joyful duet describing their marriage. Jamie performs his songs in chronological order, from his infatuation with Catherine to their breakup; Catherine’s timeline is in reverse.

“The device is a metaphor for two people who cannot connect because they are at different places in their lives,” Brown said.

The format has proved so challenging for performers that those involved in the current Pasadena Playhouse production rehearsed the numbers in chronological order, among other exercises, actor Daniel Tatar (Jamie) said.

Brown’s reputation for being difficult emerged early in life, even as a boy at a Conservative religious school he challenged his teachers with in-your-face questions, he admitted, and said “I thought I was too smart for them.”

When he skipped third grade, he did not take well to suddenly becoming the class outcast — lagging behind socially and intellectually — which he found to be “absolute torture.” He sought refuge, in part, by immersing himself in music, an activity at which he excelled far beyond his peers. He had been playing piano by ear from age 7, when he requested the old piano languishing in his grandfather’s basement.

A dozen years later, Brown dropped out of the prestigious Eastman School of Music because he found it to be an “uptight classical music conservatory,” although it did teach him the nuts and bolts of orchestration. He scrappily moved to Manhattan to become a star in musical theater — and within three years had his chance.

While working the cabaret circuit, he collaborated with Daisy Prince, daughter of the legendary Broadway producer Hal Prince, who asked him to work on Parade in the early 1990s.

The 23-year-old Brown was daunted not only because he was replacing celebrated composer Sondheim but also because as a 20th century New Yorker, he couldn’t relate to Frank’s early 19th century experience of Southern anti-Semitism.

He said he finally connected to the character by making him “someone who could be highly reserved and bristled around people,” qualities Brown recognized in himself. “I modeled him after my Orthodox grandfather, whom I felt was always passing judgment on a world he largely regarded as foolish, frivolous and disrespectful,” Brown added.

“Of course, I may have been projecting,” the composer said, with a laugh.Brown projects some of his own Jewishness onto the fictional Jamie, who initially gushes about his “shiksa goddess,” sounding like a more jovial version of Philip Roth’s Portnoy. Jamie regards Catherine as a breath of fresh air after all the Jewish girls he met “having Shabbos dinners on Friday nights with all the Shapiros in Washington Heights.”

Brown admits he, too, was one of those Jewish boys “who always wanted the blonde girls from around the corner.” But he insists he was more romantic and sentimental about his ex than Jamie, who views his blonde trophy wife, in part, as a trapping of his success (Jamie cheats on her, to boot).

Playhouse director Nick DeGruccio realized the philandering, self-indulgent character “could easily come across as a real [jerk], and audiences don’t want to spend 90 minutes with [a jerk],” he told The Journal. “That’s why it was so important for me to cast the most likeable and charming actor I could find.”Tatar, who is Jewish, said he tempers Jamie’s narcissism with youthful ebullience.

“I perform the song, Shiksa Goddess almost like a clown, running around and wildly gesticulating,” he said. “So it becomes hard to dislike the character, although you certainly feel sorry for him. You realize how empty he feels inside, and how he needs to fill that hole with success and approval.”

Jamie’s sweetest moment comes during The Schmuel Song, a Sholom Aleichem-esque parable the character has written to inspire his wife to persevere as an artist. Brown said he intended the number to establish Jamie as a Jewish novelist, modeled after wunderkind Nathan Englander, who earned accolades for writing about his life and heritage. “The song also describes how the characters have to cross an enormous cultural divide, which impacts their relationship,” he added.

The Schmuel Song, for example, is Jamies not-so-Christmasy Yuletide gift to Catherine. “It’s ironic, but that’s exactly what he would do for a Christmas present,” Brown said.

The show appears on the same program with another marriage-themed musical, I Do! I Do! through August 6. For information, call (626) 356-7529.