If you discovered the great actress and singer Audra McDonald—currently starring on Broadway in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess—as she was beginning her recording career in the late 1990s, you heard these wonderful songs by new composers that she championed. On her albums Way Back to Paradise (1998) and How Glory Goes (2000), these songwriters included Michael John LaChiusa (of Giant, recently seen at Dallas Theater Center), Ricky Ian Gordon (Dream True), Adam Guettel (Floyd Collins, Saturn Returns) and Jeanine Tesori (Violet).
Another of them, Jason Robert Brown (Parade, 13), would become a particular favorite on Broadway albums and in cabarets, thanks to his terrific story song "Stars and the Moon" from Songs for a New World.
They've all continued with acclaimed careers, tinkering with commerical success on Broadway and elsewhere. But it's been elusive for Brown. None of his Broadway shows – 1998's Parade (for which he won a Tony for Best Original Score), 2003's movie adaptation Urban Cowboy and 2008's 13 – have lasted longer than three months on the Great White Way.
That doesn't mean he won't stop trying. His next musical, an adaptation of the 1992 movie Honeymoon in Vegas, opens in Toronto this year, starring Tony Danza. He's also adapting the novel Bridges of Madison County with playwright Marsha Norman, and that'll have a workshop in New Work in May. Then, he's the music supervisor and arranger for Prince of Broadway, a tribute to Harold Prince, opening in October on Broadway.
For about the past decade, in the midst of various projects, he has performed in concert around the country with some of his favorite Broadway divas, including Lauren Kennedy (who played Evita at Casa Mañana last year), Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, Laura Benati and Anika Noni Rose. For the past two years, he's been performing with Shoshana Bean (Hairspray, Wicked), with whom he'll perform at Casa on Saturday.
TheaterJones chatted with Brown about the show, his work and his upcoming projects.
TheaterJones: How do you pick the singers who perform with you in concert?
Jason Robert Brown: I pick singers who I want to work with, but some singers respond to the material differently and better than others. With Shoshana it's been a perfect match. Technically, she can do anything. Emotionally, she has such incredible access to what she feels and how she wants to express that. She's a great actress and a wonderful singer.
Does she sing most of the songgs?
I sing about 60 percent of the songs, her about 40, and we do a bunch of duets in there. It's stuff from all my musicals, my albums, some new songs and stuff you haven't heard before.
What are your favorite songs to perform that are not from your musicals?
There's a song called "Caravan of Angels" which I wrote for my wife for our anniversary a couple of years ago, and that's an important song to me. Shoshana sings this song called "All Things in Time," which is what my life feels like.
In the 1990s, you were part of a group of composers—which also included Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel and and Ricky Ian Gordon—that was championed by Audra McDonald. As you were all getting acclaim and buzz, was there a lot of synergy between you?
I never really got that critical acclaim. Adam and Michael John were a few years ahead of me, so I felt lucky to be locked in with them. But I didn't really feel like I had paid my dues at that time. I felt like they were these mature, wonderful writers and I was this kid. But I liked it. It was all because Audra put us on her CD, which was a brave and wonderful thing to do. We enjoyed the benefit of being connected on that.
There's never been a lot of competition between me and Adam and Michael John because I felt like they had had a head start. The kind of work we're doing, it's not about who can make the most money – I think we'd all like to make more – but we're doing something that's very personal and intimate, we're concerned about making something beautiful. I love being part of a group of writers who are making beautiful things.
Songs for a New World was originally performed with four actors, but I've heard of productions, probably at colleges, where as many as 12 actors have been used. Is that OK with you?
Everything's OK with Songs for a New World as long as you do the songs right and you feel it and are being honest about it. You could do it with four people and screw it up just as badly as with 25 people. It's not about that so much. I prefer the show being done with four performers, but I also want people to have room to be creative with that show. It asks for a lot of creativity.
Your shows have not been commercially successful on Broadway, although Songs For a World is frequently performed around the country. Do you ever feel pressure to be more "commercial"?
I would like my work to make money because that would mean my children could go to college. I'm not an ivory tower writer; once you have a family, it's sort of impossible to do anything other than the work you're working on now.
I happen to love big Broadway musicals, but if they're done poorly, they're the worst things in the world -- because I love them so much. I love this art form and when I see it suck, it's a horrible feeling. There are movie adaptations that are pretty lousy, but I think there's no reason not to do a movie adaptaiton if it's a good story that sings to you. Vegas and Bridges both sang to me very strongly. I know how those people sing.
What's more important for you when picking a project: the material/subject or the team with whom you'll be working?
It has to be mutual. I have to have a passion for the material, but I also have to be working with people who I know can bring the best out of me, and I feel I have something to contribute to them as well.
With Honeymoon in Vegas I'm doing it with Andy Bergman [who wrote and directed the 1992 movie], who was always one of my comedy heroes, but he had never written a musical before. I got to learn from him about comedy, about the timing and the structure of how to build that show; I also then got to teach him how to make a musical work, why a song has to do this and how it builds and all of that.
With Bridges of Madison County I'm doing it with Marsha Norman, and she's a fantastic writer and I felt like I was able to provide the other side of the equation. She brought something very female centric and I brought something that was very male. We combined nicely to being energy to this piece.
You had worked with Norman before, on Trumpet of the Swan. Was the connection with her instant or did it take some time to build that?
It was instant. I find that it's generally instant. The people I make a connection to, I can feel it. I sit across the table and think "this is going to work just fine." I felt that with Marsha. The minute she told me about [Trumpet] I said I wanted to be involved. Everything she wanted to do with it I wanted to do with it, and we just had the best time.
How long have you been working on Bridges, and how did you decide which parts of the novel will or won't be in the musical?
About two years. I think what's important is there's a story that we want to tell, and what are the parts of that story that have to sing? Once you determine what has to sung, you determine what needs to be said and [what] goes around the singing. That's always the way I've worked, to figure out where the characters are singing and what they're singing about, and then build the rest of the show around that energy. What needs to happen in order for this character to sing this?
What about projects beyond Honeymoon, Bridges and Prince of Broadway?
That's enough on my plate for now.