Everyone knows Jason Robert Brown is a wildly talented songwriter. His personal reputation is a different story.
When asked about what kind of guy he is, his past collaborators tend to give similar responses.
“He was sort of an arrogant, angry young man, supposedly—but not ever to me,” says Alfred Uhry, who wrote the book for Brown’s musical Parade. “I saw it happen, but just not ever with me.”
“I’ve heard the stories, but for whatever reason, that wasn’t the case on our show,” says Arielle Tepper, who produced Brown’s The Last Five Years.
When I visited Brown in Los Angeles during rehearsals at the Mark Taper Forum for his new show 13—the first full-length musical he’s written since The Last Five Years in 2002—I was spared from asking the touchy questions about his temperament. Brown volunteered the answers for me.
“Up until I was, say, 30 years old, I was a very angry guy,” confesses Brown, now 36, over lunch at a brasserie near the theatre in downtown L.A. “It got me off on the wrong foot with a lot of people in New York.”
He believes the anger extends back to childhood. Growing up mainly in Monsey, N.Y., in Rockland County, Brown was a popular kid up until the middle of third grade, when for academic reasons he got bumped up to the middle of fourth grade. His new classmates felt threatened, and he immediately became an outcast. He’s not completely sure what set off his anger, but without any other tragedy to pin it on—no academic troubles, drug problem or parents’ divorce—the skipping-a-grade incident, in his mind, is where it began.
By the time he turned 13, Brown says, “I very much lived in my own head. I lived in my room, in sort of a fantasy life. To be more specific, I lied all the time. When people asked me anything about my day, I would tell them the opposite—I was just a liar. The lies were frequently, not always, but often, self-aggrandizing things about what my life was supposed to be.”
He created a “mental architecture” in which he was “the king of the earth,” Brown says. “There was something about how I was the best, perennially unrecognized for my genius, the smartest, the most talented. I was aware at a certain level that it wasn’t real.”
He adds, “It took me until I was 30 years old to realize that the architecture that I had built was false, that it wasn’t who I was, and that I needed to stop shoving it up everyone’s ass all the time, which is what I had been doing for upwards of 20 years.”
Brown channels these aspects of his teenage years into 13, which features that number of 13-year-old characters and a teenage band. It’s the story of Evan, who moves from New York to the fictional Appleton, Ind.
He’s about to have a bar mitzvah in a town where the only other Jew most people have heard of is Jerry Seinfeld. Plus, he’s the new kid, and in a desperate attempt to fit in, he tries to get the “cool kids” to attend.
Brown himself never sat at the cool kids’ table. His mom let him invite 10 kids to his bar mitzvah and even that was too many—six of them he barely knew. During the reception, Brown went on stage and played his own song, “The Stage Is Set,” which was about a girl breaking up with him—an entirely invented story, of course.
Brown says of 13, “It feels like everything in the show is about the struggle that I had until I turned 30, which is to say the difference between who you perceive yourself to be and who you actually are—and getting comfortable with whatever that is.”
The composer’s initial impulse to create 13 was not the memory of his adolescence, however—it was his discovery that, despite the sophistication of his musicals, he has a lot of young fans.
Take the cast of 13 itself: Even before being cast in the show, Sara Niemietz, who plays Evan’s friend Patrice, would set her alarm so that “The River Won’t Flow” from Brown’s Songs for a New World woke her up every morning. Ricky Ashley, who plays Evan, devoted his entire college application demo CD to four of Brown’s songs. He’s also an aspiring songwriter who went to the music and theatre camp French Woods in the Catskills, which Brown also attended as a youngster.
“The Last Five Years has no business speaking to a 15-year-old,” Brown reasons. “It’s not un-genuine, but at the same time it just feels strange to me when all they want to do is sing ‘Still Hurting’ or ‘Stars and the Moon.’ I think, ‘What makes this song good is exactly what you can’t bring to it’” at such an age.
So with 13, he set out to create songs teenagers could perform convincingly. And after The Last Five Years—a two-character musical about a relationship that closely parallels Brown’s own failed first marriage, in which the man’s story is told forward and the woman’s is told backward—he liked the mathematical neatness of the concept.
Still, it’s not the show you’d expect from the writer whose last 13-year-old character, in Parade, ends up killed, and the man wrongly accused of the crime is lynched. Brown fans might even expect 13 to have something to do with the recent movie Thirteen, in which Brown the characters fall into a downward spiral of drugs, sex and petty crime, and which seems to say, as Brown puts it, “being this age is basically to be fucked.”
“I want to believe that actually being a 13-year-old is what it was for me—which is confusing and complicated, God knows, but not hell, not actually sitting with the minions of Satan,” Brown allows. The challenge, then, is to convince the audience that the stakes are high enough. 13 is in fact Brown’s first stab at a full-length comedy (the second is his other show in the works, Honeymoon in Vegas, an adaptation of the screwball Nicolas Cage film). Like Parade and The Last Five Years, 13 is about a Jew entering a gentile world—except with a happy ending.
Brown has reason to write a more accessible show. Though he received a 1999 Tony for Parade, none of his New York runs have been commercial—or even critical—hits. “I was very comfortable—probably too comfortable—with the idea that audiences weren’t going to get behind my work,” he says. “But the idea that the very people who are supposed to appreciate it were nowhere near appreciating it—that was getting me insane. It wasn’t just about critics, it was really about my peers,” whom he felt rolled their eyes at his shows.
“There is a certain amount of disenchantment that Jason had with musical theatre,” suggests Brown’s collaborator Daisy Prince, who directed Songs for a New World and The Last Five Years. After the latter show opened, he decided to take a break from musicals—and he wasn’t sure if he’d return.
During 13 rehearsals, Brown spent much of the time revising the show in a separate room, occasionally checking in on the kids. “Everybody really, really respects him and always tries really, really extra hard when he’s in the room,” actress Niemietz declares. “He’s a shy person—he announced that on the first day,” chimes in fellow cast member Tyler Mann, who plays Evan’s friend Archie. Mann adds, “I find him hilarious.”
“When he’s with the kids, he’s funny and he’s dry and he’s inappropriate in a fun way,” observes the show’s director, Todd Graff, who also directed the movie musical Camp. “Not in a smarmy, gross way, but in a way they’re not used to being talked to, because they’re kids.” During one rehearsal, for example, an actor was having trouble getting the rhythm of his scat solo. Brown looked up from what he was doing and said, “Just think of it as, ‘Your momma’s ugly, old and nasty!’” The actor dissolved into giggles as he practiced the solo with Brown’s silly lyrics.
Working with Brown means appreciating his unpredictable intensity. He’s famous for his loud, ferocious piano-playing, having broken hundreds of strings (though he blames it on the venues’ bad piano maintenance). “He rarely uses the pedals—he just stomps that foot,” says Lauren Kennedy, who has performed with Brown in concerts, and was in the premiere production of The Last Five Years in Illinois. “There have definitely been times where I’ve felt the vibrations.”
During the Tony ceremony in 2003, when the camera cut to his face as his nomination for the critically derided musical Urban Cowboy was announced, Brown sarcastically crossed his fingers, knowing all the while that he had virtually no chance. Still, Urban Cowboy marked the time when Brown’s edge began to soften. While admitting that the show “was shit from one end to the other,” he was nevertheless determined that his own contribution to it—he conducted and arranged the songs and was eventually enlisted to write a few—would be as good as it could be.
Escaping the scrutiny of the New York theatre world helped. A long-term venture out of the city in 2000, conducting the Parade tour, was a refreshing change of pace, and it was how he met his current wife, Georgia Stitt. Brown proposed to her on Dec. 31, 2002, and on opening night of Urban Cowboy four months later, he told her, “I’m going to Italy and I hope you’re coming with me.” She did, and for nine months they lived in Spoleto, where, he says, “I really felt like shackles were loosening around me.” Brown went on to record an album of his work, “Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes,” get a teaching job at the University of Southern California and, though he says he has no interest in the movie business, move permanently to the musician-heavy Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
“It’s just in my DNA that what Manhattan is about for me is climbing some ladder,” he says. “The liberation of not being in the middle of New York, not feeling—whether justified or not—constantly judged by the perception of my success as opposed to the quality of the work that I wanted to put out—it was such a relief.” Brown also credits his transformation to his wife and their one-year-old daughter. “There’s something about having a kid that makes you say, ‘Oh, now I’ve actually done it—I’ve bought a house, had a child, taken on responsibilities beyond my selfish ‘Oh, am I going to get a Drama Desk Award.’”
Clearly he’s in a different place than he was a decade ago, when Daisy Prince would show up to his apartment to find tube socks strewn about and nothing in the refrigerator. Her father, Hal Prince, who directed Parade on Broadway and served as an early mentor to Brown, says, “He can be a bit stubborn and he can be a bit insensitive—and I think he’d be the first to admit it. But these are more than likely kid qualities, because he was so young when we started to work together, and I sense that this marriage and a baby and maturity have made a substantial impact on him.” Brown’s newfound pride in his work is perhaps boosted by the fact that his shows’ cast recordings have led to healthy regional lives, especially for The Last Five Years.
Maybe that’s why Brown finally feels comfortable taking a compliment Kennedy gave him when she was cast in The Last Five Years. Having previously done mainly traditional musicals, she told Brown, “I feel like I’m finally sitting at the cool kids’ table.”
“We’re the cool kids,” Brown recalls. “It was a delirious irony.”
The kids in 13 display a flirtatious energy. As they wait for a photo shoot, one girl fiddles with a castmate’s hair. “You’re going to see me naked six times during the show,” another girl tells a fellow actor. “Really? I won’t look,” the guy replies. “Yeah, you will,” she says.
Later, the cast is rehearsing the dance for the song “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” a nod to teen pop performed by the school’s “it” girl. After showing some moves, choreographer Michele Lynch asks, ‘Is this too sexy for you guys?’” The song is later replaced, in part for projecting too sultry an image.
13 is an emblem of Brown’s newfound assurance. It was at the musical’s workshop at Los Angeles’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in February 2006, he says, that he finally decided to return to musical theatre for good. He seems genuinely moved by the experience of working with kids. “They’ve actually inspired my vision,” he says. “These things that they’ll create on their own—these little beats that blossom between them—when that happens, I think it’s the most exciting thing in the world.”
Brown can be a procrastinator, but once he gets a handle on an idea, he writes first drafts quickly. While 13 book-writer Dan Elish was staying with Brown in Italy, he handed the composer a monologue about junior-high unpopularity, and then watched as Brown paced around the room, looked out the window, scribbled down some lyrics, and in under an hour came up with a song called “Being a Geek.” But a particularly difficult creative point was a football game song sung by the popular kids, who were the hardest characters to write, Brown says, for the same reason “it’s very hard for me to write about
Chinese immigrants.” Brown relates more to Evan and especially to Evan’s friend Archie, a kid with muscular dystrophy who walks with crutches. When Brown first scribbled that idea, he says, “I remember thinking, that’s the most cynical, cheap thing I’ve ever heard of—you’re going to have a dying boy on stage!”
But Brown made sure that Archie wasn’t there simply for sentiment. He relates to the character’s anger—anger at the hand he’s been dealt, which makes him all the more belligerent in his quest to achieve his goal, in this case dating his dream girl. And Archie also displays the wiser qualities Brown wishes he had possessed when he was 13. While Evan is constantly trying to impress the cool kids, it’s Archie who knows what matters. “There are all these ridiculous mini-dramas going on in 13, but there’s only one person on stage who’s got a drama that really counts,” Brown says.
The show seems to have touched a deep chord. “I wanted to go back to being 13, and watch this show and have it say to me, ‘It’s all right, don’t worry about all that, just be happy. Stop worrying about what your place is, or what they think about you, or what you’re supposed to be. Just think about what you want, and what you can do to achieve that.”
After our meeting, Brown e-mailed me a new song that Evan sings toward the end of the show, called “Getting Over It”:
I’m becoming a man.
Maybe all that it means is I face
The world for what
It is and not
What I wish it would be.
I’m becoming a man,
Standing taller and taking my place.
For all I miss,
I’m proud that this
Is Evan; this is me!
The singer sounds 13. Or is he 30?