In June, when composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown won the Gilman/Gonzalez-Falla Music Theatre Award for his revue, Songs For A New World, which played Off-Broadway at the WPA Theatre in 1995, he invited his cast, design team, stage crew and director to share the spotlight. It was his way of saying thank you again, he said, "to a team of valuable collaborators who made the show possible."
Brown shared the $25,000 award with Ray Leslee, composer of Standup Shakespeare and the doo-wop musical Avenue X. And Brown paid a special tribute to his director, Daisy Prince, who's following in the footsteps of her acclaimed father, Hal Prince.
And there was a payoff even larger than the Gilman/Gonzalez-Falla prize. For his next project, Brown is collaborating with that other Prince, Hal. He's writing music and lyrics to Alfred Uhry's book for Parade, which Prince is directing and which is now targeting late October/early November for Broadway. Uhry won the 1997 Best Play Tony for his The Last Night of Ballyhoo and the Pulitzer Prize and Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy.
Brown told Playbill On-Line (Dec. 3, 1997), "We did a 6-week workshop [of Parade in Toronto, which went smashingly well. Based on that, we're now getting ready for production.
Lincoln Center spokespersons at the Philip Rinaldi office say the Vivian Beaumont next season will bring the musical Parade (Jan. 1999), followed by the Michael John LaChiusa musical, Marie Christine, directed by Graciela Daniele. Harold Prince will direct Parade, which has a book by Alfred Uhry (Last Night of Ballyhoo) and a score by Jason Robert Brown. Danny Ezralow will choreograph.
Parade tells the story of a Jewish factory owner in the deep South who finds his identity and his manhood only after he is falsely accused in the death of a 13-year-old girl.
Brent Carver, who won a Tony for Kiss of the Spider Woman, stars in Parade, alongside Carolee Carmello (Hello Again). Designing the show are Judith Dolan (costumes), Riccardo Hernandez (sets) and Howell Binkley (lighting).
"We're making minor adjustments and clarifying certain things," Brown said back in December. "Musically, it's very operatic, composed from one end to the other in a specific musical style. It's not through-sung, yet it's a very large score, with much underscoring."
In the show's workshop were the following actors: Evan Pappas (I Can Get It For You Wholesale, My Favorite Year), Brent Carver (Kiss Of The Spider Woman), Carolee Carmello, Jessica Molaskey (Dream, the Rainbow & Stars revue, Loungeville), Jeff Edgerton, Herndon Lackey (Kiss Of The Spider Woman) Don Chastain, and Rufus Bonds (Livent's Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). There is no official word on whether all or any (apart from Carmello and Carver) will appear in the Broadway production
Asked about a cast recording of the show, Brown said, "Livent recorded the full cast and a full orchestra doing the opening number of the show, which is currently [Dec. 8, 1997] being mixed." By the same token, Brown said he doesn't think Parade will follow the new trend of releasing a CD before the show opens. "I'm resistant to the CD idea," he said, "because as I'm a consumer, and I don't want to buy two copies of a record just because one song is different. Besides, it's not a poppy kind of piece so I don't see the point of representing it in any way besides its finished form."
In a July interview with Playbill On-Line's Ellis Nassour, Brown spoke more generally about the show and his recent success.
"Writing music and lyrics," said the 27-year-old Brown, "you tend to become a control freak -- sitting alone in your room with a bare light bulb over your head, writing Communist manifestos. What's great about collaborating is getting to work with wonderful people. That's what theatre is about, other people getting you to give your best and getting everyone else's best out of them."
The new musical is based on true accounts about Leo Frank, a 29-year-old Atlanta factory worker who in 1913 was wrongly convicted of the murder of a young female co-worker. He was sentenced to death, but that sentence was commuted to life. While in the Marietta, GA, jail, vigilantes seized and lynched him. Brown described the musical as "a dark piece, so there's not a lot of tap dancing."
But is there comedy relief? "Yes. The piece has a lot of vitality and rhythm. It moves like lightning. The horror of the piece takes place in the sunshine." He adds, "You don't sit in blackness and watch people get their throat slashed. That was not a reference to anything!" Certainly not Sweeney Todd, which was directed by Hal Prince.
Brown said he became addicted to theatre at age 2. "From that time on, I wanted to be an actor. I decided that was my destiny. But at age 12 I rethought my options and what I really wanted to be was a rock star like Billy Joel. I thought, 'Now there's a life I could handle. I would enjoy having a million people in a stadium watching me.'"
Ultimately, his two dreams fused. "I'd sit at the piano and write songs that I could act," he said. "I decided to concentrate more on the music and went to [Rochester's] Eastman School of Music. But I decided I didn't want to give up on the theatre. I left college after two years and went to Miami to teach at the ironically-called New World School of Performing Arts. A year later, I was in Manhattan. I said, "If you don't do it now, when?'"
For two years, he played popular Greenwich Village and theatre district piano bars. "If you don't like daylight," said Brown, "it's a good way to make a couple of bucks." One night, at the suggestion of a waitress friend, Daisy Prince came to hear Brown. "He was playing other people's music," said Prince, who had decided to shift from acting to producing for non profit theatre and directing. "Then, he did one of his own, that was 'The Flag Maker,' which is in Songs For A New World. It was so incredible I couldn't believe he'd written it."
"As you can imagine, it sold a lot of drinks," quips Brown. "Everyone but Daisy was running, screaming, from the place."
In January, 1995, they worked together in The Petrified Prince at the Public Theatre. "Daisy was the lead and I did music arrangements and conducted," said Brown. This was the musical by Michael John LaChiusa (Hello Again) with book by Edward Gallardo, based on an Ingmar Bergman screenplay. Hal Prince directed.
Brown introduced Daisy Prince to a new revue he was working on, which eventually became Songs For A New World. Of her find, Prince said, "His work's incredibly evocative. It's not hard to figure out what to do with it if you're a person with an imagination and you can see a beginning, middle, and end."
Hal Prince allowed Brown and his daughter the use of his office. "We could use the fax and copy machines," said Daisy. "The staff was wonderful. They even fed us."
"I kept expecting a bill," said Brown. Instead he got a wife. "Being there every day, I was drawn to Terry O'Neill, an actress who was Hal's assistant."
By the time of his marriage, Brown's "bread and butter" was conducting, orchestrating and music directing, mostly Off-Broadway, on such shows as Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald's john & jen, for which he did orchestrations.
"Then one day Hal called," Brown said. "He told me he was working on this show that Steve Sondheim was going to write with him. But Steve had just done a depressing musical and didn't want to do another one. Hal said, 'Let's talk,' but I didn't consider it a blessing to replace Steve Sondheim."
Did it take long to become friends with the other Prince? "Friends is hard with Hal," said Brown, laughing. "Family's what you become. All of a sudden you're showing up at brunch, then they're asking you to help pick out Daisy's piano and calling you to come to the Christmas party. At that point, we'd known each other three years. Since neither of us had a large enough space to rehearse Songs For A New World, we rehearsed at the house. We took advantage!"
How different is his Parade score from Songs? "Substantially and not at all," says Brown. "The flavor of the period was important, but I didn't want ragtime because that wasn't the South. There's a bluegrass, country feel. A composer I paid attention to was Charles Ives, who was wonderful at juxtaposing different styles of music at the same time. An essential element of Parade is that at any given time there are several different tempos going on. The key is to keep the music pulsating."
Brown says there's no time like the present. "There's a lot bubbling under the surface. There's a push for Broadway to be younger, for theatre to reflect the work of younger writers."