Chicago critics have been writing love letters to composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown in recent weeks, praising his new two-character musical, The Last Five Years, an intimate portrait of the rise and fall of a modern marriage. The original musical, which Lincoln Center Theater commissioned and the non-profit Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL, is staging in a world premiere through July 1, is a stark contrast to the socially and politically-charged Parade, the 1998-1999 musical for which Brown won the Tony Award for Best Score. When the dean of Chicago theatre critics, Richard Christiansen, writes that The Last Five Years offers "exhilaration so intense that it brings tears of joy," it seems clear that the talent for which Brown was rewarded was not a fluke. And producers are once again pricking up their ears. The conceit of The Last Five Years has the wife, Kathleen, an Irish-Catholic actress, telling the story of the marriage from the end of the relationship to the beginning. Husband Jamie, a Jewish novelist, tells the tale from the beginning to the end. In the middle, they only sing together once — at their wedding. The Last Five Years has a contemporary, urban sound more akin to Brown's Off-Broadway revue, Songs For a New World, which was directed by Daisy Prince, who also helms the new 80-minute show. Will the new show have a commercial future? Did the Tony promise a future? Brown spoke to Playbill On-Line from Skokie, where he is in residence, playing piano and conducting the show's band.
Playbill On-Line: Parade was such a huge, sprawling, ambitious show. Did you purposely want your next show to be small and intimate?
Jason Robert Brown: Oh, yeah. This was an attempt to the anti Parade. I had loved doing Parade, but I really wanted something that was much more controllable, something that wasn't scaled so large. I ended up spending a lot of energy in Parade on the ensemble stuff — there were 37 people standing there. I felt like I wanted to get to the meat of those two people [the main characters of Parade] and it was harder to do that when there were all those people surrounding them and there were so many other stories to tell. So I wanted to do a show where I didn't have to worry about anybody else.
PBOL: And not the sound cynical, but the word "producable" also comes to mind — two actors, a small band.
JRB: It certainly does sound more shrewd of me to do it. I don't know how conscious a choice that was. I won't deny that's there.
PBOL: The title page of the program at the Northlight in Skokie says "music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown," but doesn't credit a book. Is there a conventional book?
JRB: It depends how you define "book." There's not a lot of dialogue. There's a very strong structural element — which is what I sort of consider a book to be — which I created. It could be said to function like a song cycle, but it's not quite that cut and dried. One person sings, and another person sings...and intercut within some of those songs are some monologues. It's not as straightforward as a song cycle, but the impetus was to write a song cycle — a piece for two singers and a chamber ensemble. As I went on with it, it gradually became more theatrical.
PBOL: Did you know it would be about a marriage?
JRB: I wanted it to be a man and a woman, and I didn't know exactly what their relationship was going to be. One of the first things I figured out was the temporal shifts, which I thought would be exciting and fun. That was a way I could tell a story about a relationship. PBOL: Do you make choices about things such as "blame" and "fault" — which are always parts of relationships — or do you leave it up to the audience to figure the relationship's shape?
JRB: What I do is, I present a relationship. I painted both people as having their irreconcilable warts and let them fight it out until they can't do it anymore. Thematically, the show was always going to be about two people who can't be together. That was what the structure suggested. I'm constantly showing not why he's a prick, or why she's an idiot, but why they just can't be together. Why they love each other so much and can't stick it out.
PBOL: Are you playing piano at every performance?
JRB: Just about. I have a very talented musical director, who covers for me for some shows so I can get out and watch it and take notes.
PBOL: Being a musician is still a huge part of your passion.
JRB: Very much. I came of age in the era of singer-songwriters. I believe when I write a song and I play it, I bring something very specific to it that even if somebody else is playing the exact same notes they don't bring to it. I love playing my own stuff.
PBOL: Did your folks take you to the theatre when you were a kid?
JRB: They did. I think we went about once a year. I remember I saw a revival of West Side Story with Debbie Allen, and Barnum. That was sort of a part of life — it was expected you'd do it, to see a Broadway show every year. We only lived an hour outside of the city, in Rockland County.
PBOL: Was it magical when you first saw shows?
JRB: I was just reading Frank Rich's book and he talks about going and seeing Gwen Verdon and what a life changing experience that was. I don't know if it was that for me. It was thrilling, I loved being there. I remember when the star drop came up in the balcony scene of West Side Story and thinking it was the coolest thing in the world. But more than anything else, it was a place that made sense to me. It was the most normal, usual place in the world for me — I felt right at home there. It's not that I hadn't felt that before, but there was a comfort level sitting in the dark, watching something unfold. It was comforting. It all made sense. I certainly wasn't a very popular kid and I didn't have the world's happiest family life, but I wasn't going in to escape anything, I walked in and I said, "Oh, I get this place."
PBOL: And you said you were influenced by singer-songwriters, like Billy Joel, not theatrical writers?
JRB: My bent had always been more musical. I always wanted to be a rock star, then I wanted to be an orchestral composer. I always thought of myself as a musician first. Then it turns out that whatever theatrical sense I had was inescapable. The stuff that I wrote was extremely theatrical. That's the kind of creature I had become.
PBOL: What are some of the first things you wrote, that a lot of people don't know about? Is there some cheesy, terrible show?
JRB: I was 15, I wrote a show for the summer camp I went to, and that was terrifically bad. It was a very intense narrative about the silent movie business. It was terrible in all the right ways. And when I was in college, I wrote the freshman show, and that was also screamingly, laughably bad. Once I got to New York, I was still writing screamingly, laughably bad things, but within them, I would notice good things were coming out. I salvaged the best of those good things and that's what eventually became Songs for a New World.
PBOL: Your marriage did not work out. Is The Last Five Years autobiographical? Did you take anything from your life and put it in?
JRB: Everything I write comes from my life. Obviously, I can't take it from somebody else's, I only know what resonates emotionally for me, presumably because I've experienced it. But I'm not narcissistic or sadistic enough to make the contents of my marriage a matter of public record, you know what I mean? That wasn't the aim of the piece. I think in writing a show about a couple that fall apart, I was hoping that I'd maybe be able to come to terms with that in my own life. But I wasn't going to come to terms with it by writing something about me.
PBOL: The Last Five Years is not a roman a clef.
PBOL: Your next show is about the convicted financier Michael Milken?
JRB: I'm not sure that it's my next piece. I had worked a couple of years ago on a ballet that was something about Michael Milken and Wall Street in the '80s. All the music still exists even though the ballet never [happened]. There have been a lot of attempts over the years to get the music into a show that makes me happy. But there's something automatically off-putting about jerry-rigging a piece of theatre like that. It's material I've got and I'm very happy with, so I wouldn't be ashamed if it had a home. It was a ballet with music and songs. It was a large piece of dance theatre.
PBOL: What's your hope for The Last Five Years?
JRB: What's my hope? [Laughs.] I hope it makes me a billionaire! Realistically, I just want to have it out there. After Parade, which was such an emotional rollercoaster, I decided not to invest that way in the work that I do. I invest my emotions in the work itself and not in my hopes for what the work is going to do to my life. I have my own life, which is a very happy and wonderful place. I'll make room for the show, whatever happens.
PBOL: There has been a lot of talk in the past couple of seasons about what a Broadway show should be. Theatregoers, not just media people, have wondered if such intimate shows as Dirty Blonde or A Class Act really "belong on Broadway." Is The Last Five Years a Broadway show? Given the short life of Parade on Broadway, would you resist a producer who wanted to put this on Broadway?
JRB: I would resist it if I felt being in a Broadway theatre and closing after a week and a half was going to hurt the property. That would be a bad idea. If I thought it was [a producer] who knew what they were doing, then I think anything can be — I think a smart producer who knows what they want to do with it is going to make a choice based on what they can do. If you cast Catherine Zeta-Jones, then it's a Broadway show. I don't think A Class Act was an Off-Broadway show, and I don't think that Dirty Blonde was an Off-Broadway show, but I think that people's expectations of what they were may not have been up to what the shows actually were when you saw them.
PBOL: I have this perception that if you win the Tony, you have lots of money and all these doors open to you.
JRB: Without seeming churlish about it, the Tony Award has done little to nothing for me. I mean, it gets me interviews. It's used for publicity. I make less money now than I did then. It certainly hasn't assured me of a long and fruitful career in the theatre. It's nice, it's fine. It sits up on my mantlepiece and I'm very proud of it and I feel very lucky to have it.
PBOL: You're a guy who is still pitching shows and working as a musician?
JRB: One of the reasons I'm playing out in Skokie, IL, is because I can make more money playing the show rather than sitting at home.
PBOL: Do you read reviews?
JRB: Oh, yes. And I remember every single one. Somebody has said, that even the best review is never really good enough. It never makes up for the bad reviews you've had. What I want to be doing is reaching an audience. To the extent that the reviews will get an audience in that will then be more favorably inclined to respond, then great.
PBOL: Because Parade was dark, historical and political, and the new show charts the joy and ache of a relationship that splinters, people might perceive you as being only interested in serious stuff. Does frivolous subject matter interest you — might you write The Archies, the Musical, or something like that?
JRB: I wouldn't be against it. I feel if people want to see it, I have no problem with it. I don't like feeling like I'm the resident egghead. I'm not. I'm just as cheap and low-class as anybody else. God knows, if the people had given me the rights to my Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical, I would be a very a happy man right now.
PBOL: You really did look into that?
JRB: Oh, yeah. And I'm negotiations for another piece that's as fluffy as a piece can be. It's not to say I like writing superficial. But I like writing "fun." There's nothing wrong with "fun."
— By Kenneth Jones