The Massachusetts native is at home with the material by famous New Englander Louisa May Alcott. Howland is certainly intimate with the material, having first nurtured the Allan Knee libretto of the 1868 story as a producer, working with his producing partner (and now wife) Dani Davis. In the process of shepherding the show toward Broadway, after the first songwriting team was let go, producer Howland stepped in to become the project's composer. The unexpected change of hats (working with lyricist Mindi Dickstein) resulted in the score audiences have been applauding at the Virginia Theatre since December 2004.
His Broadway debut as a composer comes after credits as a music director and conductor for Jekyll & Hyde, music supervisor for The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War, and music director of Taboo.
Playbill.com: The history of this project is that you weren't the original composer. Can you talk about the show and how it came to you?
Jason Howland: Dani Davis and I met working on Scarlet Pimpernel. She had already known Allan Knee. He asked her to sing on a demo of Little Women. When Scarlet Pimpernel moved into tech, we had an awful lot of downtime sitting in the back of the theatre, watching people light — most of the tech was lighting. We started talking about producing theatre. Dani said, "I just sang on this demo and the music is OK, but I know the book writer really well and the title's fantastic — it's Little Women. Maybe this would be the right kind of first vehicle for us to pursue. So we pursued it — two total neophyte people with a gleam in their eye and absolutely no knowledge of what they're getting themselves into. We started down the road. We met with the authors and said, "We see what you've done and we see that it could be something fantastic that would be totally different than what you've done, but that it could be a real commercial Broadway vehicle." They had written a show for 42 people and we started talking to them about the realities of what a Broadway show needed to be. We had done enough shows between Dani and myself to understand the economics of it. If it's gonna be a commercial vehicle, let's be smart about making it a commercial vehicle — instead of something that's going to die very quickly. They got excited about our idea.
[Allan Knee's agent] said there was another producer interested in this, and that was Randall Wreghitt. The three of us met and we got along pretty well, we thought we'd be an interesting team and we pursued it together and got the rights to it after various back and forth. In the meantime, it won the Richard Rodgers Award. It wasn't like it was a bad piece. We saw [a reading presentation of it] at the York, it was three hours and 45 minutes long. We knew they were going to do, at the York, a version that we were never going to produce. Because we'd already told them what we were going to do, and do it with them. We started the process of reconceiving their ideas, keeping the best of what they'd done, and reshaping a lot of the dramaturgical elements of it, making it a 10-person musical. After a small reading we did, we started moving toward a full workshop production. We had a lot of difficulty along the way with getting the team, in particular, the previous composer and lyricist, to understand the function of the score in the show. … By the time we got to the end of the third week of rehearsal [for the workshop] the show wasn't working… The long and the short of it is that we, after some discussion with them and their agent, decided that the only way the project was going to move forward was to completely take their score out. We paid them a great deal of money, they were very angry but took the money and got to keep all their material for any version of Little Women that they wanted to do.
Then we started talking about where we go from here. We knew a number of composers between us. [Producer] Ken [Gentry] was starting to join the process and I turned to him and said, "I would like to throw my hat in the ring as a potential composer on this and completely step down as producer if that were to happen. I think I'm a good composer, I know this story really well, I know very much what it wants to be." They also knew two other shows I wrote. Dani had participated in one, Randall was a big fan of another. It wasn't like I wasn't writing other things. They came back and said, "We're gonna go with you."
Playbill.com: And you stepped down as producer?
JH: I removed myself completely from that and became composer and then we starting talking about lyricists, and auditioned some lyricists and chose Mindi. That process, as writer, is about three years.
Playbill.com: I didn't know Dani Davis was an actress.
JH: She's done Broadway, Off-Broadway, tours, the whole bit. She's also an excellent choreographer and a dancer. The reason she and I decided to do this in the first place was because we felt strongly there was a great value to people like David Merrick — it seems there's not a lot of people who say, "I will take the hot seat, I will make all the decisions, the good bad and the ugly, they will all be mine, but at least it will be the vision I wanted to see." I did a lot of work for Clear Channel, and that was decision by committee and that's hard. On this show, there's been a singular focus and point of view that everybody, whether they wanted or not, ultimately had to line up to. David Merrick may have been a real tyrant and impossible to deal with, but he also did some amazing stuff.
Playbill.com: Did you meet Dani for the first time on Pimpernel?
Playbill.com: And you're married now.
JH: We are married now, but when we started all this, we were just business partners, straight-up platonic. Little Women is what prompted us to maybe start a company together, which we did. And we produced The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh on Broadway with Randall. That was our first Broadway production.
Playbill.com: The romance developed as the producing partnership developed?
JH: Yeah. I always knew she was a fascinating person. She was in the midst of getting out of a marriage at a certain point.
Playbill.com: You said you contributed three songs to the previous writers' Little Women workshop. Did any of them make it into the current score?
JH: No. I think I've probably written over 110 songs on this show at this point. The fun is writing something and leaving it and coming back to it, leaving it again, coming back to a piece of it. That kind of development. Anybody who wants to come to me and say, "Wow, you stole somebody's score," I find preposterous. We re-wrote the thing at least five times.
Playbill.com: Is the book much different?
JH: The book is radically different.
Playbill.com: A contemporary sound comes through in the score, though the score feels overwhelming traditional – not stodgy or old-fashioned, but of a tradition. When it feels contemporary, whether it's a vamp or an arrangement, that sound seems linked to Jo March, the aggressively creative and modern sister. This was on purpose?
JH: Absolutely. I'm not a pop song guy, per se. I didn't grow up writing hit songs for radio. I grew up in the world of the theatre, but I also grew up more in the world of pop theatre. Certainly, my professional experience was, the first thing, three Frank Wildhorn shows, which have a certain sound to them. In terms of me as a writer, the strongest influences I feel are Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and Alan Menken. When I think of Jo, I think she's a contemporary heroine. Louisa May Alcott was so ahead of her time.
Playbill.com: I can't quite explain how it feels slightly contemporary. It's certainly not rock.
JH: One of the things you hear in the score a lot is a "sharp four" relationship – a note that doesn’t fit the key of the scale it's in. You know "Maria" from West Side Story? "Ma-REE-uh." That "ree" note? That relationship is something Menken uses all the time, that Bernstein used all the time, and that I have picked up. And it's all over Little Women. It's all over Little Women when it's about Jo. These things probably mean nothing to anybody else but mean something to me.
Playbill.com: Where did you grow up?
JH: I grew up in Williamstown, MA, however I was born in Concord, MA, and lived on Alcott Street until we moved. Dani’s from Worcester, MA. I grew up going to the theatre. My mom was from New York, and her parents were here so we would come down every Christmas and see three shows. The first show I ever saw was Annie. I didn't spend a ton of time listening to cast albums as a kid; at that time I was concentrating a lot more on classical piano. That ended when I was 13 because I got nerve problems in my arm and couldn’t play anymore. I always had an affinity for the theatre.
Playbill.com: How did your career in theatre start?
JH: When I was in college, I couldn't see a path to having a career in music, and earning a living. And then in my junior year Barry Moss of Hughes-Moss Casting called and said, "How would you like to intern on a show?" I said OK. The show ended up being Jekyll & Hyde. I was the donut-boy, get-the-coffee, make-the-Xerox kid on the Vivian Matalon workshop in 1992. By the end of that summer, I was the second pianist for the final performances. Frank Wildhorn and [arranger] James Raitt both took a liking to me. Once they figured out I knew something about music they found me more and more useful. By the end of the summer, Frank said, "When you get out of college why don’t you come work for me?"
Playbill.com: When did the passion for storytelling happen?
JH: I always had it. I always loved to write. I used to write musicals when I was 14. I went to a summer camp that was all about writing musicals – it was called Berkshire Ensemble for the Theatre Arts, which no longer exists. We just wrote musicals. One of my life goals was to be a Broadway composer. I never had a clue how it might happen.