By Ellis Nassour
29 Jul 1997
|Photo by Photo credit: Starla Smith|
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.
Prince conceived and directed the show, which had origins with Livent, Inc. of Canada. Livent has produced three of Hal Prince's mega-musicals: Kiss of the Spider Woman, and the 1994 Show Boat and 1997 Candide revivals. RCA recently released the cast album of Songs For A New World .
"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. Daisy's input was essential in guiding and helping me shape the piece."
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 could come to Broadway, according to Uhry, as early as September, 1998.
Uhry, who won the 1997 Best Play Tony for his The Last Night of Ballyhoo and the Pulitzer Prize and Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy, reported that the workshop for Parade would begin in New York Sept. 8.
Performances would begin in April, 1998 in Ontario, according to Brown. "Livent's based in Canada and that's where their guts are. They know how to get things moving. I appreciate the fact that it will be away from New York. The songs and book are done. Our staged reading went staggeringly well. I've looked at the songs and done some rewriting."
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."
"We got lucky," said Brown. "Marty Bell (the head of casting and creative affairs) of Livent recommended us for a summer festival they were sponsoring in Toronto that summer (1994)."
" We couldn't believe it when they sent two white stretch limos to pick us up at the airport!" exclaimed Prince.
"We got the show on its feet there," said Brown. "It helped everybody realize it was a viable piece. A year later, while working as conductor, orchestrator and music director with Kyle Renick at WPA on a musical Yoko Ono had written, New York Rock, I spoke to him about my show. He said 'Look, Jason, I don't know if I understand the piece, but I support you and let's find a way to do it.'"
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 did 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."
Though Prince hasn't given up performing, she wants to continue to direct. "We're working on something being developed at Musical Theatre Works."
"It's an experimental work, The Moneyman Dances with Suzan-Lori Parks and Jonathan Marc Sherman," reported Brown, "exciting playwrights who've never written musicals. I love the way they work with language."
"I realize now that, having introduced Jason to my father, I have to get in line and wait," said Prince.
So there is life out there for new musicals. "Millions and millions of life!" bursts out Brown. "There are balloons flying up into the air all the time."
"You don't have to be part of a superstructure," observes Prince, "The problem is getting young artists to the people who need to meet them. They're either frightened or not good at playing the game."
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."