Jason Robert Brown is one of the most prodigious songwriters to grace Broadway over the last 15 years (that's The Last Five Years multiplied by three for any numerologists out there), and he has some of the most passionate fans of any era. While Brown's work is in some ways reminiscent of contemporaries Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa, his music has a more easily accessible pop sound than Guettel's and his songs have a more distinct, traditional structure than LaChiusa's.
Brown burst onto the scene in 1995 with the popular Off-Broadway revue Songs for a New World, and his work since then has often followed a similar storytelling format. Before turning 30, he won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Original Score for Parade, and if like Parade, his subsequent output has failed to find long-term commercial success, Brown has to continued to impress and win new devotees. His Broadway musical adaptation of The Bridges Of Madison County has already announced a closing date of May 18, and anyone who cares about musical theatre ought to do his or herself a favor and make haste to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
Click through to read my selections for the top ten songs by Jason Robert Brown.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Harold Prince's Lincoln Center Theater production of Jason Robert Brown's Parade was a gripping musical, telling the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager who was convicted of raping and murdering a 13-year old girl. The musical follows the resulting media frenzy that led to the resurgence of the KKK and the emergence of Anti-Defamation League. Watching the show, one couldn't help but believe Frank innocent, and it was infuriating to see him condemned. Carolee Carmello was nothing short of inspiring as Lucille Frank fighting to save her husband, and when she succeeded in getting his case reopened, their duet, "This Is Not Over Yet" was both cathartic and invigorating. The same is true every time I listen to it.
Hilariously titled in homage to the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht standard, "Surabaya Johnny," "Surabaya Santa" is in the same vein: An angry lament sung by a spurned woman, in this case cleverly transposed to the North Pole to give vent to the frustrations of Mrs. Santa Claus. The Santa Claus story affords a plethora of opportunities for comic gold and "Surabaya Santa" hits them all when set to Brown's assured music, which taking on the weight of a Weill parody with enviable ease.
"See I'm Smiling" from 2002's Off-Broadway two-hander The Last Five Years is an excellent example of what is best about a lot of Jason Robert Brown's work. The song — music and lyrics both — is funny, quirky, conversational and relatable, but there is also depth and a longing ache not far beneath the surface. The music is first to underscore this, followed by the lyrics as the story progresses. I was lucky enough to see an early screening of Richard LaGravanese's forthcoming film version of "The Last Five Years" starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, and I'm delighted to say this number works even better opened up on realistic location. (Interesting sidenote: LaGravanese has adapted Brown's The Last Five Years for film while Brown has adapted for Broadway the novel "The Bridges Of Madison County" — for which LaGravanese wrote the screenplay.)
I'm always particularly taken with songs that function seamlessly as dramatic text. This is certainly true of the confrontational "Do It Alone" from Parade. Lucille Frank loves her husband and fights desperately to save his name and his life, even when he belittles her struggle. This moment when she turns her frustration back on him with insight, elegance and force is a gem.
In The Bridges Of Madison County, Kelli O'Hara is given the showpiece, Francesca's "Almost Real," which is perhaps Jason Robert Brown's most classically-inspired piece of music. Telling her life story in the context of her reliance on fantasy, the song is as moving emotionally as it is glorious musically.
My favorite song from The Last Five Years is an absolutely beguiling, delightfully old-timey rumination on Cathy's romantic prospects with Jamie juxtaposed with her career prospects in summer stock. It's exactly this kind of charming character song that perfectly balances Jason Robert Brown's agility with near pop opera and makes him a singular talent in musical theatre.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
This glorious duet musicalizes the climactic moment in The Bridges Of Madison County when Robert and Francesca acknowledge their mutual love and the major obstacles to being together. The soaring melody bears echoes of Andrew Lloyd Webber and even Jerome Kern while further developing Brown's own unique musical gravitas.
Pretty irresistible when performed by almost anyone, this love song from an underachiever overflows with warmth and heart. The tune taps deep emotional reservoirs and makes an excellent case for Jason Robert Brown as a first-rate singer-songwriter.
This powerful duet explodes out of Leo and Lucille Frank after his death sentence is commuted to life in prison. The way the pair sing complementary verses to the same melody and then come together dynamically is as thrilling as musical theatre singing can be and magically elevates the storytelling to art.
This favorite from Songs for a New World so quickly became a cabaret, concert and piano bar staple that people may lose sight of its particular power and the first time they heard it. I will never forget walking quickly through the snow listening to Audra McDonald's recording on her debut album, "Way Back To Paradise." I was sold just from the vamp alone, before she even began singing the engaging lyrics. It's no wonder so many singers have been drawn to Brown's work since then.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on tour to Miami Beach, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)