Caught on Camera
Tony Winner Jason Robert Brown Breaks Down His Overture for Prince of Broadway
How the composer-lyricist fit 17 songs in the show’s overture—plus writing new songs for Broadway’s ultimate musical revue.
“There have been several impossible things that Hal has asked me to do on this show,” says Jason Robert Brown of working on the Hal Prince musical revue Prince of Broadway. “Surely the most impossible was that he said, ‘I want the best goddamn overture anybody’s every heard in their lives.’”
So Brown set out to deliver, knowing he had an overflowing catalog of Prince material to tackle. And audiences might have been appeased with one after another of hit song after hit song—but Brown prefers to be more innovative. “I didn’t want to hit anything too obvious at the time,” says Brown of when he started arranging. “And so I thought, ‘If I do anything that anyone expects, I want to do it an unexpected way.’ So I knew I had to hit Phantom of the Opera, but I thought it would be really fun if I could hit ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and do it as a mashup with ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ and do both of those at the same time.”
In addition to the overture packed with 17 songs from Hal Prince musicals, Prince charged Brown with creating new arrangements and orchestrations for all of the iconic numbers in the show. From Cabaret to Company, from West Side Story to The Phantom of the Opera, Prince has been adamant that the show is not a carbon copy of numbers from all of his shows but a re-imaginging of them. Brown’s music needs to balance freshness with homage.
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“I consider myself the custodian of 60 years of musical theatre history and, to that end, I have to represent these incredible songwriters whose work I’m here taking care of,” says Brown, “I feel great responsibility to that and it’s meant a lot to me to take on Leonard Bernstein’s work and Stephen Sondheim’s work and John Kander’s work and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work and Charlie Strouse’s work and Jerry Bock’s work and bring it into the world of this show. It’s been enormously meaningful to work on this stuff that meant everything about how I became a writer.”
In addition to the new vision of old material, Brown composed original songs for the show. “The hardest challenge is that [outside of excerpts from Prince musicals] the actors onstage are never themselves, they’re always playing characters and so when it came to writing a number that the actors are supposed to sing the question is ‘Who are they?’ because we don’t know them as Tony Yazbeck or Emily Skinner; we only know them on this stage as being characters in these 30 shows,” Brown explains. “So to me the challenge was always: How do we give them voice? And the answer often was: They speak through Hal or Hal speaks through them—that the character they always are and the person whose words matter most at this moment are Hal’s words.”
Brown imbued the new work with Prince’s “philosophy and his energy and what he represents to the theatre.” And he had a lot of personal experience to draw from. Having worked with Prince since he was 24 years old—when they worked together on the Tony-winning Parade—Brown has been soaking in Prince. “I feel that often the work I’ve been doing on this show is work I’ve been researching for 25 years since Hal and I first met,” says Brown.
So did he succeed with his impossible task?
Prince smiles, “He’s created an overture the likes of which I haven’t heard in years.”