Australia is set to welcome one of Broadway’s most exciting modern composers in a series of concerts and master classes. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to interview Jason Robert Brown on the eve of his Australian tour.
Ask any passionate young music theatre fan about their favourite composers and the answer is very likely to include Jason Robert Brown. Songs for a New World and The Last Five Years in particular have caught the imaginations of fans through their cast recordings. Performances of these works, and the rarer but equally prized Parade, always seem to have a tangible aura of quality and sophistication.
In 2009 Stephen Flaherty and Lyn Ahrens came to Melbourne and the thrill of hearing Flaherty play the opening chords to his composition of the title track of Ragtime is still vividly remembered by all in attendance. The prospect of Jason Robert Brown performing his music, as the concert title says: ‘live and intimate’ is tantalizing indeed. Equally intriguing is the prospect of hearing from the outspoken and passionate composer, who has a large following through his sometimes controversial blog.
Brown will accompanied by evergreen music theatre star Rachael Beck in a concert at Melbourne’s National Theatre on 28 February, with dates in other major cities throughout March.
In an even more unique event, Brown will be joined by fellow composers Georgia Stitt and John Bucchino to give a public master class on Tuesday 1 March at VCA. Of special interest to readers of Theatre People is the invitation for singers to apply to be part of this special occasion. More details, and the application form, can be found at the following site: http://yourmanagement.biz/Coming_Soon_files/MasterClassBrochureFINALYMI001.pdf
Last year I had the privilege of directing the Australian premiere of 13 for St Michael’s Grammar School. (photos: Andrew Curtis) Our production of 13 really captured the imagination and passion of performers and audiences alike in a greater way than other musicals we have staged.
I asked Brown, from his observations, whether the LA and Broadway casts also developed particularly strong feelings about the work? “Watching the kids work together on 13 is always a very special experience. First of all, they feel so empowered doing a show that’s essentially about themselves. And then I think there’s a real joy in doing something that still feels “new.”
Any group that does the show in the next two or three years will still be able to feel like they’re discovering it for themselves and for their audiences. And you know, it’s also a challenge – this material is a lot harder to sing and act than the majority of stuff presented by youth theaters, it’s safe to say, and there’s enormous pride on the kids’ part in tackling it and nailing it.”
Still on 13, I asked about reports that have been circulating about the possibility of a movie. In particular, I asked whether pieces like High School Musical or Glee would help or hinder the possibility of a movie of 13. “13 has to survive on its own terms, as I’ve said from the beginning (our show was already in rehearsal when High School Musical premiered). It’s very different in tone from any of the other “teen musicals” that are so prevalent right now, and I think that makes it a challenge for television networks or movie studios. But we’ve got some very enthusiastic champions behind the screenplay, so I’m hoping it happens soon!”
Anyone who has been involved as a producer of an amateur or school show will know that we send our posters and programs to the licensing companies to be posted to the authors of the shows. I asked Brown whether he had seen artwork like this for his shows. “I’ve seen lots of artwork and lots of productions and heard lots of recordings, and I’m delighted and amazed by how my work gets around and by the variety of the interpretations. I wish I could see more of that stuff, but having two kids and a very full plate of new work to write limits my ability to run around seeing productions of my older shows!” (artwork: Nathan Toovey)
Many Australian theatre fans saw the discussion on Brown’s weblog about his position on the people stealing digital copies of sheet music. In Australia, sheet music is harder to source and more expensive than it is in the US. I asked Brown if he could make a comment to our readers about your ongoing feelings on this topic now that six months or so have gone by since this weblog discussion. I wondered whether he felt the message is getting out there to music theatre fans and whether he was aware of other composers or licensing organisations making a similar stand.
“I think everyone who relies on sales of sheet music to make a living is taking a stand, in very different ways. My publishers have teams of lawyers who hunt people down and sue them; my colleagues try to encourage their fans to do the right and legal thing; and I try to do my part by keeping people aware of the issue. It really started out as my wife Georgia’s fight, and she’s actively involved with ASCAP and the Dramatists Guild in trying to find solutions. I consider myself the in-house cheerleading team for their efforts.”
In anticipation of his Australian tour, I asked Brown whether he was aware of any of the music theatre composers in Australia. “Not much, alas. I know some of Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank’s work from Prodigal, but outside of that, I’m having a hard time thinking of any homegrown Aussie musicals. Enlighten me!” Hopefully he will come across further talent during his tour, possibly through work performed in the master classes.
I also asked whether there are any Australian music theatre performers that he has heard of that he would be interested in seeing on stage or who he would like to hear sing his work. “When I was in Adelaide in 2003, I got to meet some fantastic singers: Judi Connelli, Spencer McLaren, Bert LaBonte, Simon Burke, Ian Stenlake, and of course Rachael Beck, who I’m so lucky to have joining me on this tour of Australia. And since then, I’ve gotten to work with Philip Quast and Hugh Jackman. So I’d say I’ve been pretty lucky with the Australians so far!”
Finally, I asked Brown for a bit of insight as to what audience members at the master classes might expect, including whether the participants be exclusively singing his songs? “I’m not sure! Sometimes I request that no one sing any of my songs, because I feel like I want to be able to do more rudimentary acting and singing work, whereas my songs are all Olympic marathons. And then other classes I just want to delve into my own stuff and discover and explore the facets of that work. Often it’s a combination. I guarantee it’ll be a lot of fun, whichever way it goes!”
For further information on Brown’s concert tour, as well as concerts by Stitt and Bucchino see http://www.yourmanagement.biz/Coming_Soon.html