Broadway's Broadway, but L.A.'s invigorating

Composer Jason Robert Brown moves to L.A. and finds his singer/songwriter side.

By Rob Kendt
Special to The Times

March 24, 2005

"It goes song, song, song, song, intermission, song, song, song, lynch," quipped Jason Robert Brown at a recent one-night-only singer-songwriter concert of his work at North Hollywood's El Portal Theatre. He was introducing the opening number of "Parade," the ambitious musical about the anti-Semitic lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 Georgia that won Brown the 1999 Tony for its score but famously closed after 85 performances.

The lanky, dark-haired Brown, 35, had reason to be in a confident, even jocular mood: "Parade" happens to be, as he put it, "the only one of my musicals not currently playing at a theater in Southern California." The concert was offered next door to the Los Angeles premiere production of Brown's two-character chamber musical "The Last Five Years." Running through April 10 at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre is Brown's 1995 revue "Songs for a New World."

Though these two shows present musical challenges aplenty, they are considerably more modest in scale than the epic "Parade," and as such have had healthy lives in regional theaters across the country. Here's the bittersweet rub for this overqualified musical theater savant: He's begun to feel comparatively more welcome in places other than Broadway.

"I burned out on New York in a really spectacular way," Brown says over dinner in Silver Lake, where he lives with his wife, Georgia Stitt, also a composer and music director. He was lured west in January to teach two theater classes at USC. "The Broadway community was not a particularly interesting or supportive or fun community to be a part of. I feel like I know how to write a big show, I know how to write a show that's successful, but I don't know how to write a show that's 'Mamma Mia!' So, if it was gonna be, 'You can either be that thing or you really shouldn't be writing for Broadway,' then I thought, 'You know, I don't want to feel like that pressure's on me all the time.' "

Indeed, for all the high praise lavished on Brown and his peers — a fiercely talented, unapologetically ambitious generation of musical theater auteurs that includes Adam Guettel ("Floyd Collins," "The Light in the Piazza") and Michael John LaChiusa ("Hello Again," "The Wild Party") — there have been even higher expectations. Inconveniently, none of these would-be saviors of Broadway has had a genuine hit on Broadway.

After he won his Tony, Brown's next gig on the Great White Way was as music director and pinch-hitting composer-lyricist for the short-lived debacle "Urban Cowboy" — a gig, he says, that "no one was under any illusions was about anything except a quick buck." Brown used the windfall to get away, spending a year with Stitt in Italy writing and relaxing, even taking in a "baffling" Italian-language production of "The Last Five Years."

BROWN hasn't been idle during this time away from the Broadway pressure cooker. There's the teaching job at USC. He also wrote a piano sonata called "Mr. Broadway," which pianist Anthony de Mare debuted last week at Carnegie Hall; started work on a musicalization of the 1992 film "Honeymoon in Vegas" with its creator, filmmaker Andrew Bergman, and began developing a musical with writer Dan Elish called "13," about young teens.

Perhaps most central to his creative recharging, he made a solo pop album titled "Wearing Someone Else's Clothes," due out this summer.

It's a natural fit for Brown, because of all the theater composers of his generation, he may be the closest to a pop singer-songwriter in his sensibility and his gifts.

At the El Portal concert, he wasn't greeted by L.A. musical theater fans only as a kind of "sideways rock star," as he put it. He delivered a turn at the piano that looked and sounded for all the world like a rock star performance: laconic and pyrotechnic, gritty and tender. Above all, it was clear Brown was reconnecting with the inspiration that drew him to songwriting in the first place.

"I always think of myself as a singer-songwriter," he says. In fact, his early influences weren't theater composers but pop writers such as Billy Joel, Elton John, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, even progressive rockers such as Yes and King Crimson. It was only after he started writing seriously, Brown says, that he found himself "infinitely more comfortable when I would put [songs] in a dramatic context, even if what I ended up writing had the shape and feel of a pop song."

A number of these self-contained theatrical songs eventually became the revue "Songs for a New World." The show's lightly worn concept is that its four characters must each face tough choices and troubling transitions. The themes of "The Last Five Years," which dissects a dissolving marriage, are similarly wrenching.

Clearly Brown's creative home address isn't Broadway. It's the crossroads.

'Songs for a New World'

Where: Rubicon Theatre Company at the Laurel, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Ends: April 10

Price: $20 to $48

Info: (805) 667-2900

'The Last Five Years'

Where: El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

When: 8 tonight through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday

Ends: April 3

Price: $30

Info: (818) 723-0353