Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Some people analyze every detail

As promised, here is some bonus material from my interview with Jason Robert Brown that didn't make it into the final Nextbook story (edited, obviously, to make both of us, but mainly me, sound more articulate). I didn't want to keep it to myself!

MW: It sounds like 13 is a big success.

JRB: It’s...exactly what we wanted it to be. It is a show with a bunch of teenagers jumping around onstage, and it’s a very warmhearted, life-affirming kind of a show. I think there are people who don’t dig that, but that was what I wanted to do, and that’s what we did, so I’m very proud of it.

MW: Do you feel like audiences are responding to it the way you expected?

JRB: I think 80% of the audience is always with us, and 20% of the audience is always those people who think, “What happened to Angels in America?” …It’s not a heavy show. I think it may be, in its own way, a deep show.

MW: I read somewhere that one of your motivations in doing a show about and for teenagers was realizing that you had a big following in that demographic, in spite of the fact that your work has been kind of mature in theme up to this point.

JRB: My demographic, truth be told, is actually a little bit older than 13. I think my demographic tends to be in the 17-through-college department. So, what it was about was the realization that there is a huge demographic of kids that age who love musicals, and I did not think there was a lot of appropriate material for them that was still smart and still musically valuable… If you wanted to see something that really connected to who they were at that time in their lives, and didn’t talk down to them and didn’t insist on sugarcoating their experience, I thought, there’s not that much like that. And I wanted to create something that they could feel like they owned.

MW: On your weblog you described the kind of music you write as — this is a quote — ”Jewish-rock’n’roll-Motown-showtune.” I wanted to ask if there’s anything you can identify that’s particularly “Jewish” about the equation.

JRB: I think there is something about the hyper-verbality — hyper-verbosity? — of the work that I write that feels Jewish to me; that feels specifically, culturally related to that. I don’t know if I could define it or explain it any better than that, but I feel like, if I listened to my stuff and I didn’t know me, I’d say, Ah, nice Jewish boy, I know him.

MW: In the case of Parade, for example, there are obviously traditional Jewish influences in the songs that Leo Frank sings, especially in the Sh’ma that he sings at the end. Did you have to go out of your way to make that part of the fabric of that show?

JRB: No, that’s the stuff that comes easy to me. That’s the stuff I know. What was harder, in Parade, was the stuff that’s authentically Southern... There are a lot of hidden quotes of “Dixie” all over the score of Parade.

MW: I love the funeral scene, with the hymn “There Is a Fountain” — that’s really beautiful. So you looked into spirituals and hymns and things like that?

JRB: Well, that hymn, “There Is a Fountain,” was actually what was sung at Mary [Phagan]’s funeral. So I just extrapolated from there. That was actually a sort of improvisational thing, where I just played the hymn over and over again, and let it see where it would lead me. And it brought me to the “It Don’t Make Sense” section of that song, which, harmonically, is sort of distantly related to the hymn.

...You know, it sounds like, sort of, “tricks,” and in a way it is, but once you get beneath all the tricks it has to have some emotional content to it that you can believe in. And I’d like to think that it does.

MW: In writing this musical, did you seek out music that 13 year olds right now are listening to?

JRB: Well, I did and I didn’t. When I started writing the show I just said, Let me see what I come up with, as far as what I think feels authentic to these kids. And what I ended up writing, and it wasn’t even deliberate, was all stuff that sort of sounded like 1983, when I was 13. When I put myself in the mind of a teenager, I ended up writing things that were popular when I was a teenager. So after we got through the first draft of the show, there were parts where I felt like, “I’m not telling the whole story, musically, of what it means to be a 13 year old.” So there are a couple of more contemporary-sounding things in it than I had originally thought out… But no one’s gonna confuse this with a Gwen Stefani record.

MW: The band for 13 is also made up of teenagers. Was that always part of your plan, or did that…

JRB: Oh yeah, no, that was definitely always part of the game plan.

MW: Because I know that you, as a composer and arranger and a musical director, tend to be really particular about making everything sort of one artistic statement.

JRB: Yeah, well, that was always the point… I wasn’t sure whether we could do it, you know, I wasn’t sure whether we could, in fact, find a band that could play my stuff. I didn’t want to write the material down to the performers; I wanted to just write what I wanted to write and then find kids who could do it. And I wasn’t sure that I could, but… these sensational players out here, I mean, these genius kids who can do anything. And who are, incidentally, much better musicians than I was when I was their age.

MW: You have this album of your own nontheatre songs, and you’ve been doing appearances in support of that -- does it feel like you have a few different personas, or does it all fit together for you?

JRB: You know, it feels to me like one big thing, but I recognized, when I put out the album, that it wasn’t a marketable idea, if you will, to say, “This is all part of the same deal; I write these shows and I write these songs, and ultimately it’s all going to add up to the same thing.” So I sort of allow the perception out in the world that I have this other persona who writes these rock-and-roll songs and goes out and does these concerts, but I think if you asked any of the kids who are involved in 13 who have come and seen me do the concerts, they would all say, “That’s all Jason.”

MW: Do you think this project has brought you back to theatre writing?

JRB: I’m not sure that I can ever just do theatre writing… It felt to me that if I put all my eggs in that basket, I would ultimately end up being sort of bummed out and depressed all the time. So I decided not to, and instead I can do a whole bunch of different things and keep myself spread over a number of different groups, which is easier for me than just being a theatre writer all the time. There’s just not enough interesting theatre happening, particularly on Broadway, to keep me doing it all the time.

And that's all she wrote. Happy Valentine's Day!

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