Musical Moment Interview Series: Jason Robert Brown
The subject of today’s interview, Jason Robert Brown, requires no introduction. In fact, as a Make Musicals reader, I would be shocked if a quick scan of your ipod playlists didn’t reveal at least one of this Tony Award winner’s acclaimed shows be it Last Five Years, Parade, 13, or Songs For A New World. Today, we’re thrilled to share his thoughts on new musical creation, his influences, words of wisdom and why your new musical “shouldn’t suck!”
You write both music and lyrics. What are the benefits and challenges? What’s your process like?
The benefits are that I can shape lyrics around musical phrases, or adapt musical phrases to fit lyrics. Writing both allows me a huge degree of push-and-pull, and I think that helps to make my songs sound “lived in.” The challenges are that it’s really hard, and it’s really lonely. And I can get really hung up on a word, a note, a phrase, and not have anyone to pull me up out of the muck. My process is that I have a general idea of the musical style of a given moment, and a lyrical “hook” that I’ll start working from, and I’ll start rhyming things in my head, vamping things on the piano, improvising, free-associating, until a shape has started to emerge; that shape may just be the opening line, it may be the whole structure of the song, it may just be one chord moving to another that suggests something else. And from there, the real technical stuff comes into play, just carving something out of that granite.
What do you think are the most important elements in crafting a story for a musical?
This is an obvious answer, but I think characters need to have a reason to sing. Singing is a big emotional and physical commitment for an actor to make, and so the story has to justify something that crazy happening. There must be passion, there must be energy and movement, and there has to be enough variety in those moments to keep the songs from all sounding the same.
What makes a great theater song?
Discovery! There are a couple of different kinds of discoveries in great theater songs. The first kind is an emotional depth that totally redefines the character, both to the audience and to the character himself (or herself) – “Finishing the Hat” or “Adelaide’s Lament.” The second is a revelation of information that brings the characters and the audience to a new place – “Matchmaker” or “A Little Priest.” And finally, simply a moment that allows for extraordinary dexterity and cleverness or tenderness, the discovery of the writer’s talent funneled through the character – “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” or “Always True to You In My Fashion.”
How would you describe your style? Who are your influences?
I’m sort of a gospel-jazz-rock-showtune guy with some highbrow tendencies. I’m influenced by, well, anything that makes noise, but some music is more reliably inspiring than others: Sondheim (of course), Bernstein, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Andy Partridge, Steve Reich, Michel Petrucciani, Shawn Colvin, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Carole King, yada yada yada.
What’s the hardest thing about writing a musical?
Everything. Honestly, the hardest thing is the money – it costs a lot of money to do a musical correctly, and the compromises you have to make to get that money are endless and exhausting and soul-killing. Casting is also really hard; there are very few performers who really have all the chops and all the magnetism that a musical needs, particularly a musical that demands real acting ability.
What’s the best part?
In my experience, people respond to musicals more deeply than any other art form, except maybe opera, which is maybe the same thing anyway. But to watch and feel something of mine take hold of an audience and shake them to their core is an unbelievably beautiful thing.
You’re adapting both The Bridges of Madison County and Honeymoon in Vegas for the stage. What’s it been like adapting material for the first time?
In some ways, it’s so much easier because the template is already there. But in other ways, it’s much harder because people already have an expectation of what they’re going to see, and you have to match and exceed that expectation. Movie stars have a strange and irreplaceable power – an actor on a stage twenty or more feet away from you is not going to have the same effect that an extreme close-up of Brad Pitt will have – so I have to be careful not to get stuck on what “works” in the movie, because there’s almost never any way to do that exact same thing on stage. We have to reinvent almost every second of the piece in order to make it breathe on stage. (It’s actually easier with Bridges because I’ve never seen the movie, whereas I know every frame of Honeymoon backwards and forwards.)
Which composers and lyricists do you most admire and why?
Leonard Bernstein is always my touchstone as a composer, for his love of melody and his passion for experimenting and his unbelievable technical security. I am less and less charmed by amateurs as I get older; I love people who have
explored every nook and cranny of their craft and know how to deploy exactly the desired effect at exactly the right moment. A lot of musical theater writers are just bullshit artists who have to count on arrangers and orchestrators and musical directors to flesh out their work. I’m tired of that. Bernstein could write anything, as could Loesser, and Kander, and Sondheim, and even David Yazbek, who can’t read a note of music but is a consummate musician and a real man of the theater.
What do you think is the best training for becoming a music theatre composer?
Know musicals. Know as many as you can. Not just the songs, but the scenes too. And concentrate on the classics. Get Cabaret and Gypsy and Guys and Dolls and West Side Story and Sunday in the Park With George and Sweeney Todd in your bones. Those shows work for very good reasons. Figure out why.
What advice do you have for people starting out writing musicals?
Don’t suck. Really, I mean that. Most musicals suck. Yours should be special, and personal, and magical, and transformative, and most of all, it should be good. If you don’t think it’s good, it’s not. Throw it away and do something else. Respect the power that this form has, and don’t abuse it. The world is still anxiously awaiting the sound of something heartfelt and new.