Jason Robert Brown lives and breathes musical theater. From his early days as a fledgling composer through multiple Tony awards, he’s had to do it his way or not at all.
Jason Robert Brown is an outlier on Broadway.
The three time Tony Award winning composer,
playwright and songwriter,
is guided by a belief that musical theater can
and should be great, heartfelt, complex, honest,
is perennial mews, messy reality.
- The thing that I wanna deal within my work,
and that I have to deal within my life all the time
is that I distrust certainties, I distrust absolutes.
The work of mine that I value the most
is the work that explores
what it is to live as a person
who refuses to say, yes, it is absolutely this.
♪ There's a couple of things I've learned ♪
♪ On the many roads I've taken
♪ Flames are not what get you burned ♪
♪ It's the cold and the ice
♪ Here's a piece of advice
♪ That I got from a little bird ♪
♪ The flames can get you stirred ♪
♪ It's the cold that leaves you shaken ♪
- [Jim] Today, Brown has written seven musicals,
two of which were or are about to be adapted for the screen.
But it's been a long road.
In the early '90s, he arrived in New York,
a wide-eyed Eastman School of Music dropout,
full of youthful confidence,
and ready to take his place on the great white way.
Quickly, fortune smiled on him.
He got a meeting with Broadway Royalty.
The late Harold Prince
was a 21 time Tony Award winning producer,
who helped create some of the most iconic shows
of the 20th century.
Brown recalls that stumbling
into Prince's world was overwhelming.
- On the wall of his office
are the posters for all of his shows.
And so you're standing there and there's Sweeney Todd,
and there's Company, and there's West Side Story,
and there's Evita, and there's Fiddler on the Roof,
and there's Phantom of the Opera.
And there's basically everything
that I think the musical theater is,
is on the wall of that office.
And I walked into that office for the first time
and I thought, I am getting into this Broadway theater,
this is what I am doing, I am going into that world.
And what I did not know is that,
how was the last person in that world?
How was the one who is sort of shutting the door behind him
as he walked out the door?
- Because I think that that kind of musical theater,
that Broadway, that took those particular chances
in that specific, risky literary way,
that thing that I responded to so much, is kind of gone.
- [Jim] In the past decade or so,
many of Broadway's biggest commercial successes
have come from Feel-Good, a family friendly fair,
often based on existing films, TV shows and songbooks.
But Brown has refused to compromise.
He stayed dedicated to bring life's more nuanced,
less comfortable truths to the stage.
His shows off of Broadway, the sort of earned storytelling
that doesn't usually make it
past the smaller experimental stages of lower Manhattan.
One of his most beloved shows retells the painful,
true story of Leo Frank,
a Jewish man wrongfully accused of rape and murder,
who was lynched in early 20th century, Atlanta,
even before his trial ended.
Another faces the bittersweet anguish
of outgrowing a five year relationship,
by mining vivid details
from the breakup of his own marriage.
♪ Jamie is over and where can I turn ♪
♪ Covered with scars I did nothing to earn ♪
♪ Maybe there's somewhere a lesson to learn ♪
♪ But that wouldn't change the fact ♪
♪ That wouldn't speed the time
♪ Once the foundation's cracked ♪
♪ And I'm still hurting
- By and large, the work that I do,
I feel like it walks the line that I wanted to walk,
in terms of being accessible,
in terms of an audience being able to take from it
what I need them to take,
and giving them something to grab onto,
but still feel to me like I can explore
all of the parts of the character,
all of the parts of the story,
all of the parts of the music underneath it
that I want to explore.
But I think that is because I have a lot of different tools
in terms of the music I listen to
and that I know how to write and that I happen to love,
that that box can fit a lot of different things,
so that my characters can be anything that I want them to be
and anywhere that I want them to be.
And I like to believe that the vocabulary
can reflect who the characters are,
as much as it reflects who I am.
- [Jim] Jason Robert Brown's shows
have attracted intense devotion,
especially from young theater makers.
He's also enjoyed critical success,
though less so at the box office.
But he says, he's found peace with his place in the world.
- If we could take away from the equation,
the fact that there are people
who are less talented than I am, that are more successful,
then I think I'm actually fine.
I think I've actually gotten exactly where I should be.
It is really difficult for me
not to sort place myself in some sort of weird ranking
about money or status or Twitter followers or whatever.
- But we all do that, right?
- Well, we all do that.
But if I can pull that away and just say,
what I wanted to do in my life,
and the kind of way that I wanted it
to be received in the world, did I get that?
And I say, I'm 48 years old,
Am I where I thought I should be at 48?
And I think, actually, yeah.
I'm probably all right with being a B plus, A minus student.
- It's incredibly refreshing.
- Well, I think most people are like that,
but I think there are people
who are going to keep drilling down
until they are the A plus student.
And I admire them, but in a lot of ways,
I actually don't wanna do that.
And I never did.
Even now, it's not like my concerts are the ones
that everyone has to get into or anything like that.
I sort of, I have a niche.
And I think when I was 35 and everyone was saying,
now is your time, you're gonna get it really big,
the next one's the really big one,
I thought, oh good, I'm going to bust out of my niche.
But I don't think I was ever really ready
to bust out of my niche.
My niche is fun.
I'm happy to be able to keep doing the work that I'm doing,
and not have the enormous pressure of,
why did I let my legacy down?
- [Jim] Jason Robert Brown has written musicals
that matter enormously to him,
and to audiences craving deeper or meaningful theater.
He's also become a beacon
for those hoping to bring to the stage
genuine depictions of life;
with all its good, its bad,
its dissonances and harmony.
♪ I'm walking on hallowed ground ♪
♪ I'm checking out every clue
♪ I'm seeing my life unwound and assembled anew ♪
♪ Then I hear that line, "Dad, relax, I'm fine" ♪
♪ And she's running off
♪ And she'll stand here one day, watching me walk away ♪
♪ In the long ago
♪ You can run, you can learn, but you'll always return ♪
♪ To the long ago
(audience clapping and cheering)
- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter,
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.