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. Fate almost conspired to take music away from Angel Blue. But she refused to surrender to such a dark destiny and came out on the other side a better woman and a singer on some of the world’s biggest stages.
- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible
with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.
- Welcome to Articulate,
the show that explores how creativity is the very bedrock
of what makes us human.
I'm Jim Cotter.
And on this episode, Their Way.
Jason Robert Brown lives and breathes musical theater.
From his early days as a fledged and composer,
through multiple Tony Awards,
he's had to do it his way or not at all.
- 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] Tori Marchiony reports on how faith almost conspired
to take music away from Angel Blue,
but the American soprano refused to surrender
to such a dark destiny,
and came out on the other side a better woman
and a better singer on some of the world's biggest stages.
- For the first time I saw that I had a place in this job.
I had a spot, there was a spot
for Angel Blue in the opera world.
- [Jim] That's all ahead on Articulate.
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)
♪ One of these mornings
♪ You're going to rise up singing ♪
♪ Then you'll spread your wings ♪
♪ And you'll take to sky
- [Tori] For Angel Blue, becoming an opera singer
has come with enough heartache, rejection,
and profound loss to test anyone's faith.
But when the show is over and everyone has gone home,
there's only one person's approval she really needs.
- I've started telling myself,
Angel, the most important bravo you're ever gonna hear
is the one that you give yourself.
- [Tori] Blue's parents took her to her first opera
when she was four.
Spellbound, she whispered to her father,
"I wanna be the lady in the light."
- I see this big, bright light on this lady,
and she's singing, and the music is loud,
and everybody's enjoying it,
and I wanna be like that.
♪ And it hurts me I am His own
- [Tori] Her father was delighted.
Reverend Sylvester Blue was a singer and traveling pastor
who fostered a deep love of music in his family.
♪ As we teary there
He taught each of his five kids, multiple instruments,
and together, they made up a seven piece family gospel band
that traveled the country in an RV to accompany his sermons.
- My brother was on the drums, my mom played piano,
my dad and my sister would sing,
sometimes my sister would place a harpsichord,
and then I was on the bass guitar.
And that was our little family band.
Music was just sort of everything in our house.
And it brought us so closely together.
- That's so amazing,
How was it to perform with your family?
- Having that connection with my family,
I don't really know how to explain it
other than it really was a joyful time.
And it was almost like,
whenever there was an argument over something
between my siblings and I,
that was a way to really just sort of squash it.
That was a way to get rid of kind of any issue or upset
that we had with one another was to just be like,
okay, well, listen to this song, I like this song,
and I wanna learn how to play it.
- [Tori] Angel Blue's childhood was guided by love.
Her parents were firm, but never used fear to teach.
Instead, they modeled what they expected of their children;
to act honorably,
even when it meant turning the other cheek.
- And I remember my dad, he didn't have a set price.
So if someone called and said,
"Hey, Sylvester, we'd like you to come to our church,"
we would just go.
And he would say, whatever you wanna give.
For him, it wasn't a business.
He cared about the people.
My mom cared about the people.
And us as a family, we cared about the people.
And I guess that's what I have taken from my dad.
And I remember going to a church,
thankfully I've forgotten the name,
but I do remember that it was something like,
I wanna say like 2,500 miles away from our home.
And we drove in the motor home.
And I remember that the pastor got up
and he talked to the entire congregation and said that,
"We're taking up a love offering
for Sylvester Blue Ministries,"
and my dad didn't get the love offering.
And my mom being the very supportive woman that she is,
she said to my dad, she said,
"That's okay, Syl, God has you.
It's okay, we did what we were supposed to do."
But for my dad, there were a couple of moments
when that happened in his ministry, in his job,
but I never saw him get upset by it,
I never saw him lash out at anybody,
I never saw him be upset with the church,
or get mad at God, or get mad at the people.
He would just know that it was taken care of,
he did the right thing, and that's what mattered to him.
- [Tori] The Blue family was rich in integrity,
but less so financially.
When the time came for Angel, the fourth born,
to pay for college, her mother suggested
she start to compete in beauty pageants.
Sponsorships could cover the cost of entering,
and a win could bring
tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships.
But Angel was resistant.
If movies and TV were to be believed,
she would be competing against some of the most cutthroat,
catty women on earth.
But in her seven years of pageantry,
which she found instead, was a sisterhood.
- I remember one of the best memories
I have of pageantry was,
a friend of mine who wasn't sure
of what gowns she should wear, and so she came out.
Now, we're all competing against her, okay?
So she's our competition.
And so she comes in and she's like,
"You guys, what do you think of this dress?"
And we're like, "Oh no, no, don't wear that,
don't wear that one, don't do that one."
And so she's like, "Okay."
So she walks away, comes back with another gown.
And we're like, "Yes, yes, yes, wear that."
And she won that night.
So that was my experience in pageantry.
I didn't have the step on the back of the dress,
ripped the gown.
I never had that, thank God.
- [Tori] Yearly, pageants supported Blue
through her bachelor's degree, then her master's,
and opera performance at UCLA.
By 24, she was on course to realize the dreams
of her four year old self.
Until in 2007, her last year of school,
it all went wrong.
- I lost the pageant,
I didn't get into the schools that I wanted,
and then my dad died.
And then after that, my grandmother passed away.
And I was just like, really?
I auditioned for the Young Artists Program
that was in Los Angeles, didn't get into that.
It seemed like everything
that I really, really wanted at that time,
it was just like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.
I took all of my music, after my dad passed,
I took my music and I burned it.
Because I didn't wanna be bothered with music.
I had all of my, like my crowns and the sashes
and the trophies and stuff,
and I took all of 'em, I threw 'em in my trunk,
and I put them in a storage.
And I told my mom, I said,
"I'm so done with this, I don't know what to do."
I was young, but I'm sitting here
like trying to figure out, what am I supposed to do?
And it felt like every door was not closing in my face,
it felt like it was slamming in my face.
I dropped out of school.
I dropped out for a year.
And I told my family, I said,
"I don't really know what to do."
I mean, my college understood.
I mean, they had to, because I just wasn't gonna do it.
I felt like the world was just going like this.
I just felt like a whirlwind.
I felt like I didn't have firm footing.
And even though I have my faith,
even though I had really good people around me,
I, inside of me felt like I just wasn't grounded.
♪ And praise Him for His glorious love ♪
- [Tori] For the first time in Angel Blue's life,
there was no joy in music.
She couldn't make it through a voice lesson
without being reminded of her father,
and breaking down in tears.
But even though Blue wanted to turn her back on music,
her family and friends wouldn't let her.
- They were just encouraging me:
"Angel, you have one of the best voices,
you're gonna have one of the best voices in our generation,
you got to keep singing,
your dad wouldn't want you to stop,
keep going, keep going."
And I said to them, I said,
"Okay, I'll try to come back into the game."
And then I was kind of, I don't know, tiptoeing around UCLA.
Like, I'd go back and then I'd leave.
And they all understood.
And then finally, when I actually did go back
for my first voice lesson after,
I don't know how many months it was,
my voice teacher said,
"Angel, Los Angeles opera
would like to hear you sing again."
So, I went ahead and I sang for them.
And I sang for the woman
who was running the Young Artists Program at that time.
And she said, "You're fantastic."
She said, "Would you like to be in the program?"
- [Tori] It was Blue's first chance
to get a toe hold in professional opera.
But it was also personally meaningful.
Before he died, her father had coached her on repertoire
for that very audition.
But after two years in the program,
Blue still didn't feel sure of herself.
So she traded the comfort of home for unfamiliar territory.
She would spend the next 18 months
studying at one of Spain's premier opera houses.
- Just my world opened up.
And I realized that what I had learned
in the United States, in LA, as an opera singer,
all of those things
that those people were trying to get me to understand
and learn and embrace,
all of it came to life.
I became alive to myself.
I realized that, Angel, you're a good singer.
You're not in LA anymore.
This is a whole different ball game.
And I was so really thankful,
because for the first time I saw that I had a place,
there was a spot for Angel Blue in the opera world.
And I realized that when I went to Europe.
And that's a blessing.
There's room for everybody.
But I think when you finally realize
that there's a spot for you, there's a place for you,
that feels really good.
- [Tori] But even as she was climbing the ladder
to start 'em, there was still rejection and disappointment,
yet none of this could dampen her passion for music.
And even if sometimes she struggled to find constellation
in other people's songs, she's always had her own.
- I think I had something like seven auditions,
a little audition tour that I did.
And out of all of those auditions,
all seven of them came back negative.
All of them.
Everybody said, "Thank you, no thanks."
And so I was on the plane coming home.
I think I was flying home from...
It was a long flight.
I wanna say Frankfurt.
And at that time,
it was like 14 hours coming from Frankfurt to LAX.
So I took out pen and paper,
and I just started looking at the clouds and everything.
I needed encouragement.
And I mean, one of the most beautiful things,
I think is to look out of the window
and just to see just the heavens.
And the word just came into my head, like,
do you hear the sound of change?
And it's growing louder through the pain.
And I was like, that's weird.
What does that even mean?
So I wrote it down.
And that song just comes from trying,
trying, and trying, and trying, and trying.
And eventually, something happens.
And so that's why I kept telling myself, just keep singing,
just keep singing.
And so I was on the plane, I'm going,
let us all sing, sing, sing 'till it's over.
Let's sing, sing, sing.
♪ Let us all sing
♪ Sing together
♪ Let us all sing
♪ Sing 'till it's over
- What is your experience of singing your own lyrics
versus the greats, the olds?
- When I think of the songs that I've written,
they're all really from an experience that I've had,
they all really mean something to me.
And I think the trick with being an opera singer
is taking the songs that were written years
and years and years ago by a man,
from a man's perspective of a woman, I guess,
and trying to make those songs
equally as important to me and my own.
I think that's definitely a big trick.
♪ Caprichosa yo nací
♪ Y le quiero solamente
♪ Solamente para mí
♪ Solamente para mí
- [Tori] Today, a 36 year old Angel Blue
has found her stride as a leading lady
on some of the world's greatest opera stages,
including the Met, where in 2019,
she started alongside the great bass baritone, Eric Owens,
in Gershwin's beloved classic "Porgy and Bess."
♪ Woman now
♪ I's yours forever
♪ Morning time and evening time ♪
♪ And summer time and winter time ♪
♪ Morning time and evening time ♪
♪ And summer time and winter time ♪
It's safe to say, Angel Blue has made it,
even beyond her childhood dreams,
but it's been a rough road.
What would you, now that you are the lady in the light,
tell that four year old?
Honestly, the first thing that came into my head
was I'm proud of you.
Because I dream, I like to dream, I like to visualize.
I think that's one of the reasons
why I was able to get to the Metropolitan Opera
a year before I was supposed to be there,
is because I visualized being there.
And when I was four, I could see, it was weird,
is like, I wanna be the lady in the light.
I see this big, bright light on this lady,
and she's singing, and the music is loud,
and everybody's enjoying it, and I wanna be like that.
I would just tell the little girl, I'd tell her,
"I'm proud of you,
And I'm happy that you have a vision for yourself.
I'm happy that you can see that for yourself,
that you desire that.
And in any way that I could help you to get there,
let me know because I'll be there for you."
♪ Se vuoi serbarla a ricordo d'amor ♪
♪ Senza rancor
(audience clapping and chearing)
- [Jim] For more Articulate, find us on social media,
or at our website, articulateshow.org.
On the next Articulate,
poetry as a literary form is a relatively recent idea,
yet the verbalization of woven stories and thoughts
in a concise form that uses rhythm and sometimes rhyme,
is as old as time.
Today, spoken word poetry is a popular,
more democratic way for poets to get their work
and their words out into the world.
I'm Jim Cotter, join us for the next Articulate.
- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter,
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.