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 a musical theater lyricist, composer, and playwright. He contributed music and lyrics to multiple successful Broadway musicals and won Tony Awards in 1999 for his work on Parade and in 2014 for The Bridges of Madison County.
Brown was raised in a Jewish family in the suburbs of New York City and attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, before dropping out to pursue a career in music. His first musical, Songs for a New World, ran Off-Broadway in 1995 and produced Brown’s well-known cabaret standard “Stars and the Moon.” He subsequently wrote music and lyrics for award-winning musicals Parade, 13, The Bridges of Madison County, and Honeymoon in Vegas, among other works. His highly personal The Last Five Years, based on the collapse of his first marriage, won two Drama Desk Awards in 2002 and was made into a 2015 film starring Anna Kendrick. As a singer and performer, he has released three solo albums and played in venues around the world. He has taught at Harvard, Princeton, Emerson, and USC.
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. His perennial muse? Messy reality.
JRB: The thing that I wanna deal with within my work, and that I have to deal with in 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.”
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.
JRB: 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 that 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 Hal was the last person in that world. Hal was the one who was sort of shutting the door behind him as he walked out the door.
JRB: 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.
In the past decade or so, many of Broadway’s biggest commercial successes have come from feel-good, family-friendly fair, often based on existing films, TV shows, and songbooks. But Brown has refused to compromise. He’s stayed dedicated to bringing life’s more nuanced, less comfortable truths to the stage. His shows offer 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.
(Excerpt from The Last 5 Years’ “Still Hurting”):
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
JRB: By and large, the work that I do, I feel like it walks the line that I want it 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.
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.
JRB: 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 of, place myself in some sort of weird ranking about money or status or Twitter followers or whatever.
AJC: But we all do that, right?
JRB: Well, we all do that. But if I can pull all 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.”
AJC: That’s incredibly refreshing.
JRB: 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, 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?”
Jason Robert Brown has written musicals that matter enormously to him, and to audiences craving deeper, more 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.