- 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.
Angel Blue is one of the world’s most acclaimed opera singers, having performed for audiences in over 35 countries.
Raised in Southern California, she was encouraged by her father, a classically trained gospel singer and opera fan, to sing and play guitar, saxophone, and piano in her family’s church band. She spent six years as a beauty pageant champion, becoming the first African American crowned Miss Apple Valley, winning Miss Hollywood, and coming runners-up in Miss California and Miss Nevada competitions. These awards helped finance her B.A. in music at the University of Redlands and master’s in opera performance at UCLA.
At a crossroads following her father’s death in 2007, Blue auditioned for Plácido Domingo, who invited her to join L.A. Opera’s young-artist program. After completing her studies in Europe, she established herself as one of the world’s leading sopranos, taking on many signature roles, including Mimi from La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera and Violetta in La traviata at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and the Royal Opera House. She is the founder of the nonprofit Sylvia’s Kids, which provides scholarships to inner-city students.
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.
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 fledgling composer, through multiple Tony Awards, he’s had to do it his way, or not at all.
Jason Robert Brown: 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.
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.
Angel Blue: 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.
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. 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.
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.
Angel Blue: I’ve started telling myself, “Angel, the most important bravo you’re ever gonna hear is the one that you give yourself.”
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.”
Blue: 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.
Her father was delighted. Reverend Sylvester Blue was a singer and traveling pastor who fostered a deep love of music in his family. 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.
Blue: 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.
ATM: That’s so amazing. How was it to perform with your family?
Blue: Having that connection with my family… I don’t really know how to explain it other than it really was a joyful time. You know, 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 any 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.
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.
Blue: 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 motorhome. 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.
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, what she found instead, was a sisterhood.
Blue: I remember one of the best memories I have of pageantry was a friend of mine who wasn’t sure of what gown 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. She won. So that was my experience in pageantry. I didn’t have the, step on the back of the dress, rip the gown. I never had that, thank God.
Yearly pageants supported Blue through her bachelor’s degree, then her master’s in 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.
Blue: 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? For real? I can’t. 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 storage. And I told my mom, I said, “I’m so done with this, I don’t know what to do.” I was young, you know, 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 a 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.
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.
Blue: 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’ve 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?”
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.
Blue: 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.
But even as she was climbing the ladder to stardom, there was still rejection and disappointment, yet none of this could dampen her passion for music. And even if sometimes she struggled to find consolation in other people’s songs, she’s always had her own.
Blue: 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 a 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. It’s awesome. And the words 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.”
ATM: What is your experience of singing your own lyrics versus the greats, the olds?
Blue: 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.
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 starred alongside the great bass-baritone, Eric Owens, in Gershwin’s beloved classic “Porgy and Bess.”
It’s safe to say, Angel Blue has made it, even beyond her childhood dreams, but, it’s been a rough road.
ATM: What would you, now that you are the lady in the light, tell that four-year-old?
Blue: Ooh. 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, it was 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.”