The curious case of Jason Robert Brown
In my mind, Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown are the two most interesting Broadway composers of all time.
That doesn't mean, mind you, that they are the best at what they do. But these two gentlemen, more than anyone else I can think of, started their careers writing music in one way and, halfway through, totally flipped the script (pun intended).
Remember, Sondheim first began as a lyricist alongside Leonard Bernstein for West Side Story, but it's not his shift to music-writing that was a new direction for him. The first show he wrote the score to was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, followed by Gypsy, which are both pretty typical Broadway showtune fare; big, upbeat belters. With these two hits (plus West Side) under his belt, he was emerging as a new Broadway boffo.
Then there's Jason Robert Brown, who burst onto the scene at age 25 (the same age Sondheim did West Side, by the way) in 1995 with Songs for a New World, a pop-rock opera that pre-dated Rent by a year, which made a similar appeal musically to a younger generation. Not only was he the same age as Sondheim when he started turning heads, but Brown quotes Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George as two of his biggest influences. It's not a surprise: Brown's next work, like those two, had all the hallmarks of those classics. Big and sweeping, Parade was based-on-real-life story of Leo Frank, a Jewish business owner who was accused of, and executed for, the murder of a young girl. For Brown, this show, like many of Sondheim's forays after Gypsy, was not a commercial success but developed a cult following in the years to come. Likewise, Brown's The Last Five Years is most certainly to be found in any thirtysomething's top ten list of favorite Broadway musicals, while his 13: The Musical is a little-known diamond in the rough.
The two gentlemen of New York had a unique sound that was working for them, and then, everything changed.
For Sondheim, it was Anyone Can Whistle, then Do I Hear a Waltz? Both bombed, even though they were the next evolution of the Sondheim sound we theatre fans have all become familiar with since; the often discordant, speak-singing, yet operatic, all-over-the-place scores that takes a while to get used to, and if and when you do, are seared into your mind forever.
Brown, on the other hand, took the opposite tack; whereas Sondheim developed a less traditional Broadway sound (at least, for the time), Brown cast aside his modern approach and started to writing scores one would more associate with "old-school theatre." Indeed, some of his recent works, like Urban Cowboy, The Bridges of Madison County, and Honeymoon in Vegas sound like they could have been written by Frank Loesser or Jule Styne. And, like Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle or Do I Hear A Waltz? they have failed spectacularly, at least financially and critically,
Brown has just opened a new show on Broadway this month: a staged adaptation of the movie Mr. Saturday Night, starring Billy Crystal. If you didn't know better, you'd think Mel Brooks wrote the score, since it feels like each track was one that was cast off from his The Producers. My mother will love it. But will Brown's original fans keep hanging on to this hope he will return to the early days of his career? In other words, is this latest trend of razzle-dazzle, song-and-dance numbers (not to mention, doing only movie adaptations) his real sound, like Sondheim's shift? And if this is the authentic Brown we're now getting, will we, in later years, look back on these failed productions as a pre-cursor to his magnum opus, like we do with Sweeey, Into the Woods, Company, and so many other Sondheim scores?
There's only one way to know, really, and that's to wait and see. I have no doubt Brown will continue to write for Broadway, and every score will have a couple of hidden gems in it (check out the appropriately-named "I Still Got It" from Mr. Saturday Night, which proves that Crystal, despite his 74 years, can still sell a song). But will Brown truly follow in his hero's footsteps to be one of the greatest composers who ever lived, or echo the career of someone like Cy Coleman, Charles Strouse, or Galt McDermott, who had a lifelong showbiz career, but never achieved the fame and acclaim of their earliest works? Hopefully, this patch in his career is just a Brown note.