Composer Jason Robert Brown Profile: Extraordinary and Jubilant

“It is scary to write — period. But once you get past the idea that it’s scary to write, I still can only be who I am. As a writer, my job, to me, is to expose myself — to really sort of dig in and find out who I am and then put it on the page. That’s the case if it’s ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ or if it’s ’13’ or ‘Honeymoon in Vegas’ or if it’s ‘Parade.’ The point is to bring myself through these characters and really try to understand them by understanding myself.”

Jason Robert Brown has been hailed as “Broadway’s smartest and most sophisticated songwriter since Stephen Sondheim” (Philadelphia Inquirer), and his “extraordinary, jubilant theater music” (Chicago Tribune) has been heard all over the world, whether in one of the hundreds of productions of his musicals every year or in his live performances.

The New York Times calls Brown the “leading member of a new generation of composers who embody high hopes for the American musical.”

But were it not for seeing productions of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Sunday in the Park with George,” he would have joined a rock band and tried to be Billy Joel.

Beginning his New York City career as an arranger, conductor, and pianist, Brown worked on shows such as William Finn’s “A New Brain” and played at several of the city’s nightclubs and piano bars.

“Songs for a New World” marked Brown’s first major New York production. An off-Broadway revue with a limited run, the show was directed by Daisy Prince and featured the 25-year-old’s pop-rock-influenced music. The song “Stars and the Moon” has since become a cabaret standard, and is probably Brown’s best-known composition to date, with recordings by such luminaries as Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, Betty Buckley, Karen Akers, and Renée Fleming.

Brown was introduced to Harold Prince through his association with his daughter, Daisy, and was hired to write songs for “Parade,” which earned Brown 1999 Tonys for Best Original Musical Score and Best Orchestrations, and launched his Broadway career.

His other works include:

  • “The Last 5 Years,” winner of Off-Broadway’s Drama Desk Awards for Best Music and Best Lyrics;
  • “Urban Cowboy,” Tony nominated for Best Original Score;
  • “Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes,” solo album debut;
  • “13,” which Brown is writing the screenplay for a film version and is notable as professional debut of Ariana Grande; and
  • “Honeymoon in Vegas,” praised by critics — Ben Brantley compared the songs to “the heyday of Rodgers and Hammerstein” — but failed to catch on at the box office.

“The Last 5 Years” was staged in Utah Rep’s 2015 season — directed by John Sweeney with musical direction by Anne Puzey — and featured Erin Royall Carlson as Cathy and Rhett Richins as Jamie.

“There was certainly plenty to love about this production,” wrote the Utah Theatre Bloggers reviewer. “If you are interested in an emotionally dramatic story strung together by hauntingly beautiful melodies and driving beats, don’t miss Utah Rep’s production ‘The Last 5 Years.’”

While THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY was honored with two Tony Award wins, for Best Score and Best Orchestrations, theater observers were flabbergasted when the show failed to receive a nomination for Best Musical.

“Really, if it were up to me, I would just skip the whole nominations entirely and give everyone in my show the Tony Award because, obviously, I feel like we’re the best in the world,” Brown said.

Watch Brown receive his Tony for THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY here.