Friday, September 16, 2011

Jason Robert Brown

Like Frank Wildhorn (If you haven't read my review of should!), Jason Robert Brown is one of the really great, relatively unappreciated artists of our time.  One thing that separates Jason Robert Brown (occasionally referred to as, simply, JRB) from Frank Wildhorn, is his fantastic diversity.  With Wildhorn, you knew that he was going to take a relatively dark, romantic piece of literature and make it into a Gothic rock opera.  With JRB, you never really know what he's going to do.  I believe that one reason for this is he hasn't had the chance to conceive many of his shows.  A lot of the time it seems that a writer or director asks him aboard after the concept is already made.  Of course, this diversity is a strength, not a weakness, it allows his music (which remains relatively similar throughout all the shows) to be brought to a much wider audience.  JRB was one of the first composers that I recognized as the genius behind his shows (not the writer or the actor), he is absolutely amazing!  Don't believe me?  Look for yourself:

Although this was the first show JRB wrote, it was one of that last that I discovered.  Even though it is the most unusual, you can't help but like this, his first masterpiece!

Now, this is not a conventional Broadway Musical in that it has no plot.  This show follows the format of a "song cycle".  There aren't many out there, and this is probably the most famous of them all (contrary to some arguments, CATS doesn't count).  I like to describe a song cycle as "all the reject songs".  But in actuality that's rarely the way the work.  Usually the writer chooses a theme and then writes a couple songs that could all be in different musicals that follow the theme.  For this, it is a collection of songs that either tell stories of how the world was shaped (Nelson Mandela, Betsy Ross, WWII, etc.) or people/situations that define the world today (A celebrity who started with nothing, a divorced couple, a frustrated house wife etc.)  It is a fantastic show filled amazing songs!  The convenient thing about song cycles is that they don't need any dialogue or average songs to develop the characters, practically every song is a show stopper!  Usually each show will have one or two "novelty songs" that use a very wide range (on of Brown's trademarks) and is truly show stopping...this show has tons of them!   Because of this widespread amazing-ness, It's near impossible to choose only a few songs to suggest, need to listen to the ENTIRE SOUNDTRACK!!!  But if you don't want to take that much time yet, I can suggest some songs to get you started.  If you want a great ensemble song I would suggest Hear My Song; if you want a beautiful duet I would direct you towards I'd Give it All for You; if you felt like a great female solo, I would have to give you both Stars & The Moon and I'm Not Afraid of Anything; if you'd rather hear a good male solo, I would think of King of the World and The World Was Dancing.  I know I just listed almost half of the album here (and I feel like I should put more), but that's because you need to hear the whole show, it's fantastic!

This is the next show JRB wrote the music too and it's probably my favorite of all of his works.  I found it accidentally trying to see Jekyll & Hyde videos (you never know how this stuff will happen) and it became one of my favorite shows with some amazing characters!
This delightful show caught my eye because it was set in my home town of Marietta GA.  Now, I know you're thinking: "But Luke, nothing ever happens in Marietta!"  and generally you'd be right, but you forgot that things happened before our generation.  Yes, it seems back in the olden times (1913) something interesting did happen: The trial of Leo Frank.  The show shows how much racial prejudice still existed in the south even after the civil war was over and done.  The story focuses around Leo Frank: a Jew from Brooklyn who married a southerner, but REALLY doesn't fit in down there.  He's then convicted of a crime he didn't do, but the people of Atlanta need someone to blame and he fits the bill.  It's a beautiful story filled with rage, sorrow, and some comedy spliced in here and there.  The music is amazing and won Jason his first (and only) Tony Award for best score.  On a personal note, when I went to see this show (by the late Blackwell Playhouse), it has been by far, the show that has taken me closest to crying.  On two separate occasions I was over come by emotion and about to loose it, the show is very intense! It has some amazing strong willed dramatic female solo's (You Don't Know This Man), some heart wrenching songs (It's Hard to Speak My Heart, It Don't Make Sense), and some fantastic rhythm & Blues masterpieces (Feel the Rain Fall).  In addition to this, it contains one of my favorite roles on Broadway.  The town drunk/star reporter for "The Atlanta Georgian", Britt Craig, is SO funny (listen to Big News!), and still has some nice heartfelt scenes too.  He's the only neutral third party in the story, so he gets to find the unbiased truth in the pursuit of his story.  All in all it is a stunning heartfelt masterpiece that you should ALWAYS see if you have the opportunity.

This is the most recent show of his I found (and the one that pushed me to do the post).  It is a two person show, and the plot is simple, but the songs are a bit mind blowing.

It's about a couple's relationship, over a period of about five years.  Since it's just the two of them, they kind of take turns narrating different bits of their life.  But where it gets confusing is they're not going the same direction.  The girl (Kathy) starts her story at the end of their relationship and works her way back (a giant flashback kind of) where as the guy (Jamie) starts at their meeting and then works forward ending in their divorce (chronologically).  Where they meet is where they sing the only duet in the show (The Next Ten Minutes) which highlights the climax of their relationship (the proposal).  This show isn't JRB's best, but it is really good and is one of his funniest.What complements Brown's fantastic music are the amazing artists that made the original cast.  They were Norbert Leo Butz (Fyero [Wicked], Freddy Benson [Dirty Rotten Scoundrels], etc.) and Sherri Renne Scott (Ursala [Little Mermaid], Admeris [Aida], etc.).  Both of these Tony Award winning artists are simply amazing and it was a genius idea to give them the same show.  In my opinion the best songs of the show belong to Jamie. He gets the comedic Schmuel Song and the heart felt If I Didn't Believe in You.  But many others have pointed out the potency of Kathy's songs as well, particularly the emotional I'm Still Hurting and the hilarious Climbing Uphill.  Although this show is the most "adult themed" of JRB's works that I've seen, it's still really good.

13: The Musical
Ironically the last major show to be mentioned was the first that I found.  I suppose it's no coincidence that I found JRB on his most current work, the first show to have an entire cast and orchestra comprised entirely of teenagers: 13.
13: The Musical is amazing because it is so unique.  Every sensible child actor (including myself) dreams of a role on Broadway, so it's nothing short of inspiring to have a show completely overrun by these kids (the also have the funnest "behind the scenes" videos I've ever seen).  The story follows Evan, who's parents recently divorced, as he moves from New York to a small town in Indiana.  Evan (a likable guy) makes friends with everyone pretty quick, which is the problem.  He needs to choose to be loyal to the popular kids or the geeks (his first friends).  This show also plays with labels.  They effectively represent most of the common stereotypes that plague high schoolers (the jock, the gossip, the cheerleader, etc.).  Like other popular shows, the concept is what makes the show great, not the music, but that's not to say that it's bad.  All though you won't hear any show stopping numbers, they are catchy enough to be humming the rest of the day.  Though they do have some fun solo numbers (What It Means To Be A Friend, and Get Me What I Need are some of my favorites), their strength lies in their ensemble songs (A Little More Homework & Getting Ready are probably my favorites).  The energy of this show is absolutely fantastic, even the few clips out there of the choreography are electrifying to watch.  All in all, it's favorite of mine (It's absolutely ridiculous that it wasn't even nominated for any Tony's) and it will be playing in high schools across America for a long time.  Another exciting aspect of this show is the talent.  Most of these kids were relatively unknown when the show started (most of them had commercial appearances here and there, but not much), but I expect to see some amazing things coming from these young performers.  Many of them already have minor roles on TV shows now, and I think we can look for some of them to be taking Broadway by storm in a few years.

These were JRB's big shows, but that doesn't mean he wasn't involved in other projects.

Wearing Someone Else's Clothes - Of these side projects the one that I most enjoy is a CD he released entitled "Wearing Someone Else's Clothes".  I thought this was a song cycle when I first heard it, because it has the same format.  But it is simply a CD of songs that he was considering for various shows that never really panned out.  My first exposure to the show came about 2 years ago when someone showed me Music of Heaven as a singing exercise.  It's a beautiful song, but not really my style so I didn't think much of it.  Then this past year's Jimmy Award Winner sang Someone to Fall Back On as his solo and I became suddenly far more interested.  Unfortunately the songs aren't particularly spectacular.  It is kind of cool to hear JRB himself sing (he sings all the songs on the CD), but the only other song that I find worth mentioning is I Could Be In Love With Someone Like You (which I personally believe is sort of a rough draft of Shiksa Goddess [The Last Five Years]...there are similarities).

Urban Cowboy - I don't know really much about this show.  It was nominated for best Original Score, but it flopped on Broadway and they never even released a cast it's kind of a "ghost show".  But what makes it special was it had over 30 composers and lyricists (including Jason) working on it.

Orchestrations - Although he didn't write the music, JRB wrote the orchestrations for some legitimately good shows such as John & Jen (which I would suggest to EVERYBODY) and A New Brain (which is ok).

All in all, it is clear that Jason Robert Brown is a musical Genius.  I don't feel he's really gotten the respect he deserves as far as Tony nominations are concerned, but he certainly has created many shows with a avid fan base (a few of which I am a part of).  He's the kind of writer who's remembered more for his sweet/kind of catchy songs more than his show stopping numbers.  But that's ok, he has a good variety of styles, and is fun to listen to when you're in a quiet sort of mood.  I would once again suggest that you listen to a few of the songs listed above (all the links are below).  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Jason Robert Brown.

Hear My Song [Songs for a New World] -
I'd Give it All for You [Songs for a New World] -
Stars & The Moon [Songs for a New World] -
I'm Not Afraid of Anything [Songs for a New World] -
King of the World [Songs for a New World] -
The World Was Dancing [Songs for a New World] -
You Don't Know This Man [Parade] -
It's Hard to Speak My Heart [Parade] -
It Don't Make Sense [Parade] -
Feel the Rain Fall [Parade] -
Big News [Parade] -
The Next Ten Minutes [The Last Five Years] -
Schmuel [The Last Five Years] -
If I Didn't Believe In You [The Last Five Years] -
I'm Still Hurting [The Last Five Years] -
Climbing Uphill [The Last Five Years] -
What it Means to be a Friend [13] -
Get Me What I Need [13] -
Getting Ready [13] -
A Little More Homework [13] -
Music of Heaven [Wearing Someone Else's Clothes] -
Someone to Fall Back On [Wearing Someone Else's Clothes] -
I Could Be In Love With Someone Like You [Wearing Someone Else's Clothes] -

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