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Composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown hasn’t always had an easy time fitting in. Neither have his characters.

Mollie Wilson
February 13, 2007

“I gotta tell you, Rabbi, when you’re a geek, it’s the loneliest thing in the world,” sings Evan, the teenage protagonist of composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s new musical, 13. Transplanted from New York City to Indiana in the wake of his parents’ divorce, 13-year-old Evan is anxious to establish a new identity. He’s the only Jew in school, and as far as he’s concerned, the most important detail of his approaching bar mitzvah is whether the popular kids will attend his party.

For the 36-year-old Brown, who created the musical with children’s book author Dan Elish, the themes of 13—the adolescent struggle for self-definition and the competing desire for popularity—were all too easy to recall. “The sense of feeling dislocated, the sense of feeling like I don’t belong…that turns out to be very close and very real,” Brown said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where 13 is playing at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. “And not just from when I was 13—my sense of being dissociated from whatever the larger community is, the ‘popular kids,’ turns out to be very close to what I feel a lot of my life.”

If there are any “popular kids” in the musical theater world, it seems like Brown ought to be one of them. Hailed as a musical theater wunderkind, he won his first Tony, for the Broadway musical Parade, while still in his twenties. With his poppy yet sophisticated music and smart, conversational lyrics, he was one of a handful of composers considered to be heirs to Stephen Sondheim. But in 2003, after a string of his productions succumbed to chilly reviews and quick closings, Brown left New York determined to give up writing for the theater. 13 marks his return to the stage, his first full-length musical in five years.

13 did not start out as an autobiographical project for Brown, who grew up in Rockland County, New York—where Jews are far from exotic—with parents who never divorced. He recalls in his program notes that he skipped ahead a grade when he was ten, “and the social fallout from that was absolutely toxic.” After a few years studying at Eastman School of Music, he left without his degree for New York City, where he performed in piano bars, arranged other composers’ work, and established himself as an up-and-coming composer at a time when musical theater was particularly hungry for new voices. He also developed a reputation for egotism and arrogance among theater insiders, perhaps fueled by his rapid professional rise.

In 1995, an off-Broadway revue of Brown’s work, Songs for a New World—a loosely constructed sequence of ballads, comedy songs and rousing gospel numbers—brought him to the attention of legendary Broadway producer and director Hal Prince, whose daughter, Daisy, had directed the show. Prince was developing a musical for Lincoln Center about the 1913 trial and lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta. Longtime collaborator Stephen Sondheim had been slated to compose the score, but when Sondheim changed his mind, Prince chose the 25-year-old Brown as his replacement—the professional equivalent of skipping a grade.

Brown’s score for Parade is sophisticated and tuneful, drawing on traditional American song forms and featuring his signature piano-driven arrangements. Both lyrics and music establish Leo’s alienation by playing up his Jewish identity: “God—all the noise, and on Yontiff yet,” he grumbles when his work is interrupted by the Confederate Memorial Day parade that gives the show its name. At the musical’s conclusion, noose around his neck, Frank sings a mournful a cappella Shema. “Even popular song of the 20s was very much Jewish/vaudeville-oriented,” Brown points out, explaining why the Jewish content in Parade came easily for him. “Trying to find a sound that was authentically Southern was the harder task.”

The show had a promising pedigree. Its book was by Alfred Uhry, making Parade the third, after the non-musicals Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo, in his loose trilogy of shows about Atlanta Jews. But the expensive, ambitious “book musicals” (such as Follies, Sweeney Todd, and Evita) Prince was famous for bringing to Broadway were a dying breed by the time Parade opened in 1998. With a large, pricey production and a less-than-cheerful premise, Parade needed serious critical and popular support to survive. The major reviewers were complimentary but unenthusiastic; many complained that the show was too preachy, and the central character of Leo too slow to come alive. Parade‘s handful of awards—including the Tony recognizing Brown’s richly dramatic score—came months after its 84th and final performance.

Brown’s follow-up project, The Last Five Years, an intricately constructed, almost entirely sung-through portrait of a failed marriage, premiered in New York in 2002. With a two-person cast, a contemporary setting and sound, and an intimate off-Broadway production, this solo effort was different from Parade in every way. Cathy and Jamie, the protagonists, tell their stories in opposite directions; Jamie journeys from first date to divorce, while Cathy follows a reverse chronology. During the final number, while Jamie lists his reasons for ending the marriage, Cathy reflects hopefully on their first date. The Last Five Years was inspired by Brown’s own divorce and Jamie, a suburban New York Jew who finds professional and artistic success in his early 20s, is plainly a rough self-portrait of the artist. Originally Jamie is thrilled to have found a “shiksa goddess” in Cathy, but as time passes, the couple’s differences drive them apart. “Don’t we get to be happy, Cathy?” Jamie asks. “Don’t we get to relax / Without some new tsuris / To push me yet further from you?”

Critical response to The Last Five Years was again respectful but lukewarm. Ben Brantley of The New York Times praised Brown’s “sparkling facility as a composer,” but had trouble cozying up to the characters; other critics found the show dull. Brown’s ex-wife, meanwhile, felt the project was too inspired by real events, and threatened to sue to prevent its performance. The show ran for only two months.

In 2003 Brown composed a few songs for the widely ridiculed Broadway flop Urban Cowboy, for which he also served as musical director and orchestrator. Brown had no illusions about the overall quality of the show—”One of the main reasons I signed on to Urban Cowboy, The Musical was the opportunity to work with Jenn Colella,” he writes on his website, before adding gleefully, “(The other main reason was the money.)” After that show closed, with no awards and few laments, Brown left New York and announced that he would no longer write for the theater. “I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say in this form anymore,” he recalls in his program notes for 13. “And I wasn’t sure anyone wanted to hear it.”

Brown headed off to Europe for nearly a year, and on his return resettled in Southern California. He worked on an assortment of musical projects—from composing industrial shows for State Farm Insurance Company, to recording a solo album (Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes) to creating the choral composition “Chanukah Suite,” a Broadway-style setting of traditional holiday songs.

Meanwhile, his fan base continued to grow. Musical-theater enthusiasts cherished the original cast recordings of Songs for a New World, Parade, and The Last Five Years, finding, in close study of the scores, emotional depth and insight. The shows also found new life and new audiences in regional productions around the country, and individual songs began popping up in cabarets.

Brown was pulled back to the theater by librettist Elish, who approached him with the idea for 13. “There is a huge demographic of kids that age who love musicals,” Brown says, “I wanted to create something that they could feel like they owned.”

Since its January 7 opening in L.A., 13 has met with little resistance from critics, an unusual experience for Brown. A few have been disappointed by its lightweight approach—Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times compared it to an “after-school special” and dismissed Brown’s music as “bubblegum rock.” But many reviewers have embraced and endorsed the show (“13 is sheer bliss,” Variety gushed), and performances have been selling out. The show runs through February 18; its life thereafter is still up in the air, but Brown hopes it will eventually be recorded, and perhaps even bring him back to the New York stage. Still, he no longer views theater, or his role in it, with the same intensity he once did: “I’m not sure that I can ever just do theater writing,” he says. “Maybe this show will change it and maybe it won’t, but I’ve always felt that my relationship to the community was very tenuous—that I wasn’t one of the ‘in crowd.’ You know, I keep playing that story throughout my life.”