Composer of spring musical to visit college

Published 8:04 am Friday, March 7, 2014

“Parade” was Jason Robert Brown’s 1998 Broadway debut.

The composer of Southwestern Michigan College’s spring musical was 28 when it won a 1999 Tony Award for best score.

The Philadelphia Inquirer compared him favorably to Stephen Sondheim. Brown performed at a 1992 Sondheim tribute at Carnegie Hall.

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

A Times profile in January said Brown can seem like a man out of time for complex shows he writes which go against the grain of what’s popular on Broadway.

“I feel like some sort of weird haberdasher,” he told the Times, “like I’m doing something so arcane and antique.”

The Chicago Tribune praised Brown’s “extraordinary, jubilant theatre music.”

Fifteen years after “Parade,” his latest, an $8 million production of “The Bridges of Madison County,” opened on Broadway Feb. 20 starring Kelli O’Hara.

Brown will be in residency in Dowagiac for two days as SMC’s Visual and Performing Arts Department opens its March 20-23 run of his dark, ambitious musical exploring racism, anti-Semitism and lynch mobs in 1913 Georgia.

Lynchings constituted a popular form of American entertainment for almost 100 years.

John Robert Tony

Jason Robert Brown

Brown was commissioned with Atlantan Alfred Uhry of “Driving Miss Daisy” fame by director Harold Prince to write “an American opera” based on the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager falsely accused and convicted of murdering a 13-year-old girl, Mary Phagan.

The sensational trial reinvigorated the Ku Klux Klan and spawned the Anti-Defamation League.

“Parade” was presented on a 2000 national tour, with Brown conducting.

It has been seen around the world in more than 200 productions.

Known for love songs, Brown has said he thinks of himself as a storyteller, but in spite of surface cynicism, considers himself a deeply romantic individual.

He doesn’t romanticize messy parts of relationships because love spans a whole spectrum — sadness, joy, thrills, frustration.

Brown, who has worked with everyone from Yoko Ono to Liza Minnelli, grew up an hour north of Manhattan.

He doesn’t come from a musical family. He saw his first show, “The Wiz,” at 7. He asked for a piano at 8, started writing his own pop songs and, by 11, attended performing arts camp.

“Piano Man” Billy Joel was an early influence, though Brown composed “Bridges” on guitar.

His two-day residency at the college March 19-20 coincides with “Parade’s” opening night.

March 19 Brown will be on stage in the theatre of the Dale A. Lyons Building for a free concert at 7:30 p.m. to perform at the piano some favorite songs and accompany SMC Select Voices singing his tunes.

The following morning at 11, Brown leads a master class with several area vocalists selected through audition to perform solos to be critiqued in front of an audience of peers and high school groups.

“Parade” opens Thursday, March 20, at 7:30 p.m. and continues Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2 p.m., all in the theatre of the Dale A. Lyons Building.

Brown’s first musical, “Songs for a New World” in 1995, became a cult hit among musical theatre aficionados.

In 2001, he wrote the two-person show, “The Last Five Years,” cited by Time magazine as one of the 10 Best of 2001. It won Drama Desk Awards for best music and best lyrics. A film version of his chamber musical about a broken marriage is headed to theatres.

He re-imagined the 1992 movie “Honeymoon in Vegas” starring Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker and a skydiving team of Elvis impersonators that is expected to make it to Broadway next season.

“13” was a 2008 musical about a smart-aleck teen transplanted to small-town Indiana.

For “Urban Cowboy the Musical,” Brown, who was Tony-nominated, served as musical director and onstage bandleader and contributed five songs.

His first solo album, “Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes,” with his band, Caucasian Rhythm Kings, was one of’s best of 2005.

Brown studied composition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

When a job teaching musical theater performance and composition at the University of Southern California came along in 2005, he and his wife, Georgia Stitt, moved to Los Angeles for eight years. Brown has two daughters, Susannah and Molly.

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