Thursday, October 2, 2008

An Unlucky Number?

Jason Robert Brown has a new show, 13, opening on Broadway this Sunday. A fascinating New York Times profile is here. Bizarrely enough, it has been ten years since his last Broadway show, Parade. In the intervening time, New York saw The Last Five Years, in a brief Off-Broadway run (it's hard to imagine that a show that has had so many productions since ran only two months in New York), and Broadway's calamitous Urban Cowboy, for which he wrote only a few songs.

So a new Broadway musical by a still-young composer. I should be excited, right? But my expectations for 13 are decidedly low.

First of is the musical's subject matter: the lives of 13-year-olds, with a cast of 13 teens, and a pit band of teens as well. This is a terrible idea for one simple reason: young adolescents are extremely annoying. I, at least, would rather do just about anything than spend 2 hours in a room full of middle schoolers, and the idea of paying $100 for the privilege makes my head spin.

However, even if the show were to manage to be about 13-year-olds without being as annoying at 13-year-olds (a task that Spring Awakening manages remarkably well with slightly older teens) I still have my doubts about its potential success, for one simple reason. I do not think that Jason Robert Brown is a good theatre writer.

He is certainly a skilled songwriter. Many of his songs are memorable and charming, and I enjoy listening to the cast albums of Parade and The Last Five Years. What his songs aren't is dramatic. The melodies are catchy or lyrical, the songs full of emotion, the performers often very impressive. But nothing happens. Characters express an emotional state, sure, but it never changes, it never develops. This can make a song awfully tough to act, and this can make an enjoyable pop song trying to watch onstage. Even in Parade, unquestionably his most successful show, the songs illustrate emotional moments--they don't really move the plot along within the song. (I am also not a fan of how politically simplistic the show is, reducing a complex story to "good Jewish man is railroaded by rednecks," but that is as much attributable to bookwriter Alfred Uhry as it is to Brown.)

The next time you are near your CD collection (or iTunes), try an experiment. Listen to "Nobody Needs to Know" from The Last Five Years and try to figure out what is different between  the beginning of the song and the end. Then notice that it takes seven minutes for nothing to happen. Once you have contemplated that, listen to "A Weekend in the Country" from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music and notice that in 6 minutes and 30 seconds, everything in the lives of these characters changes. Then ask yourself why Jason Robert Brown is writing musicals.

The problem is that the kind of pop songwriting Brown does best has very little place in the contemporary music landscape. Songs that are melodic and based on acoustic instruments have very little currency anymore. A friend theorized to me that Brown wants to be the next Billy Joel, and I think it's a valid comparison. If there were room for a new composer like Billy Joel, Brown would have a great career writing and maybe even performing. As it is, his CD of pop songs, "Wearing Someone Else's Clothes," barely made a ripple.

Maybe 13 will prove me wrong, and show him to be a dramatist on the level that he is a melodist. Based on the song available with the profile in the New York Times, I am not particularly optimistic. But anything can happen, right?

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