Fingers and toes

While my last blog entry celebrated our twelve years of marriage on October 12, over at Jason Robert Brown’s blog, he was celebrating 20 years since his tiny revue, Songs for a New World, put him on the map. Indeed, when you look at the past two decades, you think of this as The Age of Jason Robert Brown. His songs are immensely popular with performers, and who else’s era might it be? Quick, name a Sondheim song from the last 20 years. Fail? Now try to name a Lloyd Webber.

Playing piano for young adults, as I do, means I’ve encountered JRB sheet music with cringe-inducing frequency. And hundreds who’ve gotten to know me know that I generally and genuinely don’t like Brown songs, so I hope you’ll pardon the negativity as I elucidate a few of the reasons.

The most obvious complaint most pianists have is that his scores are devilishly hard to play. But that’s pretty petty compared to the effect of employing wild licks requiring acrobatic finger-work. I’ve seen this happen too many times: some singer pours her heart into performing I’m Not Afraid of Anything. It’s exceedingly difficult to sing and act – very challenging to get the audience to understand what this epic is about, and get them to feel anything about the character. People I’ve played for have worked very hard on it, and then, in performance, my hands run around the keyboard like a mad man. There’s that machine gun-like ostinato in the left hand, the dazzling string of twenty-fourth notes in one bar of the treble, loud and percussive – all of these elements, if done correctly, upstage the hard-working singer. It’s as if Brown is more interested in showing off his mad virtuoso skills than letting the audience get emotionally engaged with an industrious actor. This breaks my heart every time I have to play it.

I think it’s better when the audience’s heart breaks, and that’s a matter of understanding drama and giving good actors meaty material with subtext and subtlety. If a musical halts action for a song, and then the lyric repeats and repeats in my ear exactly the emotion I already understood from the scene – well, I can’t help it: I get bored. The tune might be pleasant, the singing might be glorious, but slowly-stating-the-obvious, to me, is a waste of time.

There are different standards that apply to show tunes and pop tunes. Brown’s very accomplished, I think, as a pop writer. When I consider Someone To Fall Back On as “just” a song on an album, I’m attracted to it: I don’t require character development when I’m listening to a song that isn’t part of a story. When I’m playing a Christmas party, JRB’s Christmas Lullaby is often the prettiest recently-composed number you’ll hear. Twenty years ago, the revue seemed his ideal format since he wasn’t burdened with having to further a narrative.

My first awareness of Brown came with Audra McDonald’s album, Way Back To Paradise. There was a soaring melody, positively brimming with emotion, You Don’t Know This Man. I thought it was pretty successful, and then I saw the song in the show it’s from, Parade. There, it’s a familiar press conference response. The character’s husband has been falsely accused of murder and she meets the press, who predictably hound her like jackals. Everything she says, everything she feels is exactly what you’d think a wife in her position would say and think. Watching, listening, I sank into my seat: a song I once admired was dramatically inert, told me nothing I didn’t know, moved me not a whit.

Speaking of being unmoved, I gotta tell you about the worst opening number to a musical I’ve ever seen. An attractive woman stood alone on stage, lamenting a lost love: “I’m Still Hurting.” Expressions of self-pity are anathema to me. In fact, they’re very rare in the Golden Age of musicals. But here’s a stranger (in that, so far, I’ve learned nothing about her) going on and on about emotional pain caused by someone named Jamie who I haven’t yet met. She’s so sorry for herself, I can’t possibly feel for her: she’s done all the work. Now, the presentation of an emotional doormat early in a show might possibly work if she goes on to heal, to pull herself out of this lachrymose funk. Alas, that doesn’t happen.

Instead we met an attractive fellow with an odd fetish about a girl who isn’t Jewish. How I hoped this wasn’t Jamie describing the aforementioned depressed woman. (No such luck: it was.) But at least it was peppy – Latin, because…? – and it was, ostensibly, a comedy song, albeit one containing no jokes anybody laughed at. But the lyric certainly piled up the usual clichés about Jewishness. Similarly, Mr. Brown (who is Jewish), traded on anti-Semitic slurs in a horrid piece called Just One Step. It’s a depiction of a middle-aged woman threatening suicide if she isn’t bought a fur coat. I wanted to push her off that ledge after 16 bars; unfortunately, she went on for about 160.

Oh, I could go on and on, making this piece overly long. But doing so would repeat one of Brown’s biggest problems. His songs make whatever point they make and then continue to gargantuan lengths. I recently played one epic and heard the comment “That song was so endless, I wanted to slit my wrists.”

Brevity is the soul of wit…and a concept JRB is unfamiliar with. A Summer In Ohio cracks a few solid jokes, and then goes on for a whole extra season. Everything he says in the massive Stars and the Moon, Sondheim previously said in the first minute of his lovely So Many People. How many times does a lyricist have to repeat “It all fades away” before the audience gets the point? (I’d have said thrice, max; Brown says: 16.)

Musical-writing, ideally, is an act of concision. That is, what might take four pages of dialogue in a straight play to convey, you shrink into a one page lyric. The opposite is the act of expansion, an emotion a play would put across in two lines becomes a five minute mini-opera. Or more. And that sort of thing tests my patience.

Which is what the much-admired Mr. Brown has been doing for twenty years.


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