YOU GET THE SENSE that Jason Robert Brown -- songwriter, orchestrator and not incidentally one of Broadway's hottest young composers -- has been warned repeatedly by his publicist not to answer the What's Wrong With Broadway question.
But what the hell.
" 'The Producers' is not interesting music," says the affable 35-year-old, whose "Parade" won the 1999 Tony Award for best musical. "It's a huge hit, it's a blast, a lot of fun, everybody's great. But the music is as dull as dirt. And I just sit down and think, why couldn't the music have been better?"
Brown is on to something, of course. The American musical is afflicted with a sea of ills -- cartoonish plot lines, garish spectacles, prohibitive ticket prices -- but none is killing it so quickly as the limp, forgettable melodies at its core. When he says, "I don't want to live in a world of 27 C-major chords," Brown speaks for all of us. We, too, long for the days of "Leonard Bernstein and Frank Loesser and Steve Sondheim and Jule Styne, Meredith Willson -- these really smart musicians who created these worlds of music that were really great to live in."
Which is what makes "The Last Five Years," Brown's 2001 musical playing at MetroStage, such a welcome surprise. The saga of Jamie and Cathy (he's a budding novelist, she's a struggling actress) couldn't be simpler -- a he-sings, she-sings tale of young love's bloom and fade. If the last four years of "The Last Five Years" are any indication, however, the show itself won't be fading away anytime soon. Despite a raft of mixed reviews when it opened off-Broadway in New York, the musical has received upward of 200 productions across the country and has been translated into Dutch, Japanese, Korean, German and "this absolutely bizarre production of my play in Italian."
What makes "Years" work -- in addition to Brown's witty, tuneful score -- is its near-surgical examination of the games couples play. "There is an inherent intimacy," the composer says. "Not a theatrical intimacy but an emotional intimacy that is very rare in musicals, or even in plays. It's a piece that gets very close to the audience."
Responsibility for establishing that intimacy at MetroStage falls to Mark Bush and Tracy Lynn Olivera, two immensely talented singing actors who are seizing an all too rare opportunity: the chance to play multidimensional characters in a musical.
"I don't think anybody can see this show and not see something -- probably a lot of things -- that have happened in their own relationships, whether it's on Cathy's side or Jamie's side," says Bush, whose Jamie finds his literary career taking off even as his love life nose-dives. The detritus of New York fame -- the cocktail parties, the fake friendships, the bowing and scraping -- only alienates him further from Olivera's Cathy, whose acting career has run aground in summer stock, in Ohio. The actress admits that "as an audience member, I can see it being kind of tough to watch sometimes. I think you're seeing these characters at their absolute best and pretty much their absolute worst."
If you think Brown's breakup opus is tough on audiences, imagine how difficult it might be for Theresa O'Neill, the composer's former wife, who like the show's Cathy, was once a struggling actress and "Shiksa Goddess" -- as one song puts it -- to the Jewish Brown. (In fact, O'Neill protested that the depiction of the couple's tempestuous relationship in "The Last Five Years" violated the terms of their divorce agreement, and she eventually filed a lawsuit. Brown subsequently took pains to differentiate Cathy from O'Neill, and the matter was settled just before the show's New York premiere.)
Now remarried and with a baby on the way, Brown appears to have made great strides against both personal and professional demons. "I'm joyful in a lot of ways that have nothing to do with my past relationship," he says. "I was miserable when I was married last time because I was a miserable person, and I'm happy now because I'm a happy person." Jamie might be struggling mightily to expand his original definition of success, but Brown himself seems to have actually done so, continuing to write musicals even as he eyes a world beyond Broadway.
Consider "Wearing Someone Else's Clothes," the composer's first solo album, which will be released on June 28. It's a relief to report that the man who has played muse to such vocal geniuses as Audra McDonald and Renee Fleming is no slouch as a singer himself. The 11 songs are alternately smart, soulful and very funny, and the icing on the cake is that Brown gets to call in some of his chits.
"The choir [on two songs] is made up of all my Broadway friends -- Alice Ripley and Brian d'Arcy James and Rebecca Luker -- all those people who've never been in a chorus in their life. They're all having to back up me, which I think is one of the great ironies."
And so begins a new chapter, in which Brown will flirt with marquee status ("I doubt it; I don't think I'll ever be pretty enough to be a pop star"), workshop a show called "13," about a group of 13-year-olds surviving middle school in the Midwest; complete a musical adaptation of the film "Honeymoon in Vegas"; and maybe, just maybe, save the Broadway musical.
The next few years should be as interesting as the last.