Bounding onto the small stage at Georgetown's Blues Alley, lanky Jason Robert Brown takes command of the piano and whoops out the lyrics, "I started smiling./It's not my style," with the gusto of a rock musician - which he is.
A fortnight later, over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Brown discusses musical theater with the insights of an insider - which he also is.
A 1999 Tony Award winner for the score of Parade, Brown recently released his first solo album, Wearing Someone Else's Clothes, and is currently touring with his band, the Caucasian Rhythm Kings.
His two-person musical, The Last Five Years - chosen one of the 10 best shows of 2001 by Time magazine - opens at Everyman Theatre Friday. And on Oct. 16 and 17, he and the Rhythm Kings will give two concert performances at the theater.
"Jason's music cuts to the quick of the emotional truth. Every song is a scene unto itself, almost a little play really. ... It captures a moment in time with a sort of emotional snapshot that is so recognizable, so real and so multi-layered," says Vincent M. Lancisi, Everyman's artistic director and the director of The Last Five Years. "I have rarely come across a composer who produced music as honest and driven as Jason."
Brown is part of a select group of musical theater composers - others include Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa and Jeanine Tesori - who are often described as the successors of Stephen Sondheim.
But though Brown won a Tony for his first, and only, Broadway show, he harbors some ambivalence toward the Great White Way - and, for that matter, toward just about everything. As he sees it, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"I sort of live my life with a built-in level of ambiguity," he acknowledges. "I'm 35 and have never been as pretty as a lot of rock stars. Like: `I want it; I don't want it.' The same goes with being a big Broadway composer. ... That ambivalence forces me to do idiosyncratic work, forces me to do work that is interesting to me. It informs a lot of choices I make."
Fortunately, Brown is talented enough to move easily from one stage to another. The Last Five Years is a perfect example. The show was his response to the failure of Parade. Although Parade had the cachet of a libretto by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and direction by the legendary Harold Prince, the true-life tale of a 1915 Georgia lynching closed after 84 performances.
"Parade was an exhausting, long slog of a show to write," Brown says. "It involved so many people and a big cast, which meant there wasn't much chance of getting it done much after that. I said, `This theater thing is for the nuts. I'm not going to do that.'"
Instead, he decided to create a song cycle that was intended for two singers and a symphony orchestra. The more he wrote, however, the more the piece seemed destined for the stage. "I do what I do, and what I do is I write for the theater," he admits.
His subject was a five-year relationship between an aspiring novelist and a budding actress. But he added a twist. The man's story is told from start to finish; the woman's, from finish to start. The songs are all solos, with the exception of one duet, which they sing at their wedding, in the middle of the show.
"I wanted to tell a not-complicated story about two people who fall in love and then fall out of it. If you tell it in chronological order, you're always going to know what happens next. In trying to find a way to counteract that, I came up with the idea that she could go backward and he could go forward. The minute I started writing it, I felt it was the exact right idea," he says, adding that this conceit also works thematically. "The metaphor of the piece is quite clear - people who cannot connect."
The Last Five Years (which stars Betsy Morgan and Josh Davis at Everyman) has had more than 200 productions in the United States and in foreign countries ranging from Italy to Korea. But its New York debut was rocky. Commissioned by Lincoln Center, the chamber musical was supposed to move there after making its world premiere in Chicago in May 2001.
Then Brown's ex-wife, an actress named Theresa O'Neill, threatened legal action, claiming the piece came too close to real life. Brown made some changes (disclosing them, he says, would violate the settlement). In March 2002, The Last Five Years opened at off-Broadway's Minetta Lane Theatre.
Touring with band
Brown's rock-singing career is a direct offshoot of that New York production. The composer played piano in the show's pit orchestra, and when the run ended, he recalls, "I said to the band, `Why don't we keep doing this?'"
Together with guitarist Gary Sieger and bassist Randy Landau, he tested the waters in Los Angeles before moving on to New York. They are now on a tour that will take them, after Baltimore, to cities including Boston, San Antonio, Kansas City and London.