"Under my hard candy shell I am a deeply mushy romantic," says composer Jason Robert Brown.
Brown is the composer of two musicals about love, loss and understanding: Broadway's "The Bridges of Madison County" (for which he received Tony Award nominations for his score and orchestrations last month) and his 2002 off-Broadway show, "The Last Five Years," which has had a healthy post-New York life — including dozens of regional and college theater productions, an off-Broadway revival last year and an upcoming film.
New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre is currently producing its own version of "The Last Five Years,'' the two-actor musical about a romance and marriage told from two perspectives. Staged by artistic director Gordon Edelstein, it stars Katie Rose Clarke (Glinda from Broadway's "Wicked") and Adam Halpin (the national tour of "Rent").
Love is also spilling over the stage later this month at Hartford's TheaterWorks with "Love/Sick" by John Cariani whose "Almost, Maine" played the theater last year.
"I am a great believer that love can do a lot of great things," says Brown during a luncheon interview at an Upper West Side restaurant in Manhattan. "It can inspire people to be better. I trust in its power."
Brown says his two uber-romantic shows aren't treatises on love ("the characters tell me what they need to tell me"). But, he says, sometimes there is a larger view. In "Bridges," "it says you can't put one kind of love above another kind of love. They all count for something. So no matter what you do — as long as you're expressing your love — that's the better choice."
That's also at the heart of the "Last Five Years" in which we meet Kathy, a struggling actress, at the end of her marriage as she looks back in time to its beginning; and which we meet rising writer Jamie at the beginning of the relationship as he moves forward in the storytelling to their eventual split.
"It's not about judgment," says Brown. "It's not like, 'Oh, you chose the wrong person and you made a mistake.' No, you didn't make a mistake about being in love with somebody. It's like what Jamie says at the end of the show, 'All I can do is love you and let you go.' I buy that."
Brown was in his early 30s when he wrote it shortly after the end of his own first marriage.
"There's a lot of people who think the piece is literally me laying down the story of my first marriage and it's not remotely that," he says. "I sense great distinctions between those two people and what my wife and I went through."
But he also says that composers often tap into themselves to give greater intimacy and authenticity in telling the story they want to tell.
"I grew up on [the music of singer-songwriter] Joni Mitchell, grew up on writers who felt the job was to reveal something of themselves.
"For the 31-year old me then, it was a hard thing to let go of a marriage and I was letting these characters exorcise that for me. But now all these years later, it was so clearly for the best in my life. I also think it was the best for these characters as well.
"Georgia [Stitt, Brown's wife of 11 years and a composer] is the only person who thinks 'The Last Five Years' has a happy ending."
And the art and craft of writing songs about love?
"Comedy is harder," he says. "Writing love songs is easy. Comedy for me is impossible. I would rather write big love ballads all day long than write 'A Summer in Ohio' [a clever song from 'Last Five Years'] but it's also part of the job. Music to a love song is very specific and universal and I can find that music all the time.
"It's really easy to write an insincere love song so I guess the harder part is to maintain that sincerity but then again, that's the job as far as I'm concerned, that's what I'm here to do: be honest about the feelings."
"My perspective of the show is very different now," says Brown who turns 44 next month. "When I directed it [last year for the off-Broadway production], I had a much more avuncular perspective on the whole thing. I felt like, 'Oh, you kids. I know it seems tough but you'll be all right. I know what happens after the story ends and you're both going to be fine'."
A movie version of the intimate musical was filmed last year with Anna Kendrick (the films "Up in the Air," "Pitch Perfect") and Jeremy Jordan (Broadway's "Newsies," TV's "Smash"). The film has a distribution deal with a release date still to be determined.
As for future projects, Brown's musical "Honeymoon in Vegas," based on the 1992 film of the same name, which had a popular run at Paper Mill Playhouse last year with Tony Danza, is expected to be part of the 2014-2015 Broadway season. Brown is also working on a show about artist Toulouse Lautrec, with music by Charles Aznavour — Brown is translating the lyrics and adapting the score — for the reworked version of the 2000 London show Aznavour wrote. Another project includes a new musical with writer Claudia Shear ("Dirty Blonde").
There's also movie buzz surrounding his short-lived musical "13" (which had a workshop production at Goodspeed Musical's theater in Chester several years ago). Brown is mum on "13" talk of the movie featuring a cast of young teenagers "but nothing surprised me more that there is a 'Last Five Years' movie."
'Love/Sick' At TheaterWorks
When John Cariani wrote his collection of short plays into the evening-length work "Almost, Maine," it was as an unabashed love letter to the quirky, straight-shooting, loving people who he knew from the rural areas of Northern Maine.
"There wasn't a lot of sour in 'Almost, Maine'," he says, referring to several tales of romance in that anthology of plays.
But 'Love/Sick,' which has gone through a number of developmental productions since it's premiere several years ago, "is written by someone older, someone who's been beaten up a bit" in affairs of the heart.
"It's the flip side of 'Almost, Maine'," he says.
If "Almost, Maine" has a simple rural feel, "Love/Sick" has a more suburban and urban bent with characters in their 30s and 40s grappling with more adult aspects to the mysteries of love, he says.
"I think we constantly examine ourselves and our loves," says the actor-writer. "That's what we do," he says. "Love starts out as something quite simply, something you just feel in your gut and something you just go with. But maintaining relationships by both parties and making it flourish is something else."
It's not that the new short plays of "Love/Sick" are downbeat, he says, but rather more realistic and with a definitely "sharper edge," he says. "But they're funny, too, and they're hopeful — but hopeful with observations that there's a lot more work to be done. It's like anything. You have to tend your garden."
THE LAST FIVE YEARS is now in previews at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, and opens May 14. The show continues through June 1. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m.; Wednesdays at 7 p.m. (with 2 p.m. matinees on May 21 and 28); Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 18, at 2 and 7 p.m. and May 25 and June 1 at 2 p.m. Information: www.longwharf.org and 203-787-4282.
LOVE/SICK begins previews May 16 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., downtown Hartford, opens on May 22 and runs through June 22. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8; 2 p.m. matinees on Wednesdays June 4 and 11. Tickets are $50 to $65; student rush $15 and senior matinees for $35. Running time is 2 hours with one intermission. Information: 860-527-7838 and www.theaterworkshartford.org.
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