Lawrence Toppman

If ‘Bridges’ makes you cry, thank Brown

Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky star in the national tour of “The Bridges of Madison County.”
Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky star in the national tour of “The Bridges of Madison County.” Matthew Murphy

Could Jason Robert Brown be the best Broadway composer you’ve never heard of?

Did you say “No”? Then you have heard of him and already own tickets to “The Bridges of Madison County,” which opens Tuesday at Knight Theater on the PNC Broadway Lights series.

Did you ask “Jason Robert Who?” Here’s your answer: He won Tony and Drama Desk awards for “Parade” in 1999, took two Drama Desk Awards for “The Last Five Years” in 2002, shared a Tony nomination in 2003 for “Urban Cowboy,” then won a double Tony and double Drama Desk in 2014 for the score and beautifully apt orchestration of “Bridges.”

He can compose, write lyrics, orchestrate, arrange, conduct, even play a mean piano. He heads a rock band on the side and writes articulate prose in his blog at jasonrobertbrown.com. He can do almost anything, in fact, except keep a show running.

Each of the six Broadway outings for which he’s written songs or incidental music – including last year’s “Honeymoon in Vegas” – folded after less than five months. But that’s a tribute, in a way: “Bridges” ran just 137 total previews and performances, far fewer than “If/Then,” “Aladdin” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” Yet voters who saw all four nominees for best score preferred Brown.

When does this guy get his “Wicked,” his “Phantom,” the show off which he could retire forever? He doesn’t know or care.

“I have to pay the bills, and it would be nice to pay them that way,” says Brown, who’s 45. “I sense that my career is going to come by slow accretions, not a titanic arrival. I have been doing this for more than 20 years, and I feel all the shows speak with my own unique voice. They get done all over, so I don’t feel I’m wanting.

“I’m thrilled about the tour of ‘Bridges,’ because the producers fought to get it out there. We had the same situation with ‘Parade.’ Give credit to presenters in Charlotte or St. Louis who are willing to take a chance on a show where people ask, ‘What the hell is this thing?’ 

“Parade,” which made his reputation at 29, dramatized the 1913 trial of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank; he was convicted (perhaps wrongfully) of raping and murdering a 13-year-old employee, then lynched by the leading citizens of Marietta, Ga.

“Bridges” depicts a milder betrayal: An Italian immigrant married to a farmer has a fling with a National Geographic photographer who passes through Iowa in 1965. Brown found the 1992 novel by Robert James Waller “risible, a thinly veiled autobiographical portrait of himself as the Last Great Cowboy.

“But it felt like a musical to me. There was a lot of energy in the idea of two people who wanted to be together desperately and couldn’t, and I wanted to write about that longing. You reach your 40s and build a home and life and feel the walls are trapping you. That’s (true) for all the people I know who are married, even if they’re happily married.”

Brown often uses musicals to explore “where my head is at the time.” His “13” focuses on a boy dealing with a new school, his parents’ divorce and a bar mitzvah spinning out of control. Brown says, “It’s really about being 35 (his age when he wrote it), throwing a party and thinking, ‘Nobody’s gonna come.’ 

He explored a failed relationship in 2002 in “The Last Five Years,” one year before he wed composer Georgia Stitt. It chronicles a breakup in a unique way: The male character goes forward from the beginning, while the woman goes backward from the day they parted. (They share one song in the middle.)

“The language of all of my pieces is different,” he says. “The characters and milieu suggest it. ‘Honeymoon’ felt like an old-fashioned Frank Loesser musical, with people swinging and finger-popping. ‘Bridges’ seemed like a kind of folk opera. I wanted to get the sounds of this town and its people.

“I recently had a show pitched to me by a producer who’s had big hits. I worked for a year and – to his enormous dissatisfaction – I didn’t know how to make it something I loved as much as the other pieces, so I quit. Some days, composing is a job, and that’s OK. But some days, it needs to be the thing I’d rather do more than anything in the world.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘The Bridges of Madison County’

When: May 3-8 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

Tickets: $29.50-$99.50.

Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.

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