Hear This: Jason Robert Brown

I've noticed that many people post their playlists on Thursday and Friday. Inspired by this sharing, I'm spotlighting some of my favorite words and music.

I met a man without a dollar to his name
Who had no traits of any value but his smile
I met a man who had no yearn or claim to fame
Who was content to let life pass him for a while
And I was sure that all I ever wanted
Was a life like the movie stars led
And he kissed me right here, and he said,

“I'll give you stars and the moon and a soul to guide you
And a promise I'll never go
I'll give you hope to bring out all the life inside you
And the strength that will help you grow.
I'll give you truth and a future that's twenty times better
Than any Hollywood plot.”
And I thought, “You know, I'd rather have a yacht.” (1)

I was first introduced to the music of Jason Robert Brown when I heard Audra McDonald sing “Stars and the Moon” at a concert in San Francisco a few years ago. While it was Audra I went to hear (we'd been classmates throughout high school), it was this song that I went home humming. It's a sad song, really – poignant – but the melody is catchy and the lyrics have a hint of snark, and more than a hint of natural speech.

I liked the song, but promptly forgot the name of the composer, as I was more intent on learning to sing it. I'm a natural mimic, so putting my own spin on songs is difficult for me, but this one made sense to me, and I responded to it, not just as a singer, but as a writer.

It's been in the back of my head ever since, but it's only recently – in the last six months – that I've bothered to accumulate more from its composer.

I'm a Napster fan. With Napster-To-Go and my cute Zen Micro, I have more tunes at my disposal than any single person really needs, and I can change the playlist out, or add more tunes, without a huge expense. I know people rave about iTunes and iPods, but this works for me. (And from what I've read, the Creative products produce better sound, anyway.)

Child, I know you're weary
And your eyes want to close
The days are getting longer
We're not getting any stronger
Trust me, Mama knows…

But lie in my arms while you're sleeping
And think of the rivers you've crossed
I'll tell you the dreams I've been keeping
For moments like this
When your hope is lost

Hear my song:
It'll help you believe in tomorrow
Hear my song:
It'll show you the way you can shine
Hear my song:
It was made for the time
When you don't know where to go
Listen to the song that I sing
You'll be fine. (2)

Anyway, several months ago, I was browsing Napster, and decided to find “Stars and the Moon,” and while I didn't find Audra's recording of it, I did find the entire original cast album of Songs for a New World, the review from which it came.

Songs for a New World is more than a review, less than a play. Brown himself calls it a song cycle, because there are archetypical characters, and there is a connection from song to song. The musical styles vary from jazz to blues to more traditional Broadway ballads, but all of them are written with these wonderful, sensible lyrics. Natural lyrics. And the accompaniment is Brown himself (at the piano) with a small combo. I've listened to it a LOT, and every time, I find another nuance, another level of meaning.

Jason Robert Brown actually has a longer resume than I realized when I fell in love with this song-cycle. He won the 1999 Tony Award for his musical Parade, for example, and he also wrote and composed a two-character musical called The Last Five Years, in which a woman looks back on a relationship, from its end, and her partner traces the same relationship from its beginning.

This year, he released a cd of more personal work, performed by himself. It's called “Wearing Someone Else's Clothes,” which again features a lot of simple piano accompaniment and his natural, even blunt, lyrics. From this cd, I think my favorites (at least since downloading it last night) are “Nothing in Common” and “Someone to Fall Back On.”

Brown has been compared to both Billy Joel and Stephen Sondheim, and displays some of the best writing and composing traits of both. If you like show tunes at all, and if you like finding new composers who are relatively young (Mr. Brown is roughly my age), I highly recommend his music. Begin with Songs for a New World, and go from there.

I'll never be a knight in armor
With a sword in hand
Or a kamikaze fighter
Don't count on me
To storm the barricades
And take a stand
Or hold my ground

You'll never see any scars or wounds
I won't walk on coals
I don't walk on water

I am no prince
I am no saint
I am not anyone's wildest dream
But I can stand behind
And be somone to fall back on. (3)

1.) “Stars and the Moon,” from Songs for a New World
2.) “Hear My Song,” from Songs for a New World
3.) “Someone to Fall Back On,” from Wearing Someone Else's Clothes
All with words and music by Jason Robert Brown.