For a guy who's never had much success on Broadway, Jason Robert Brown is, well, pretty successful.
"Parade," a musical about the lynching of a Jewish factory worker, closed after barely two months but earned Brown, then just 28, his first Tony Award in 1999. "13," the story of a Jewish teenager who moves from New York to Indiana, lasted only a smidge longer on Broadway in 2008 but has since become a favorite of youth theater companies around the globe. Brown's "The Last Five Years" had a forgettable off-Broadway run in 2002 and never even made it to the Great White Way. But it has since become a favorite of younger musical fans and was made into a feature film released this year starring Anna Kendrick.
Then there's "The Bridges of Madison County." The show, with music and lyrics by Brown, seemed to have the makings of a hit when it opened on Broadway last year.
Based on Robert James Waller's popular tear-jerker about the brief but passionate affair between Francesca, an Italian war bride living in small-town Iowa, and Robert, a rootless photographer, the musical boasted two well-liked leads, Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale, plus a book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Marsha Norman and direction by the acclaimed Bartlett Sher.
But it too lasted less than three months. By now, Brown has learned not to put too much stock into his box-office track record.
"All of my shows open here. They either get good reviews or they don't, but they all close sometime fairly shortly thereafter," said Brown, 45, at his garden apartment in a Chelsea brownstone — paid for, he explained, by "The Last Five Years."
"Then they go out in the world and become these things that are, thank God, embraced and reproduced."
Though "Bridges" failed to light up the box office, it won Brown two more Tony Awards (for original score and orchestrations) and, like so many of his shows, appears headed for a vibrant Broadway afterlife. A national tour began Nov. 28 in — where else? — Des Moines and begins previews at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles on Tuesday, with Brown conducting.
" 'Bridges' was always a weird project for me because the novel is not anything I would ever choose to read," Brown said with characteristic bluntness. (He eventually finished the book but said he hasn't seen Clint Eastwood's 1995 film adaptation.)
Despite his aversion to what he calls the purpleness of the novel, Brown was eager to write something big and lush. He was also eager to collaborate once again with Norman, his partner on a 2008 stage version of E.B. White's "The Trumpet of the Swan."
Norman, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for "'night, Mother" and wrote the book for "The Color Purple" musical, teased out the social relevance from Waller's weepie. It was her idea to expand Francesca's back story, focusing on her journey from war-torn Naples to the relative safety of Iowa. Her brief but passionate affair with Robert threatens to undo the life she has built in the heartland, and it raises larger questions of community, identity, commitment and duty.
"What decisions do you make about whom to love and when? Those are the big issues of our lives, wherever we live," Norman said. "Francesca is all these women who've stayed at home and made it possible for life to go on, for boys to grow up to be doctors, for girls to grow up to run farms. To me, it's a great story about America."
At a moment when presidential hopefuls are flooding the Iowa cornfields — with many of them demonizing refugees like Francesca — the playwright sees particular resonance in her journey.
"We wrote a show for America about what's good about America," she said. "Yes, immigrants come to America, they always have, they're always looked after and taken care of and accepted into communities."
These themes resonated with Brown, whose swooningly romantic score mixed piano and strings inspired by Francesca's Italian heritage with more American sounds like the guitar. At the time he wrote "Bridges," Brown was living in Los Angeles with his wife, fellow composer Georgia Stitt, and their two daughters, but he often had to spend long stretches on the East Coast for work. His frustration and homesickness "wandered into the music and into the lyrics," Brown said. "I thought it was just going to be a job, but it ended up drawing on something very deep."
"The Bridges of Madison County" may have "made a big weeping mess out of the audience every night," as Brown put it, but it also refused to provide an easy, comforting answer to its central dilemma, and he suspects the show's emotional and moral complexity may have doomed its Broadway run.
"At $170 a ticket, I think that people like the comfort of certainties. My work has never dealt in certainties," said Brown, whose follow-up, "Honeymoon in Vegas," opened on Broadway in January. True to form, it closed within three months despite winning reviews.
"Virtually all hit musicals I can think of in the last 10, 15 years are not really things I would know how to trade in," he said.
Growing up in Monsey, N.Y., Brown gravitated to music at a young age, though neither his father, a hardware salesman, nor his mother, an English teacher, shared his passion.
"It's a genetic enigma," said Brown, who by the age of 7 was begging his parents for a piano.
Still, Brown's ambivalence about his industry runs deep. After his second Broadway show, "Urban Cowboy," closed after just 60 regular performances, he relocated to Los Angeles.
"I didn't like living in New York and having to live in the same place I was doing my work," he said. "I wanted to be able to escape it."
Brown returned to New York somewhat reluctantly 21/2 years ago, and he still feels like an outsider.
"I don't fit in all that well around here," he said wearily.
Brown's complicated relationship with the theater world has not led to any creative second-guessing, however. "The Bridges of Madison County" has undergone only minor adjustments since its Broadway run.
"I remember sitting there on closing night and just saying, 'This is exactly the show that we wanted it to be.' "
'The Bridges of Madison County'
When: Previews 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. Then 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 17. (Call or check online for exceptions.)
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Tickets: $25-$130 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 972-4400, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org