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.
I remember sitting there on closing night and just saying, ‘This is exactly the show that we wanted it to be.’
“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.”
“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.
Los Angeles Times photographers document the year in arts and culture.(Los Angeles Times)
When the Mariinsky Ballet performed “Cinderella” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oct. 8, even the wondrous Diana Vishneva as Cinderella couldn’t bring unity to the movement, but she danced with flawless, fearless authority. Read more >>(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins leaves a rehearsal of his play “Appropriate,” opening Oct. 4 at the Mark Taper Forum, to eat first with a reporter, then later with his agent and some unspecified Hollywood people, who presumably hope to lure him away from the field and city where he has experienced meteoric success in the last five years. Read more >>(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Kerstin Anderson takes charge of Maria von Trapp with a spirit so joyful, a physicality so lithe and coltish, and a soprano so flawlessly soaring that only Frau Schraeder, Capt. Von Trapp’s jilted fiancée (Teri Hansen), could possibly resist her charm. Read the Oct. 1 review >>(Los Angeles Times)
Soprano Abigail Fischer performs Oct. 7 in the opera “Songs from the Uproar” at REDCAT in Los Angeles.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Moisés Kaufman’s muscular revival of “Bent,” which played at the Mark Taper Forum, opening on July 26, renders what many had written off as a parochial drama about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany into a gripping tale of love, courage and identity. Read review >>(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Malaviki Sarukkai performing at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on July 19, 2015. Sarukkai is the best-known exponent of South Indian classical dance.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Bramwell Tovey conducts the L.A. Phil with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl on July 14, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Argentine dancer Herman Cornejo performs in the West Coast premiere of “Tango y Yo” as part of the Latin portion of BalletNow.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Jake Shears plays Greta in Martin Sherman’s play “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through Aug. 23, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Dancers rehearse a one-night-only performance choregraphed by Raiford Rogers, one of L.A.'s most-noted choreographers. This year the dance will be to a new original score by Czech composer Zbynek Mateju.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley in Los Angeles on July 9, 2015.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Mia Sinclair Jenness, left, Mabel Tyler and Gabby Gutierrez alternate playing the title role in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre. The three are shown during a day at Santa Monica Pier on June 16, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
American Contemporary Ballet Company members Zsolt Banki and Cleo Magill perform a dance routine originally done by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This performance was presented as part of "Music + Dance: L.A.” on Friday, June 19, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel, a Grammy-winning guitarist, producer, singer and lyricist, is photographed in San Pedro on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. His new album "Wildheart,” explores L.A.'s “weird mix of hope and desperation.”(Christina House / For The Times)
Los Angeles-born artist Mark Bradford is photographed in front of “The Next Hot Line.” This piece is part of his show “Scorched Earth,” installed at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, June 11, 2015.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles Opera concluded its season with “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro and Pretty Yende as Susanna, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
“Trinket,” a monumental installation by Newark-born, Chicago-based artist William Pope.L, features an American flag that is 16 feet tall and 45 feet long. The work is on display at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through June 28.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Knox, from left, Carolyn Ratteray, Lynn Milgrim and Paige Lindsey White in “Pygmalion” in spring 2015 at the Pasadena Playhouse.(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)
On March 17, Google celebrated the addition of more than 5,000 images to its Google Street Art project with a launch party at the Container Yard in downtown Los Angeles.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Ric Salinas, left, Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya, of the three-man Latino theater group Culture Clash, brought their “Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival” to the Kirk Douglas Theatre to mark the group’s 30th anniversary. The play ran from Feb. 4 through March 1.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including one intermission