Jason Robert Brown at Below 54: Back on (Almost) Broadway
Anyone listening to Jason Robert Brown perform his songs at Below 54 realizes two things right away: He’s as deserving as any other composer-lyricist of his generation to be called Mr. Broadway, and he knows his way around a piano bar.
Brown got his first gig on Broadway at the age of 22 as the rehearsal pianist for “Kiss of the Spiderwoman.” Six years later, he had won the Tony for his score of the 1998 musical “Parade,” about the lynching of Leo Frank. That he has had to struggle to get his musicals onto a New York stage since says more about Broadway than about Brown.
Luckily, there are now places like Below 54, which bills itself as “Broadway’s Nightclub” and is below the Broadway theater Studio 54, where he can perform his work. On Thursday night Brown sang 15 songs, accompanying himself on the piano, partnering with vocalist Shoshana Bean (best-known for Wicked and Hairspray, but a singer-songwriter in her own right) and backed by a three-piece band of Gary Sieger and Matt Hinkley on guitar and Randy Landau on bass.
Most of the songs were from four of his musicals. The best-known song “I’d Give It All For You” came from “Songs for a New World”; three were from “The Last 5 Years,” the story of a failed marriage (my favorite was the comic “Shiksa Goddess.”) The Last 5 Years is being given its first New York revival at Second Stage in March. Brown also previewed four songs from two new musicals aiming for Broadway – “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Honeymoon in Vegas.”
Then there were the songs from his past and forthcoming albums: “When I say ‘forthcoming,’ I’m not saying I’m doing anything, but…someday,” he told the crowd. The songs ranged in sound from rousing blues to lyrical Irish folk to comic ditties to love songs to standards of jazz and cabaret, pop and rock – or songs that should be standards, anyway.
The only one of his songs that was not his own was in honor of the 100th anniversary of John Cage’s birth, and by some loopy connection, it was a song from Yoko Ono’s Off-Broadway musical, “New York Rock.” (Ono was a “disciple” of Cage?)
Brown is a winning performer, a fine interpreter of his own songs, friendly in a low-key way, and very witty. Attending his show at Below 54 is like getting a preview of the Broadway to be, and the Broadway that should be.
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