2 years ago

Jason Robert Brown: 13 questions for the composer of ’13,’ opening at Red Mountain

Jason Robert Brown is Broadway royalty.

The winner of three Tony Awards, the composer and orchestrator’s shows have included “Parade,” “Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Songs for a New World,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Urban Cowboy” and “The Last Five Years.” (The last one was adapted into a feature film starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan in 2014).

Brown is also the composer of “13,” which debuted on Broadway in 2008 with a cast and band made up of teenagers (including a not-so-well-known Ariana Grande).

Brown has a relationship with Birmingham’s Red Mountain Theatre Company, which produced “13” in 2010 and is about to open the show again. It runs April 13-22 at the theater.

Brown, who performs this week at the London Palladium, answered 13 questions for us, about “13,” his RMTC connection, his family and his career.
1. Tell us about the genesis of “13.” How did you and the other creators find each other?

Dan Elish brought me one of his novels to see if I wanted to turn it into a musical. I didn’t, but I did have another idea that I thought Dan’s writing would be right for. We started work on “13” in 2003, and that work accelerated in 2006 when the Mark Taper Forum agreed to produce the show based only on a demo recording of five of the songs. Todd Graff directed that first production and helped shape the show, and then when we came to Broadway, Jeremy Sams pushed it into different directions, so we brought Robert Horn on board to rewrite the book because Dan and I were a little burned out after five years. Robert and I then became close friends, and he and I continued revising the show after Broadway, tightening, clarifying and restructuring, so that the current version reflects the production I directed in London in 2013.

2. The idea to use only teenagers in the cast and band – did that come up early on in the process?

That was the very first idea I had: 13 13-year-olds and no adults. And relatively soon thereafter, I realized that the band had to be kids, too. The sound of the show really was built on the idea that it would be kids playing and singing everything.

3. The original production uncovered some pretty major stars, including Ariana Grande. Do you feel like a proud father, of sorts, watching them as their careers develop?

Getting to work with teenagers is exceptionally challenging, but the reward of watching them go on to follow their visions and became glorious full humans is more than enough compensation. Not just Ariana, with whom I’ve continued a very rewarding creative collaboration, but Tinashe (who was in the original LA production), Liz Gillies (starring on “Dynasty”), Daryl Sabara (our original Archie in the workshop), Brynn Williams (currently in “SpongeBob”) – and the band, too, including Charlie Rosen, who was our guitarist in LA and is now a renowned Broadway orchestrator and bassist, and Lexi Bodick, who’s touring with “Waitress.” And just as much, those kids who’ve gone on to do something other than acting and are on such exciting and fulfilling paths.

4. What were you doing when you were 13?

Sulking, mostly, and writing songs about the girls who wouldn’t pay attention to me.

5. Given what’s been going on in the world the past decade, do you think “13” would be a different musical if you created it today?

Oh, sure. I wrestle with the show even now because so much about the way kids communicate is already different than it was 10 years ago; and I think the acceptance of gay and transgender kids is so much broader and stronger than it was when we wrote the show that it feels like a particular absence not to have that addressed in the show.

6. You have a pretty special relationship with Red Mountain Theatre Company. How did that come about?

I knew Keith Cromwell from when he was a dance captain of an Off-Broadway show called “When Pigs Fly,” for which I took over as musical director. Several years after that show, he emailed me kind of out of nowhere to ask me to come do a master class and concert with Red Mountain. I’d never been to Birmingham before then, and had such a great time with the students and the community that I’ve been back repeatedly.

7. RMTC was a producer for “The Bridges of Madison County,” for which you won two Tony Awards, but it didn’t have a long Broadway run. Does that bother you? Or do you even try to analyze why shows are or aren’t successful?

It is better for my mental health if I don’t spend too much time dwelling on it. I write shows that I love, and the shows live on. “Dayenu.”

8. Original musicals vs. musical adaptations: You’ve done both. Any preference?

Both have their exceptional challenges. I like to switch between the adaptations and the originals. It keeps me a little more energized.

9. Tell me about being online. You have got to be one of the most accessible Tony-winning composers out there, largely due to your presence on Facebook. Does it have its pluses and minuses?

I’m doing less and less of it. I like the accessibility but I have started to feel like I’m obliged to keep feeding the monster even when I don’t have anything new to offer.

10. You also are not afraid to speak your mind online, and on several occasions, particularly after some of the shooting tragedies, I know you’ve used the internet to disseminate new work quickly. Has that proven to be cathartic for you?

With “26 Names” and “Song About Your Gun” and “Hope” it just didn’t make sense to write those songs and have them sit around waiting for me to finish a new album – the immediacy of the internet was a very valuable tool to get those songs out into the world, where I think they helped people articulate and connect to an emotion that we collectively felt. It was nice to feel like we were part of a community, even if that community was grieving.

11. You’re also doing a monthly concert, with some top guest performers, at the New York club SubCulture. Are you enjoying them?

They are the highlight of every month. I don’t think I’d be able to live in New York if I didn’t have that particular outlet to look forward to every month. Being able to explore my music with my band and with such an incredible collection of singers and musicians has been an incredible gift.

12. You are married to a composer, Georgia Stitt (her new musical “Snow Child” is running in Washington). Are there two separate workspaces in your home? Do you share your work with each other?

We do have two separate workspaces (and two pianos), but I think we both spend so much time trying to raise our kids that writing feels like the thing that we stick into the cracks when we can. We do try to share our work with each other, but our main collaboration is making this family, and that is by far the most important.

13. When will the new album come out? And what else are you working on that you can talk about?

The new album comes out in June! It’s called “How We React and How We Recover,” and I’m deliriously excited about it. New shows on the horizon, which hopefully I’ll be able to announce soon!

2 hours ago

Chuck Martin endorses Republican Russell Bedsole in Alabama House District 49

Russell Bedsole’s Republican candidacy has received a boost in the Alabama House District 49 special election.

This seat, covering parts of Bibb, Chilton and Shelby Counties, was vacated by the resignation of State Rep. April Weaver (R-Brierfield), who left the legislature to join the administration of President Donald J. Trump.

Bedsole led the pack in the GOP primary held last week, finishing ahead of second-place Mimi Penhale and third-place Chuck Martin. Since no candidate got a majority, a runoff will be held on September 1.

On Wednesday night, Martin endorsed Bedsole in that runoff via a Facebook post.


Martin led Bibb County in primary votes and finished with a competitive 24.25% overall.

In a release, he expounded on why he is publicly backing Bedsole.

“After thoughtful consideration, I am endorsing Russell Bedsole to represent District 49 in the Alabama House of Representatives,” Martin stated. “Like me, Bedsole has deep roots in District 49. I believe he will be a strong voice for Bibb, Shelby, and Chilton counties, and he will fight for our communities’ conservative Christian values in Montgomery.”

Bedsole, a longtime deputy sheriff in Shelby County and an Alabaster city councilor, has already been endorsed by the likes of Shelby County Sheriff John Samaniego and the Alabama State Fraternal Order of the Police in the race.

“It is an honor to be endorsed by Chuck Martin,” Bedsole commented. “As a representative of District 49, I will fight for pro-life and pro-Second Amendment legislation, along with funding for developing crucial infrastructure, in the Alabama House of Representatives.”

Penhale, the legislative director for Shelby County’s legislative delegation, has taken an unpaid leave of absence from her state government job to run for office. She has been endorsed by the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

4 hours ago

License plate to support Alabama business proposed — Must meet 1,000 application benchmark

A license plate that will support Alabama small businesses will be created if 1,000 apply for one by July 31.

Funds from purchasing the plate will be given to Main Street Alabama, which will in turn provide workshops and grants to small businesses around the Yellowhammer State.

The tag can be applied for here. A $50 fee accompanies the application.

“With this program, individuals can show their dedication to their favorite small businesses, who in many cases are their friends and neighbors, with a tag that gives back to them with workshops and grants focused on strengthening their business,” said Main Street Alabama state coordinator Mary Helmer in a statement.


Helmer added, “Small businesses keep it local by consistently sponsoring the local baseball team, providing gift baskets for the local charity drives and creating jobs in their community.”

Main Street Alabama is a non-profit entity and an offshoot of Main Street America organization.

The artwork on the tag was created by Chris Seagle, a graphic designer based in Birmingham.

The idea for a car tag supporting small business originated among a group of elected officials in Jefferson County.

Casey Middlebrooks, a member of the group and a Hoover City Councilman, said that his fellow officials “felt Main Street Alabama had the statewide presence and resources to facilitate support to small businesses throughout the state.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

4 hours ago

Ivey urges Alabamians to complete Census — Billions in funding, congressional seat at stake

Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) on Friday released a video public service announcement urging Yellowhammer State residents to complete the 2020 Census.

The deadline to complete the Census recently was moved up to September 30, meaning there is less than seven weeks left for Alabamians to either self-respond or respond to Census Bureau field staff.

Leaders from the public sector, as well as industry, economic development, charitable and civic organizations, have warned for months that Alabama has a lot on the line during the 2020 Census response period.

Projections have shown the state will lose a congressional district and corresponding electoral college vote — likely to a far-left state such as New York, California or Illinois — if Alabama’s response rate continues to lag.


“Complete your 2020 Census today,” Ivey said to begin the new PSA. “We only have until September 30.”

“Without you, Alabama stands to lose billions in funding, a seat in Congress and economic development opportunities,” she continued. “It only takes minutes to complete. Go to my2020census.gov or participate by phone or mail.”

The governor concluded, “Be counted — if not for you, for those in Alabama who depend on you for a brighter tomorrow.”


Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

5 hours ago

Report: Birmingham golf tournament Regions Tradition canceled for 2020

A report from WBRC in Birmingham on Friday says that the yearly golf tournament Regions Tradition has canceled the 2020 edition due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The event organizers say it will be back in early May of 2021.

WBRC says they were told by a “source close to the tournament” about the decision to cancel the 2020 version.

The tournament had previously been rescheduled from its normal late spring/early summer slot until September due to COVID-19 concerns.


Regions Tradition is a tournament on the PGA Tour Champions circuit, a series of competitions held each year for golfers over age 50.

According to Alabama NewsCenter, the annual Regions Tradition tournament has an economic impact on the Birmingham area between $20 million and $25 million every year.

The Tradition was first held in 1989 and is one of the five major golf tournaments on the Senior Circuit.

Regions took over as the event’s sponsor in 2010 and relocated the tournament to the Birmingham area beginning in 2011.

Steve Stricker won the tournament in 2019, a title he will now keep for two years.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

5 hours ago

Jefferson County health officials say coronavirus pandemic precautions will continue into 2021

Two impactful figures in Jefferson County’s healthcare system advised on Friday that the coronavirus pandemic and resulting precautions such as mask-wearing will remain a major factor in public life at least through the end of 2020.

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson and CEO of the UAB Health System/Ascension St. Vincent’s Alliance Will Ferniany briefed reporters on coronavirus information during a Friday morning videoconference.

“This pandemic is not going away by the end of December,” warned Ferniany.

Wilson said it was “very likely” that he would push to keep a mask order in place across Jefferson County “through the flu season” which would indicate the ordinance would stay in place at least through the spring of 2021.


“We have pretty good evidence that our face-covering orders, and our help from the public wearing face coverings, has made a difference,” remarked Wilson.

“We still have a ways to go but we’re starting to bend the curve downward,” Wilson told reporters.

The remarks made by Wilson and Ferniany are similar to what Mobile County epidemiologist Dr. Rendi Murphree told Yellowhammer News in recent days.

Ferniany said that UAB is making a significant investment in rapid testing that should be ready for action by the end of the year, the availability of which should make dealing with the virus more manageable.

Wilson highlighted a standard he felt more people should understand.

The county health officer said that any person exposed to someone positive for COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days, even if they go out and get a test showing they do not have the virus.

“Fourteen days is the maximum amount of time from being exposed to the virus where you could still develop symptoms,” Wilson said to explain the policy.

Ferniany said UAB Hospital is currently treating around 90 patients, down from a peak of 130. He relayed that 40 of the COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized are in the ICU.

RELATED: Alabama coronavirus update: Hospitalizations begin to decrease, new cases falling

The executive also said that the toughest aspect of caring for COVID-19 cases currently is the shortage of nurses. He said the hospitals he oversees are down “several hundred nurses” with the partial explanation that traveling nursing companies are luring workers away with higher wages.

Wilson reported additional good news for Jefferson County. He said that the area is not experiencing a higher rate of black citizens dying from COVID-19 than white citizens.

“So far we’re not seeing a racial disparity in terms of deaths in Jefferson County,” he relayed.

“Forty-one percent of our deaths in Jefferson County with COVID-19 are African American. The African American population is 43%,” Wilson stated.

Yellowhammer News asked Wilson what kind of benchmarks he would need to be passed to trigger a loosening of coronavirus precautions and whether that would be dependent on a vaccine.

“We’re not going to be out of the woods for quite a long time,” Wilson responded.

“The bottom line will be the amount of disease activity we have in the community, and the trajectory of that,” he continued.

With respect to the vaccine, Wilson replied, “It is really hard to predict what is going to happen with the vaccine: How effective is it going to be, how widespread we’re going to be able to vaccinate people and how soon. There are way too many unknowns for us to say much about that.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95