What You Missed at Jason Robert Brown's Concert With Stephen Sondheim
Brown celebrated his 50th SubCulture concert with a benefit for anti-gun-violence charity Brady United.
Talk about once in a lifetime! Jason Robert Brown marked his 50th SubCulture Residency Concert with a concert to end all concerts. If special guests Katrina Lenk, Shoshana Bean, Rob McClure, Joshua Henry, and Lin-Manuel Miranda weren't enough, the two-hour show at Town Hall on June 24 featured a 17-player orchestra conducted by Georgia Stitt. And, you know…an appearance by Stephen Sondheim, who not only discussed his writing process, but also performed his own songs.
This concert served as a benefit for Brady United Against Gun Violence, and, given the star power, it sold out very quickly. We were lucky enough to snag a ticket — and here's what you missed.
When it comes to concertizing, Stephen Sondheim is no Jason Robert Brown. That is to say, Sondheim isn't known for performing live. He even admitted onstage that it makes him nervous. So the fact that Sondheim, now 89, sang three songs while accompanying himself at the piano is a big deal. The first was "Good Thing Going" from Merrily We Roll Along, which was his own choice.
The second was a more-or-less brand-new Sondheim composition, part of an exercise he and Brown undertook. Brown sent him a melody of one of his songs, without saying which one ("It's Hard to Speak My Heart" from Parade), and tasked Sondheim with writing a harmony for the melody, which they then duetted. (Sondheim did the same with one of his songs, apparently, and teased the result as next year's offering.) Lastly, they the pair brought The Band's Visit's Katrina Lenk out and they both accompanied her on "Not While I'm Around."
Katrina Lenk. And Shoshana Bean. And Joshua Henry. And Rob McClure.
Lenk was the evening's special guest star, and the songs she sang were truly evocative. Her material included "Another Life" from The Bridges of Madison County, "Cassandra" from Brown's upcoming The Connector, and "Last Midnight", which was good enough to get her to the top of all of our Into the Woods revival dream-cast lists. Finally, she and Henry shared "Move On" from Sunday in the Park With George, and you could hear a pin drop.
Bean, who inadvertently started the SubCulture series in 2014 because it was the only venue she and Brown could find on short notice, shared the stage with the composer for "The Next Ten Minutes" from The Last Five Years. McClure, meanwhile, performed "I Love Betsy", a song he originated in Honeymoon in Vegas, because, as Brown explained, it's Stephen Sondheim's favorite Jason Robert Brown song. (Brown also let it be known that he's still somewhat puzzled by that.)
At the French Woods Festival summer camp, Brown played two major roles in Sondheim musicals: Pirelli in Sweeney Todd and Charley in Merrily We Roll Along. The first was a wash — his voice was changing that summer, and he couldn't hit Pirelli's crazy-high notes. However, when it came to playing Charley from Merrily, Brown considers himself basically typecast, and he took this opportunity to sing the patter song "Franklin Shepard, Inc." Right after the first verse, Brown was joined in a surprise appearance by Lin-Manuel Miranda — the Charley of 2012 Encores! Merrily — and the two songwriters finished out the tune together.
Once upon a time, Bridges collaborators Brown and Marsha Norman wrote Broadway's King Kong. They were hired by the show's producers to help adapt the original Australian production for New York. According to Brown last night, Norman got through six drafts and Brown wrote a full score. Their material even had a reading in 2016. While the pair ultimately departed the project, Brown is determined not to let his score go to waste. Last night, he performed a big production number called "Nothing's Bigger Than Kong," giving the audience the opportunity to feel the wonder of what a JRB King Kong would have sounded like.
An Impassioned Plea
The evening was a benefit for Brady United Against Gun Violence. This nonprofit organization advocates for gun control, and is named for James Brady, the presidential aide wounded in the Reagan assassination attempt in 1981, and his wife, Sarah Brady, who headed the organization until 2012. Brown is a longtime supporter of Brady — his 2016 Last Five Years concert with Cynthia Ervio and Joshua Henry was also a fundraiser for the cause — and contributing to their coffers, he told us, is more essential now than ever before. This concert raised $300,000 for Brady, but there's always more to be done. So it's time for all of us to do the work. Click here to donate.