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John Lamb, Published July 28 2010

Tony winner in town for musical premiere

In the early 1990s Jason Robert Brown made a living playing Billy Joel, Paul Simon, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell tunes in Greenwich Village piano bars.

Tonight the Broadway composer will again sit at a piano, but he’ll play his own songs to a bigger crowd.

The Tony-winning tunesmith is in town for Thursday’s premiere of his musical “13” at the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre. Tonight at the FMCT he’ll perform selections from his other musicals (“The Last Five Years” and “Parade,” which earned him the Tony for best original music score) and other songs like “Music of Heaven” and “Someone to Fall Back On.”

The show will be the 10th such performance in July as he’s made a point of attending a handful of performances of “13.” Brown says there are 35 productions of his musical in July alone and will be about 200 around the country by year’s end.

“My entire living is based on the fact that my shows have a longer life after their New York incarnations,” Brown says from his Los Angeles home.

“13,” his fourth musical, lasted four months on Broadway before closing in January 2009.

The show follows Evan Goldman leading up to his 13th birthday and bar mitzvah in the small Indiana town his mother moved to after his parents’ divorce. Goldman’s schemes to invite the cool kids to the party backfire as he loses focus of who he really is.

Rebecca Meyer-Larson, director of the FMCT production, says Brown is one of the reasons she produces musical theater.

“He marries really good literature and really good music,” she says, adding that “The Last Five Years” still packs an emotional punch.

Brown is quick to note that unlike “The Last Five Years,” which follows the dissolution of his first marriage, “13” is not autobigraphical. Still, he can relate to the feeling of trying to fit in as an outsider before finally finding your place in the world.

He says he wanted to write a play kids could relate to rather than another high school production of “Fiddler on the Roof” or “Evita.”

“I wanted to write a show where kids had to be kids, what you were asking them to do was just being themselves, which in some ways was a lot harder than trying to play Tevye,” Brown says, referring to the aging father in “Fiddler.”

That doesn’t mean, however, he’s a fan of the high school-set musical TV show “Glee.” He calls the show “campy” and says the pitch-correcting device Auto-Tune is “used so unsparingly on that show I don’t even think anyone sounds like a human being when they sing.”

Brown is nothing if not frank. He recently asked people who allowed his copyrighted scores to be downloaded for free on the Internet to quit posting them. Some obliged, and some ignored him. One teen started an e-dialogue he later posted on his blog, asking what was so wrong about dispensing Brown’s work without his compensation.

“I got the sense teenagers actually did not know it was a bad thing to do,” he says. “Educating kids on what the ethics and morality and legality of Internet behavior is a very important thing to be doing.”

Scott Brusven, director of theatre at the FMCT says Brown’s visit and work with both the production and actors from around the community is rare for the area.

“It’s an incredible educational opportunity for theses students,” he says, referring to a Thursday afternoon question-and-answer session with Brown about his work and Broadway.

“Ask anything, and I’ll answer it, but you don’t get to not like me if you don’t like the answer,” Brown says.

If you go

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533