I’ve been through stages of my life where I’ve been obsessed with theatre. The first wave came when I was 14, and I’m in a big place with it right now. But there was another phase when I was just finishing my A Levels. We’re talking circa 2013, and that’s when I really listened to the genius of Jason Robert Brown for the first time.
Now The Last Five Years has been a theatre fan’s favourite since 2002 when Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz played the roles of Cathy Hatt and Jamie Wellerstein in the Off-Broadway production, but the very first version I ever heard was the 2013 revival cast. Betsy Wolfe and Adam Kantor stole my heart, especially after hearing Betsy’s renditions of I Can Do Better Than That, and I’ve been keen to see her perform since. You may have also spotted The Last Five Years on Netflix as a film starring Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick.
But The Last Five Years isn’t Jason Robert Brown’s biggest hit. In fact, it’s never appeared on Broadway unlike a few of his other productions: Parade (winner of the 1999 Tony Award for Best Original Score), a contribution to Urban Cowboy (nominated for the 2003 Tony Awards, again for Best Original Score), 13, The Bridges Of Madison County (winner of the 2014 Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations), and Honeymoon In Vegas.
On Wednesday, Jason Robert Brown treated the audience at the London Palladium to a masterful evening accompanied by the 60-piece BBC Concert Orchestra, and three stars of the stage who I could not wait to see. Rachel Tucker is best known for playing Elphaba in Wicked (on both sides of the Atlanic); Norm Lewis who most recently starred in NBC’s special of Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert but is also known for playing a variety of roles on both the West End and on Broadway, including Javert in Les Misérables and the title character in Phantom Of The Opera; and Betsy Wolfe. Yes, the Betsy Wolfe I previously mentioned, who has just finished a run in Waitress on Broadway (which need to be added to my list of shows that desperately need to be transferred to London ASAP).
Jason Robert Brown is a people-pleaser. He knows how to work the crowd, which is evident just by listening to his lyrics and orchestrations, but seeing him in person I felt like I really understood the pieces. Treating us to some UK exclusives of songs he’s been working on over the past couple of years, listening to some old classics, and telling great anecdotes to more private songs in his repertoire, he set the scene perfectly for songs both old and new. Plus, I think any anti-Republican Americans can come to the UK, crack a few ‘we hate Trump as much as you’ jokes and they’ll be on their merry way.
And what I really liked about this particular evening was that Jason Robert Brown did a little bit of everything. Sure, he’s an entertainer, but he’s also a ball of talent. On a rotation he sang, played the piano and conducted the BBC concert orchestra which is no mean feat! My only disappointments were that there was only one song performed from The Last Five Years, and none of his orchestrations from 13 were present. Due to the special guests that he performed with, there are obvious reasons why he didn’t perform some songs. For example, Norm Lewis’ voice would not be suitable for the role of Jamie Wellerstein so it was not possible.
But Jason Robert Brown didn’t do this concert for our benefit, oh no. You can catch the recording on BBC2’s Friday Night Is Music Night in a few weeks (and when I know when I promise to update this post). Keep your ears out for my personal recommendations from the performance: every single song Rachel Tucker sang, Betsy Wolfe’s I Can Do Better Than That and Jason Robert Brown’s solo performance of Melinda. The audience were actually treated to two performances of Melinda, from his forthcoming album How We React and How We Recover (and hopefully a number from a new JRB musical) which made everyone want to get up an dance.
There is so much I could say about the one night only engagement, but what I really want to say is a big thank you to Mr Jason Robert Brown. Hearing his tales of creation, being allowed to enter his brilliant mind for a couple of hours and having a real ball. Thank you JRB, I hope you return to London soon and I can’t wait to relive the evening as part of Friday Night Is Music Night.