You Can’t Take It With You

Interview with Composer, Jason Robert Brown

Posted on: August 21st, 2014 by Ted Sod


Education Dramaturg, Ted Sod, sat down with composer Jason Robert Brown to discuss writing the original music for You Can't Take It With You.

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? What made you decide to write music and lyrics for the theatre?

Jason Robert Brown: I was born in Tarrytown, NY and grew up in Rockland County. I spent two festive, if not entirely fruitful, years at the Eastman School of Music before dropping out to teach in Miami. I started writing music when I was seven or eight years old, and from the outset my work always tended toward the dramatic. Writing for the theatre was a natural outgrowth of the kind of music I was writing anyway, which I suppose had been influenced equally by Billy Joel and Carole King on the one side and Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin on the other.

TS: How did you get involved writing original music for You Can’t Take It With You? Does the play have personal resonance for you, and if so, how?

JRB: When I saw the announcement that this production was going to happen, I did something entirely uncharacteristic of me: I wrote Scott Ellis an email and told him how much I loved this play and wanted to be a part of it. Apparently, everyone involved thought this would be a good idea, so here I am. I have a deep affection for the work of Kaufman and Hart, and You Can’t Take It With You in particular.The cringe-worthy fact is that I played Donald, the boyfriend of the maid, Rheba, who was played in that production by future animation voiceover superstar Nika Futterman. As good liberal East Coast Jews, Nika and I of course felt uncomfortable pretending to be black people, so in a fit of inspiration we decided that we would instead play Donald and Rheba as Mexicans. I reiterate that I was thirteen years old and this kind of logic is not inconsistent with the mind of a thirteen year old boy. I don’t know what excuse Nika will have. Tragically, I don’t think we got many laughs either, but that may have been because of the incomprehensibility of our ludicrous Castilian accents.

TS: What is the first thing you have to do in order to write original music for a play? What kind of research do you have to do in order to write it? Can you give us some insight into your process?

JRB: So much about writing music is intuitive for me. Once I know who the characters are and the setting of the piece, a sound has already emerged in my head. In this case, the Depression-era New York setting and the loving and anarchic sensibilities of the Vanderhofs immediately suggested the music of Raymond Scott. (Most folks will probably associate him with “Powerhouse” and other songs used ad nauseam in Bugs Bunny cartoons). One of my favorite recordings on earth is a CD by Don Byron called “Bug Music,” where he and a group of otherworldly musicians recreated–and elaborated on–original Raymond Scott recordings, as well as some Duke Ellington and John Kirby. That music is imprinted on my brain, so I’m just playing with music in that style for this production.

TS:  Having written both music and lyrics for musicals on Broadway, what is the most challenging part of writing original music for an existing play? What part is the most fun?

JRB: The most fun for me of any process is always getting the musicians together. For this show, I’m assembling a group of amazing jazz players who are going to show up in a studio for a couple of hours and blow their brains out, and I get to play with them. Nothing’s better than that as far as I’m concerned.  Everything leading up to that is a kind of torture, especially writing orchestrations, which I do with the relative speed and enthusiasm of ritual slaughter. But it’s all worth it for the chance to make music with musicians I love and respect.

TS:  How will you be collaborating with director Scott Ellis?

JRB: Scott and I had a meeting a couple of weeks ago to discuss where he thought music should happen in the play and what the basic feel of that music should be. Once I have my themes and cues written, I’ll wander over to rehearsal and show them to him, and then we’ll just bounce ideas off of each other and shave off time in some places and add time in others. Jon Weston, our sound designer, will also have a part in the process, since he’ll help edit the recordings and determine the volume and exact placement of the cues.

TS:  Will your score for You Can’t Take It With You be played live or recorded? What kind of instrumentation will there be?

JRB: As of this writing things are still somewhat in flux, but I’m pretty sure there’s an eight-piece band: piano, bass, guitar, drums, clarinet, sax, trumpet, and maybe accordion. Nothing would make me happier than to have the score performed live every night, but alas, that is a very expensive proposition and it ain’t my money. So sometime before tech starts, all the musicians will gather in some hovel in midtown Manhattan and record the score. That’s what the audience will hear every night.



You Can't Take It With You is a Roundabout co-production. Previews begin August 26 and tickets are available through the official website.

Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, You Can't Take It With You

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Interview with Actor, James Earl Jones

Posted on: August 20th, 2014 by Roundabout


Assistant Director of Education, Mitch Mattson, sat down with actor James Earl Jones to discuss Jones's upcoming role as "Grandpa" in You Can't Take It With You.

Mitch Mattson: I'm fascinated with the beginning of your career. I worked at Arena Stage in D.C. recently, and you are just loved there because of the work you did that transferred to Broadway.

James Earl Jones:
That was The Great White Hope. I also did an Athol Fugard play there called Blood Knot. It was a good place to work, and I'm sure it still is. We were able to create a great piece of theatre there that we then took to Broadway, and then later it was made into a film. I'm glad we got it on record.

MM: I read that you had a profound stutter as a child. How did you overcome it?

I didn't overcome it. I think once you're a stutterer, you are always a stutterer. You learn how to work with it and work around it. I suppose that people who are dyslexic have the same problem. People who have Tourette’s syndrome have a similar problem caused by the same source: synapses in the brain. Mine started very early. My uncle also stuttered, and I always thought that I might have become a stutterer because I mimicked him.

MM: Who influenced you in your decision to become an actor?

JEJ: Everybody! But mainly myself. My high school teacher, Donald Crouch, was also an influence.

MM: How did your love of Shakespeare come about?

JEJ: I don't know if I do love Shakespeare. Some Shakespeare I don't get along with at all. I did a production of Timon of Athens that was this total train wreck. I just got out of Much Ado About Nothing in London. Total train wreck. That’s Shakespeare. You walk in a room, and you get your ass kicked, you know? I had a much better experience when I played King Lear, which was a role I understood.

MM: Your portrayal of King Lear was acclaimed.

JEJ: I don't read reviews, so I don't know that.

MM: The director of that production was Ed Sherin

JEJ:  Yes, one of my favorite directors. We worked together on several plays.

MM: Why did you choose to do the play You Can't Take It With You and the role of Martin Vanderhof/Grandpa?

JEJ:I love Broadway!

MM: How did this production come about?

JEJ: Jeffrey Richards, the producer, tends to find a play that has an older male character and an older female character. He cast me as Grandpa, the older man, and he cast Elizabeth Ashley as the older woman, Olga Katrina. Elizabeth and I worked together before in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man on Broadway. A great, great production. Jeffrey's done this type of casting twice now, and I love it.

MM: Do you see this as non-traditional casting?

JEJ: I don't know. I can't answer that question because I don't really know what that means. It probably means a lot of different things to different people. Nobody in our production explains why Grandpa is a black guy. But there is one key secret: Grandma doesn't appear, so you’ve got to assume she was a very, very pale lady because our daughter looks Caucasian. Our children, and my grandchildren, all look Caucasian. Let’s put it this way: I will not promise the audience anything in terms of what they will see about race. I do expect a good exercise of their imagination. What they will see, however, is a battle of the classes.

MM: Will you share your initial thoughts about the play after you read it?

JEJ: Comedy's not my thing, but I have to say that there is something about this play that I find to be very entertaining. It's a good story about a very interesting family, but I am still solving the mystery of it all. We just started working on it, and we’re at the beginning of the process of finding out.

MM: What kind of preparation or research have you done in order to play this role?

JEJ:  The play is set in 1937, right after the Great Depression. There are references to tax revolt, discussions about mysticism, and other things that were going on in that period that we have to research as actors, so we know what we're talking about. I find it very interesting. The best part of being an actor is that you get to become a student: a role that you play can deal with history and other disciplines that you may not be aware of.

MM: You were alive during the Great Depression
does that come into your own preparation or reflection on the work?

JEJ: Absolutely. This play is about a household of individuals who have become one big family. The whole family has dinner together twice in this play. The two black characters, Donald and Rheba, are servants, but they end up at the table too. I think that is really kind of neat. Kaufman and Hart didn't write Grandpa as a black guy, but they did write two black characters—characters that I have never seen in theatre writing before. Their job is to answer the door and to do the cooking and cleaning and to feed the snakes. Donald is actually Rheba’s boyfriend, and he helps serve at the table and all that. But they are also treated as equals. Other members of the household are not genetic members of the family either. They come one day to the house, and they stay for years. There's an open door policy in this family, which makes me think of the Great Depression. Mr. De Pinna—who came one day to deliver ice—discovers that my son-in-law, Paul, is making bombs in the basement, so he decides to stay and work with Paul making bombs. It’s really fireworks, but I like to say bombs because it makes it sound more interesting.

MM: Can you share some of your thoughts about Grandpa and his world view?

JEJ: In every comedy, every character has something silly about them. And it's quite clear with most of the characters in the play. I've not yet figured out what's silly about Grandpa. I know I’m not going to get anywhere taking this character too seriously, so I am trying to figure out what his quirks are. How nuts or screwy is he? Walking into this play, I'll bet you there are several of us, including myself, who are in the process of just figuring out who these characters are. We’re all asking ourselves questions. The one I'm working on right now is just how silly Grandpa is. And is he wrapped in a shroud of good will?

MM: Grandpa's dropped out of the establishment

JEJ: He really has figured out how to relax. It's hard to define him. I can't really define him politically. He's not a Libertarian exactly, but he believes in paying taxes only if the money is used for something sensible. I've met people like that all over the world. I knew someone in Europe who was telling me he didn't mind paying taxes in Holland because of all the flowers. 

Costume design for "Grandpa"
played by James Earl Jones

MM: How do you think Grandpa learned to relax?

JEJ: It's just something that struck him one day. “Just relax and wait,” he says. He says things that make sense most of the time. Grandpa is a great role model. With his friends he says, "Life's greatest struggle is to just relax." He becomes the champion of the two lovers. The young man, Tony, who comes from a very rich family and is expected to go into the family business on Wall Street, is very conflicted. Grandpa becomes his champion. The young man is being pulled away from my granddaughter, Alice, by his father and mother, and Grandpa takes sides.

MM: He's the center of the family. He's the anchor holding it together.

JEJ: He's like the sun with the planets and their orbits. He's been the center of this family for many years. And he doesn't want to be in charge anymore. He wants the place to run by itself. He wants the family to operate the same way they have been at every dinner, even if he isn't there. It’s like the blessing he says over the food: “We've been getting on pretty good. We thank you very much. And we leave the rest up to you.”

MM: Do you think You Can’t Take It With You is about being true to yourself?

JEJ: It probably is. I don't know if the nature of this play is to give the audience a message, or a theme, or a philosophy. I don't think so. I think a great play shows us human experience, and you have to build your own message from it.

MM: What do you look for in a director?

JEJ: I need him to make decisions. I'll come up with the questions and look to him for answers. Right now my question is: How imperfect is Grandpa? And I know that Scott is not going to want me to make him too silly, not make Grandpa too imperfect, because somebody's got to lead this band. And there's no better person to do it then Grandpa.

MM:  Public school students are going to read this interview, and they will want to know what it takes to become a tremendously successful actor. What advice can you offer?

JEJ: I don't know if you can set out to be “a successful actor.” You can try to learn how to act, but it's a long process. I'm still learning, and I'm 83 years old. I've been at this for, what, 60 years? Almost 60 years and most of that time has been spent trying to learn how to do it. You are learning something every time you go into a new production. It's like combat. There's no combat or military action that’s predictable or that you are going to be able to second guess.



You Can't Take It With You is a Roundabout co-production. Previews begin August 26 and tickets are available through the official website.

Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, You Can't Take It With You

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