For Ariana Grande's stripped down, old Hollywood glam rendition of “Dangerous Woman” at the MTV Movie Awards (pro tip: push play above and listen again as you read), there was really only one person who made sense to play the piano: composer Jason Robert Brown, whose musical 13 gave Ariana her breakthrough role.
Ariana played cheerleader Charlotte in the 2008 Broadway show about a boy whose parents’ divorce uprooted him from New York to Indiana right before his Bar Mitzvah. A then-15-year-old Ari got to show off her vocal prowess (imagine the pint-sized powerhouse at even more pint-sized stature) with the up-tempo soul tune “Brand New You” and heartfelt ballad “A Little More Homework.”
The pair reunited earlier this year when Ariana joined Jason to sing his songs, including two from 13, at one of his concerts. Needless to say, she slayed:
13 skews the youngest of JRB’s catalog, but the common thread through all of his musicals is finding the heart in tales of conflict, and telling those stories through rich, immersive scores. Want to hear more? Read on for a guide to his biggest works:
The Last Five Years: Brown's breakthrough is loosely based on his divorce from his first wife. But from that personal nightmare came a devastating, cult favorite. It’s told in inverted, overlapping timelines - the woman’s narrative is told from the end of the relationship to the beginning, and the man’s story is told from the beginning to the end. In the stage production, the couple is together for only one song in the middle, when they get married. Anna Kendrick and Supergirl’s Jeremy Jordan starred in the indie movie based on the play released last year, but you should check out this clip of 2013 Off Broadway stars Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe performing the characters’ lone, optimistic duet:
Parade: There’s no easy synopsis of this one. Parade is based on “the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory owner falsely accused and convicted of murdering a young girl in Atlanta GA in 1913.” Needless to say, it’s a difficult listen. But the lush Southern score brings to life the complex race and religious relations of the time — evoking outrage and remorse through its exploration of the emotional underpinnings to this story. Originally performed on Broadway in 1999 (when it won the Tony for Best Score), Brown revived it for a one-night-only concert at New York’s Lincoln Center last year featuring himself as conductor and starring Jeremy Jordan (again) and his future Supergirl costar Laura Benanti.
Bridges of Madison County: Brown’s 2014 musical — which won the Tony for Best Score and Best Orchestrations — is based on the Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood movie about an Italian woman who became a war bride, moved to Iowa, and never looked back until a devilishly handsome photographer shows up on her doorstep. Brown’s score blends country heart and breathtaking opera and makes you want to curl up under a blanket and have the best ugly cry in the world. (This is a compliment.) Do yourself a favor and watch Broadway stars Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale hit all of the best, most heartbreaking notes as these star-crossed lovers:
Honeymoon in Vegas: In 2015, Brown went to Broadway with another musical based on a movie, but instead of lovelorn heartache it was campy Vegas, vintage Elvis, and a surprisingly good Tony Danza to bring the 1992 Nicolas Cage film to stage. Check out the pitch-perfect schmaltz of “When You Say Vegas” and remind yourself that you’re not sitting at a slot machine (or are you?):
What’s next? Brown’s been reportedly attached to stage productions of King Kong, A League of Their Own, and a movie of 13 — meaning there’s a 150% chance he's never sleeping again and a 200% chance he’ll be writing something for a future international pop star a la Ariana Grande. Good thing you just discovered your new favorite composer.