Bartlett Sher, Kelli O'Hara, Steven Pasquale, Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown attend the media day preview for "The Bridges of Madison County" at The New 42nd Street Studios on Dec. 16, 2013. Credit: Walter McBride, Getty Images
Jason Robert Brown rose to acclaim largely thanks to his nuanced and truthful inspections of love between complicated, realistic couples. "The Last Five Years" mourns a marriage gone astray, while some of the medleys from "Songs for a New World" look at what happens to love when it's compacted into a moment of truth. We spoke to the musician just before the opening of his latest love story, "The Bridges of Madison County," on Broadway Feb. 20 — and just in time to glean some insights for Valentine's Day.
You’re known for love songs. Did you always know that’d be your niche?
I don’t know how to answer that! It makes me sound like a Harlequin romance songwriter. I think of my niche as a storyteller. However, I truly am, in spite of my surface cynicism, a deeply romantic individual, which has its benefits and downsides.
Have you always been very passionate about this topic?
I think all songwriters have to wrestle with affairs of the heart in their writing – love has music attached to it, and I think music has love attached to it. My interactions with the other people in the world, both the ones I work with and the ones I live with, all depend on music and love co-existing and cooperating. I’m sure I have some pretty deep-set convictions about the way love works and the way the world works with it, but I try to explore all the angles.
You’re known for showing the very honest, complex aspects of love — not romanticizing. Do we need to just accept the messy parts?
Love without messy parts is not any kind of love I would recognize. And I think the same thing about music.
Is sadness, to some degree, necessary to any true love?
That’s the thing, love is the whole spectrum, and if you miss out on any of it – the sadness, the joy, the thrill, the frustration – you aren’t experiencing love on its deepest level. At least I think so.
What’s the best part of the whole thing? Falling into it, maturing over time?
The best part is being able to trust it, being able to know it’s there and it’s not going anywhere.
What’s worse, trying to find love or falling out of it?
Both sound exhausting to me. Does a lot of your insight come from personal experience?
My only insight comes from personal experience. I try always to write from a place of emotional truth. Even if I’ve only had a glancing acquaintance with one facet of an emotion, that glance is enough for me to work with.
Has that changed over the years, with getting married? (Is that different from what you thought of love when you were single and dating?)
I was always commitment-happy: I’m that guy who wants to propose on the first date. (I have generally restrained myself.) I’ve always thought love was, essentially, about commitment — the deeper the commitment, the deeper the love. I don’t know that I could have articulated that when I was 22, but it’s pretty much what I think I felt.
What about having two daughters (Molly and Susannah)? Has paternity changed how you write about love?
Being a father is unlike any other love I’ve ever experienced. It is intense and glorious and scary in ways dwarf anything else I’ve ever felt. I’m not sure I really even know how to write about that yet. I’m still crawling towards that.
What other kinds of love would you like to explore that you haven’t yet?
I would like to explore my love of chocolate ever further, but that doesn’t have to do with writing.
Would you do a gay love story?
Sure! Haven’t found the one I want to write yet, but when I do, it’ll be way hot.
What about something more esoteric, like “Her,” or like a person who loves a lamp (a la “My Strange Addiction,” for example)?
I don’t know that I want to write about non-sentient objects having emotional lives, but live and let live.
What advice would you give lovers this Valentine’s Day?
Go see “The Bridges of Madison County,” obviously! And take three minutes to dance a slow dance with the person you love; it makes all the difference.