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A few SpeakEasy fans might not recognize Matthew Stern by face, but his music direction has guided some of SpeakEasy’s biggest musicals, including Big Fish, Violet, and this season’s The Scottsboro Boys. Fresh off his first Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) Award for his work on Scottsboro, Matthew has been taking on Jason Robert Brown’s Tony award-winning score for The Bridges of Madison County. We sat down with Matt to ask him a few questions about his work on our upcoming musical.
What attracted you to this project?
This score is totally irresistible. I’m a big fan of Jason Robert Brown’s work, and he has shared that Bridges was his opportunity to get back to writing in the grand, romantic style that he hadn’t delved into since his work on Parade and The Last Five Years. The music that he composed and orchestrated for this show is simply stunning. It’s really challenging and fulfilling to navigate the different styles that he draws on, whether he’s channeling a Joni Mitchell folk ballad, a blues number, a driving rock song with a hard groove, or the lush romantic styles of the duets between Francesca and Robert. All of the music in this show is remarkably sophisticated, and it really requires a skilled group of singers and instrumentalists to pull it off well.
How do you think the music helps tell this story?
What’s beautiful about the way Jason Robert Brown has crafted the score is that as Robert and Francesca’s relationship develops, so does their music. At the beginning of the show, Robert’s music sounds very dissonant and introverted (the brooding nature of “Temporarily Lost” and “Wondering”), but by the end of the show, he can pour his heart out into “It All Fades Away.” Francesca’s music, on the other hand, develops from a careful, almost classical idea (think of “What Do You Call a Man Like That”) into her soaring, romantic duets with Robert, and to the end of her emotional journey in “Always Better.” Just as these two characters become one unit, so does their music.
Does Jason Robert Brown have a “style?” Are there specific aspects to the music or lyrics that help identify BRIDGES as a “Jason Robert Brown” show?
Jason Robert Brown definitely has a style, and it is clearly showcased in Bridges. First and foremost, his accompaniment is extremely rhythmically active. His scores are filled with fast-paced, jazzy piano riffs, and Bridges is no exception. What’s unique to Bridges is that he wrote a lot of it from the guitar instead of the piano. I think he instinctively knew that a lot of Robert’s material in particular would want the foundation of a guitar. You can hear its strong presence in “Wondering,” “The World Inside a Frame,” “It All Fades Away,” and other solos for Robert. Another Jason Robert Brown trademark is writing in difficult time signatures. Much of the song “You’re Never Alone” is in a driving 7/8, rarely seen in the work of other musical theatre composers.