The best and most important musical of the 2001-2002 season was not a Broadway show at all, but a tiny two-person off-Broadway production, written by a young composer who has to this date never managed a Broadway hit, but who ranks just behind Adam Guettel and Stephen Flaherty as one of the brightest names in the post-Sondheim pantheon: Jason Robert Brown. The show is ultimately just another of his song cycles, but unlike Songs For A New World, this one has a plot, and the songs are all complex musical monologues rather than the comparatively simpler tunes found in New World. Simply judged as music, the score, apart from the irritating “Shiksa Goddess”, is marvelous. There is a breathtakingly beautiful centerpiece love-duet, “The Next Ten Minutes”, and a number of beautiful ballads and superb comedy numbers—“A Summer In Ohio” is one of the funniest songs of the decade.
But what really stands out about the show is the way that these songs, largely unsupported by dialogue, develop the two main characters. The show was reportedly based fairly closely on Brown’s own first marriage, and if that is the case, he should be commended for the degree of self-awareness and personal honesty he must have had, for he does not spare himself here. Leading man Jamie is smart, funny, and possessed of genuine charm and wit, but as irresistible as his surface personality is, he’s also a fundamentally selfish person who honestly doesn’t understand how to put someone else on a higher priority than himself: the foremost reason the relationship is doomed is that while Jamie genuinely loves Cathy, he ultimately loves himself more.
Brown also does an impressive job of letting us understand and forgive this in Jamie, seeing it as part of his nature rather than some callous conscious choice, and by the end, we believe in the sincerity of his love and hurt with him in his heartbreak and quiet self-loathing. His part of the story is the conventional, forward-moving part, taking him from his early optimism and ambition, through the touching “If I Didn’t Believe In You”, where he begs her not to let their love die, but at the same time refuses to renounce his own success in order to give her an excuse to fail. This leads to the quietly heartrending “Nobody Needs to Know”, the night after he first cheats on her, when an emotionally deadened Jamie rationalizes his actions in a melody of cold, matter-of-fact sadness. In the final contrapuntal duet, he has given himself over to cold practicality and composes a final Dear John letter, his emotion only breaking through in one passage when he tells her how much he really did love her.
Cathy is also made human, and lovable in spite of her flaws. Her part of the story is the backward-flowing part, and it begins with a heartbreaking ballad called “Still Hurting”, with an Irish-flavored melody that throbs with emotion and a lyric that keeps repeating Jamie’s name. She goes on to the cracking of her façade of happiness in the bluntly devastating “See I’m Smiling”, and a slightly stronger façade in “A Part of That”, where she tries desperately to convince herself she’s happy, before moving on to more humorous songs of self-pity in “A Summer In Ohio” and “Climbing Uphill”. But this is Cathy’s fatal flaw: no matter what situation she’s in, she always sees herself as the victim. But Brown makes you genuinely care for this loving, neurotic, hypocritical mess of a woman, and the blind optimism of her last two songs is heartbreaking in context. In particular, the fiercely joyful “Goodbye Until Tomorrow”, sung in counterpoint to Jamie’s farewell letter, is perhaps the saddest final scene of the decade. This, not the musically richer but gratuitously depressing Parade, really stands as Jason Robert Brown’s all-time masterpiece.