Last Friday night, I decided to splurge and blow and my birthday money on a couple of tickets to see the one and only Jason Robert Brown at the Columbia Club in Indianapolis. He was performing his own songbook, with a special guest, the immaculately fierce Shoshana Bean. And it was just spectacular.
There’s something so overwhelming about hearing songs I’ve enjoyed working on and performing for so many years played by the insanely brilliant man who wrote them. Quite a trip.
I owe a great deal to JRB, actually. He got me through one of the most difficult periods of my life.
Three years ago, this month, I lost my dear friend, teacher, and mentor, Thomas Dunn. He was a retired conductor here in Bloomington and had already been suffering from Parkinson’s Disease for many years when I met him in late 2001. In December of 2003, I started working for him, just a few hours a week, fixing him lunch and taking care of other sundry household tasks. Over the years, I spent an increasing amount of time with him, my responsibilities expanding and our relationship deepening.
He taught me about rhetoric, and how to properly phrase Bach. He listened to me rant about my mother, and moon over boys. He called my writing imaginative, and my conducting sophisticated — still two of the greatest compliments I have ever accepted. His was the one opinion I trusted unconditionally. He was the one man whose judgment never failed me, whose patience was never found wanting, whose words of support and affirmation I valued over anyone’s and believed without question. He once said he considered me his last student, and that he wanted me to succeed.
I didn’t sleep the night he died. I just stayed out in the living room, curled up on the sofa, Tom’s recording of the B Minor Mass looping on my iPod. I was left spinning, unmoored, unfocused, unhinged.
But the next day — it was a Monday — I dragged myself off that couch and stumbled to the music school. I had scheduled a coaching with Alana, to start working on her solo numbers from the next show I was music-directing, which was ‘Songs for a New World’.
Rehearsing a new show was the last thing I wanted to be doing at that moment. I had just that weekend opened ‘A Wild Party’ at IU — I was the rehearsal and pit pianist, and it was one of the most grueling and unpleasant experiences I’ve yet had in the theatre. And Tom’s death made it all the more ridiculous to even be thinking about something as silly as another show.
And yet. There is in incredible power in music. In the act of making music. The show, the work, gave me the focus I needed, forced me to pull myself up and move myself forward. I poured all my grief, all of my sadness, all of my overwhelming waves of emotion into the show. And it kept me afloat.
It’s one thing to hear someone sing that “the things that you’re sure of slip through your hand”. It’s entirely another to experience it, to know it.
‘Songs for a New World’ got me through it. JRB got me through it.
And I finally got to thank him for it.