When Jason Robert Brown first played downtown’s SubCulture in August 2014, he didn’t know it would lead to an offer for a year-long artistic residency; and when he agreed to a year-long artistic residency, SubCulture’s owner, Marc Kaplan, didn’t know that residency would become virtually indefinite. Nevertheless, October 22 marks Brown’s 30th residency concert at the East Village music club—and he’s not planning on going anywhere any time soon.
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“I never planned for it to be a one-year residency,” says Brown, the Tony-winning composer-lyricist of Songs for a New World, Parade, The Last Five Years, 13, Honeymoon in Vegas, and The Bridges of Madison County. “As far as I was concerned, as long as they wanted to keep having me there I was going to keep coming back every month.”
For Brown, a single concert once a month with his band and a featured guest is exactly what he needs creatively. “I don’t have the urge to perform often, but I do like to get those muscles exercised and I do sort of need it once a month,” he says. More frequent and that would cross into “performer with a capital P” territory, but these concerts help Brown write. “Part of how I make my music is I interact with other musicians,” he explains. What’s more, Brown promised himself—and his audience—he would debut one new piece each concert.
Over the course of three years and 29 concerts, Brown has welcomed artists spanning genres and past experiences, from stars of his shows like Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale to singers he worked with once like Joshua Henry to soloists he’s only admired from afar like Caissie Levy; from fellow writers like Tom Kitt, Duncan Sheik, and Shaina Taub to musicians like saxophonist Jimmy Green and bassist Charlie Rosen.
When choosing a guest, Brown looks for one thing: adventurous musicians. “There are people who, on an aesthetic level, I can say, ‘That’s the right energy,’” he says—which is true of his October 22 guest, The Great Comet’s Grace McLean. “She’s a thrilling musician. Everything about her musical instincts is fantastic.”
But more than the talent he brings in, Brown has created something at SubCulture no other current Broadway songwriter has. It’s a community of artists, musicians, and repeat audience members who gather around music. “The club itself is exactly the right place for me,” says Brown. “It’s a place where the music comes first and they really mean that.”
It’s a place Brown calls home, a place where he lets his guard down, improvises, and shares. “I like being up onstage and not entirely knowing what I’m about to do. I like having a little musical suspense,” he says. Attending one of these residency shows feels a bit like stepping into Brown’s personal showroom—but cozy. “I don’t ever want it to feel like it’s a formal occasion, because it’s not. It’s not about anything other than a chance to make music.”
And it’s Brown’s openness with his audience that has created a club of regulars at Brown’s SubCulture concerts. “JRB is such a brilliant composer, and getting to hear him play, interpret, explain, and experiment with his music is thrilling, emotional, magical, and unlike any other concert I’ve been to,” says Maggie Oberrender, a regular who has been to all but two of Brown’s 29 concerts to date. In fact, Oberrender has made friends with other frequenters “just from us all being there each month for the past three years.” And Oberrender credits Kaplan and the atmosphere at SubCulture as much as Brown for that.
“There is a core group of people who come whenever they can, for which I’m immensely grateful,” says Brown, who has come to know his audience as an extended family—wishing them “Happy Birthday” and “Congrats on Getting Into Med School” from the stage. “There’s something very comforting about seeing those familiar faces and there’s something that’s a very good challenge about the fact that people keep coming back and looking for the shows to do something they didn’t do last time.
“The best thing is when people come for the first time and they’ll say to me afterwards, ‘Well, this is my first time but I’m definitely coming back,’” he pauses, “and this idea that I have this thing you can come back to is really wonderful.”
See photos from the special Last Five Years concert presented by SubCulture: