This week’s song is about a guy who discovers too late that he’s lost his chance with a girl he used to date. It’s my hope that this song will become part of our live set with Gene singing lead…but in the meantime, this demo has me singing lead and Val playing the role of the hot backup vocal chicks. If you like the song, buy a download and send us your $ without diverting vast percentages to Steve Jobs, eh? Thanks.
This one’s also about envy, and in much the same way that “Happy, Happy, Happy” was born from an incredible, uncomfortable bout of pure unadulterated envy when we were trying our hardest to get signed by a major label and I walked past a larger-than-life-size-poster of Vanessa Carlton back in 2002…this song was born from the same emotion, but in a slightly different set of circumstances.
Here’s a little backstory, if you’ve got a moment.
Herman, set the wayback machine to 1995. The internet is a wee thing. People make telephone calls on telephones that are plugged into the wall. GrooveLily is still The Valerie Vigoda Band. I have returned from 13 weeks in Amsterdam with Val and Max to resume living in New York City, and I have to find a job. I get word that there’s this guy who writes music that sounds kinda like mine, and he needs a piano player for this show he’s doing.
I call him and arrange for an audition. I arrive at his little upper west side apartment which has an imposingly large (at least by NYC apartment proportions) 7′ grand piano. We chat about his experience and mine, and while I have chosen to go to college and grad school, he has eschewed the academy and pursued writing musicals with a fervor and a directness that I have not. And it’s paying off–he’s got one show opening off-Broadway soon that he needs a musical director for–that’s why I’m auditioning today–and he’s got another big Broadway-bound show coming up with bookwriter Alfred Uhry and director Harold Prince.
My jaw drops. But I pick it back up.
He asks me to play something that I’ve written–he seems genuinely interested. I’m more than a little intimidated now, but I gamely stumble through “Take Away My Dreams,” the final song from my thesis musical with Jason Cochran at NYU, which had been fresh in my mind and my fingers in May at the staged reading downtown, but now in September tumbles across the keys and scrapes out of my throat like a distant memory of a brick falling into a vat of cow pies. Apparently it sounds good enough to him to continue the audition, though, so maybe it wasn’t SO bad.
Then, to gauge my abilities at the keyboard a bit more precisely, he plays the complex opening riff from a song from his show, called “She Cries.” Go listen to it, and then come back. It’s great, isn’t it? Wow, what a terrific song, I’m thinking. What a cool riff.
And I try, and I can’t play it right. And from that moment, I can tell the audition’s over. I didn’t get the gig. I leave his place, feeling pretty dumb and lame–I’ve spent the whole summer playing introspective songs from Inhabit My Heart every day, and not getting my chops into shape for cool-ass samba rhythms like this.
And I go home, dejected.
Over the next few years, I watch from afar as this guy (whose name is Jason Robert Brown, by the way) goes on to success with that first show, Songs For a New World, then gets a tony award for his next show, Parade, and then writes the complex, sad, but deep and inspiring show The Last Five Years, which is STILL kicking my ass from across the room, despite being stuck inside its CD case.
In the meantime, I finally did learn to play that riff and stole appropriated it for a Milburn/Vigoda song called Sitting on the Fence, and opened up a whole world of syncopation and fun in my playing which is still expanding.
So for a long time there I turned my back on the world of Musical Theater and enjoyed Jason’s work from afar, as Val and (first Max, then) Gene and I pursued immense rock stardom in college cafeterias, coffeehouses and Unitarian Church Basements across the United States and Canada. And when our ticket to immense rock stardom actually turned out to be in the world of Musical Theater, my path and Jason’s path converged again.
In January 2005, Val and Gene and I were at the Theatreworks Writers’ Retreat in Palo Alto, working on our first batch of songs for Wheelhouse, our follow-up to Striking 12. Georgia Stitt was also there, working on a song cycle, and we reconnected. It turned out that she was now MARRIED to Jason Robert Brown. Unbeknownst to us at the time, Val was already pregnant with Mose, and Georgia was already pregnant with Molly, who was born a week after Mose in September of 2005.
Fast-forward to 2009. Val and I move out to Southern California, and among the first people we get in touch with are Georgia and Jason. We hang out a few times: their place, our place. Mose and Molly become fast friends–Molly actually performed a marriage ceremony for herself and Mose in a tent in her backyard, and now whenever we mention her, Mose says in all seriousness, “I’m her HUSBAND.”
The kids get along. The four adults find that they have a lot in common. I’m actually getting to know this guy after all these years, and I genuinely like him. Heck, I genuinely like them both. I think they like us too.
They both have a career writing musicals.
Val and I have a career writing musicals. Basically. Sort of. Well, there’s a rock band and some songs for movies. But it’s basically the same thing.
What could be bad? Nothing to be ashamed of.
So why is it, when I read a facebook post from Georgia about her and Jason being mentioned in a gossipy theater article about how they attended the opening of A Little Night Music on Broadway–why is it that I am suddenly filled with ENVY?
I thought I was OVER this kind of petty poop.
I thought I was a mature person. Am I not capable of being happy for and proud of my friends?
Yes, I am capable. I am happy, happy, happy for them. But I am also going green with envy. STILL.
I have to get my kid to school this morning. I have to make a lunch for him. I have to get my s**t together. Val gets breakfast for him while I take a shower, and lo and behold I find I am singing what seems like an entire song to myself. I have a verse, I have a chorus. The chorus goes like this:
I am standing in the shadow of Jason Robert Brown.
I am standing in the shadow of Jason Robert Brown.
It’s a song about what if, about if only, about if I had just tried harder younger and not gotten diverted, if I’d been as ballsy as he was, and as skilled as he was when he was so frickin’ young, if only, if only, then I might have the level of success and fame that he has. It’s a very, very, very small-minded petty little song. I am genuinely embarrassed by it.
Clearly, this will not be a song that will be of any use whatsoever to Warner-Chappell. What can I do to repurpose all of this unbridled, unexpected envy?
What if the fame and fortune is neither fame nor fortune? What if it’s a girl? What if the protagonist is not me, but instead a guy who used to have the girl, but has lost her because he “got off track,” and she went with somebody else in the meantime?
After some back and forth with Val, we arrive at a cross between a country song and an R&B song, in the neighborhood of John Mellencamp, with the following hook: “Standing in the shadow of the man who is first in line.”
So Jason, if you’re reading these words, please take this in the spirit it’s offered: I think you’re awesome. I hope you don’t mind that you inspired a fit of envy, and I hope you take some pleasure in the song that came out of it. I’m glad to be friends with you after all this time.