Jason Robert Brown Workshop—Gabi Epstein’s Experience

jason robert brown and gabi epstein

A few weeks ago, a lovely few messages appeared in my inbox from Michael Rubinoff and Mark Selby informing the Toronto theatre community that Jason Robert Brown (or JRB… as we like to call him)—one of the most significant musical theatre composers of our generation one might argue, was coming once again to do a concert in Toronto. I was very excited to hear this, but I had the great privilege of seeing him perform the last time he was here and so my excitement was definitely reserved for what was to come next.
It was in that next week that I received a notice from Erika Santillana (from the Rubinoff “camp”) that he was going to be conducting a masterclass for professional actors over two days where 14 lucky people would get approximately 30 minutes of one on one JRB time. Well, I jumped at this opportunity and mailed in my form that day (mine was definitely among the first Michael would have received). Included on the form we had to indicate 3 songs that we would prepare of which Jason would pick one—depending on his mood, what he thought of us, what he wanted to hear etc…
So clearly, I put 3 VERY different songs that showed me off in three very different ways. My three songs were “Lying There” from Edges—the song was VERY prepared but I wanted a possible new interpretation of the song from the JRB. My second choice was “A Way Back to Then” from Title of Show—a song I have just started working on that is not very well known but suits my voice very well. And the third was “Show Off”—from The Drowsy Chaperone—a song that shows off my famous Epstein “shtick” VERY well.
So, we get to the masterclass, eager to find out what he was going to be like, and how he was going to conduct the day as we really had no idea. What we learned was that he was going to pick us at random to perform over the 2 days and that when we got up there, seeing our set list, he would ask us what WE wanted to perform…. (a decision that was harder for some than others).
And so, as in most masterclasses, everybody went up there and did their thing—some had VERY successful coachings with the “man”, and some had some challenges including a) picking rep that wasn’t necessarily appropriate for their voice/age, b) not being able get out of the “singing” aspect of the song, as opposed to the “acting” aspect—something that can be difficult to overcome in an overly “belty” number. ..
But for the most part, it was being conducted like a regular masterclass would—people would sing, JRB would give comments, sometimes more helpful than others… but that’s sort of the way the class operated…
It was nearing the end of day 1 and so I was almost sure I would be called upon the following day but then, lo and behold my name was announced.
Now, hearing his comments about song selection before me, I thought a lot about which song I was going to pick. And so immediately I dismissed “Show Off”—thinking that was not what he wanted to hear. I told him I had already performed “Lying There” in a performance setting so the Title of Show piece was my selection. I sang it. It went well. People applauded. He then asked me why I wanted to work on it. I told him it was my newest piece and that I thought there was more I could do with it. He very plain and simply told me there wasn’t—that I pretty much had the song down and that I should sing another. Sort of dumb-founded that JRB didn’t have anything to say, I moved on to “Lying There.” Same thing… I sang the song. People applauded. He asked me why I was bringing it to him to which I responded that I had performed it last year in Edges and that I wanted to see if there was more I could do with it—if I could go deeper somehow. He (again, so simply) told me that there wasn’t—that I sang it well, acted it well, and had pretty much nailed it in every sense. Realizing that we had already spent over 20 minutes just singing and talking about the fact that he didn’t have any notes for me, he proceeded to give me homework for the next day—to come back with “Someone to Watch Over Me”, and to perform it the following day.
It’s not that he thought I was perfect, I think he just thought I could have picked some more challenging material—and so I was thrilled to be able to sing Gershwin for him.
The next day was slightly different… most people came in with stand alone cabaret songs, making it difficult for JRB to really find something deep and meaningful to work with. Usually in the context of a show, I guess the characters are richer and so the song becomes heightened that way—I don’t know…
Anyway, he sort of didn’t know what to do with a lot of the performers on that second day either, causing a day long discussion about what he called our “adolescent crush” on contemporary musical theatre—that he was shocked no one brought in Sondheim or more standards. His argument was that a lot of the very contemporary stuff out there is very “pop-y” and does not have the most depth— and is therefore detrimental to the actor performing them. He claims we are searching for something that just isn’t there.
An interesting argument—I was actually thrilled to hear what he had to say. What I would give to walk into any audition and be able to sing a Gershwin song—I just didn’t think it was necessarily what casting people want to hear anymore—we all want to be innovative and different and so we pick material that no one has heard of. I guess (and there are OBVIOUSLY exceptions) no one has heard of this material for a reason…
Anyway, it was so wonderful to be able to sing a song from my childhood for JRB. While working with me, he made the very interesting point that he was thrilled to (for the first time over 2 days) be able to talk about MUSIC with a performer. Being a composer, one would think that would be all of what he would talk about. And for myself, being an ex-music student from McGill, I was thrilled to be able to have a musical conversation with him.
In any event, it was great to be able to work with him and to participate in this somewhat controversial dialogue about the state of musical theatre today. I’m still not sure if he was saying, “Stick to the classics”, or “Find better songs”… probably the latter… but in any event, it definitely made for a VERY interesting couple of days. I learned that I really can stick to my guns when it comes to what I want to perform. I don’t necessarily have to perform what I think people want to hear—but that people will be more connected to it if it comes from my heart. Just today I walked into an audition and sang Sondheim and Bernstein and felt great about it.
This of course was tail ended by a SPECTACULAR concert performed by him that evening reassuring all of us performers out there that this guy is the real deal. Seeing him perform that night gave me the confidence to take what he said to heart.
So… even though the man had no notes for me, he certainly gave me something to take home—something that would certainly stay with me for years to come.

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