Brown ’86: Broadway to SOBs

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Exposed to musical theater from an early age, it’s not surprising Jeb Brown ’86 made his Broadway debut at the age of 10. Brown was an average kid with an average family and an above-average talent. Once it became clear that his summer activity — a revival production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — was Broadway-bound, the show’s producers approached his mother, and Brown took to the stage.

Barely a pre-teen, Jeb Brown experienced all the various dimensions of the trade, from long hours to genuine camaraderie to celebrity encounters.

“If I live to a ripe old age, I’m going to tell people I worked with Tennessee Williams,” Brown said.

In the years that followed, he pursued an extensive career with stints on stage, television and the silver screen.

“As a steady diet, the on-camera stuff just doesn’t do it for me,” Brown said. “I’m at home on stage.”

This fall, Brown is back at “home,” playing Vince Fontaine in the 2007 Broadway revival production of “Grease.” He explained that the iconic role pays homage to the DJs of the 1950s, when rock and roll was not necessarily here to stay.

Going from the Ivy League to the stage may not be considered a typical trajectory, but to this Yalie it was perfectly logical: “Yale teaches you how to learn. … In this case, I was doing a period study of 1950s rock and roll culture.”

While at Yale, Brown was involved in both a cappella and drama, while majoring in theater studies. Though his path was always headed toward the stage, the performer said his time at Yale helped mold his career. He cited his experiences on tour with the Sons of Orpheus and Bacchus (SOBs) and the Whiffenpoofs as much more than just a footnote in his Playbill bio. Brown credits his time with those groups as having taught him the rigors of a hectic performance schedule. More than that, he generalized about Yale’s value for any aspiration: “A degree from Yale is going to help you with any career. … People respect that because it shows you’ve expanded your mind, stretched it to its limits. In many ways, acting is like that.”

Bringing to life a production that has become iconic in American culture and “had the audacity to ask America to put the cherry on top” — by choosing the two leads through the reality TV show — was a challenge for Brown and the rest of the company, not the least because they were working with material widely known in its movie form. At the first rehearsal, someone asked if anyone had seen the original Broadway musical production of “Grease.” Brown recalled, “In a room full of 40 people, I was the only one to raise my hand.”

The staged production had a profound effect on Brown. This memory, coupled with his status as a Broadway veteran, made Brown skeptical of the show’s casting conceit. But after considering the talent behind the show’s development — director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall — Brown’s uncertainty faded.

Brown said he was not intimidated by the thought of playing a now-mythic role. “I always approach any role by stripping away expectations and looking first at what was written for the part,” he said. This most recent vision of Fontaine recasts the original along the lines of the more “cartoonish” style of later adaptations. The result is a production that falls somewhere between the film and the stage, while attempting to stay true to the era of inspiration.

If Brown could change anything about the final production, he said he would have toned down the costumes and sets. Although he said he understands why they chose to make the setting candy-colored, he would have preferred a more realistic and gritty vision, more in keeping with the original stage version than the movie.

But Brown is proud of the company’s ability to pull off the artistic vision behind the production, and happy to have the opportunity to perform on Broadway for eight performances a week. His advice to aspiring actor Yalies who wish to follow in his footsteps is to go to graduate school, or New York, to get experience and help in perfecting the craft.

“Come to New York,” Brown said. “It’s where the actor as an artist is best respected.”

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