Jonathan Larson
Jonathan Larson
Last week, Jonathan Larson would have been 44 had he not been taken from us eight years ago. This week, his musical Rent becomes one of the 10 longest-running musicals in Broadway history. In between, on Thursday last week, the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation's eighth annual awards luncheon honored the bookwriter-composer-lyricist who died much too young.

It honored other writers, too. Each year, the foundation reads and reviews applications from budding composers, lyricists, and librettists. This year, more than 150 applied. Once their works were screened by a committee and winnowed to a few, the 2004 selection panel stepped in: 33-year musical theater veteran Stephen Schwartz, who's still capable of providing Broadway with its newest hit; Barbara Pasternack, who helms the invaluable TheatreWorks USA; Barry Singer, whose new book is Ever After: The Last Years of Musical Theater and Beyond; and Tim Weil, the music supervisor for Rent.

So, at the 21 Club, we're all assembled to see who won the prizes. As usual, Willie Reale emcees -- but, this year, producer Victoria Leacock is able to introduce him as a "two-time Tony nominee" for his work on last season's A Year with Frog and Toad. Reale (pronounced Ray-AL-ee, by the way) jokes that he's glad he now has that credit because, as masters of ceremonies go, he ranks himself "somewhere between Billy Crystal and Donald Rumsfeld." (I say he's much closer to the former than the latter.)

Reale introduces the one and (certainly) only Raúl Esparza, who portrayed Larson in tick, tick...BOOM!, and now reprises the show's opening number, "30/90." It sure resonates through the room when Esparza sings such bittersweet lyrics as "They're singing 'Happy Birthday,'" "Bang -- you're dead," and "It feels like Doomsday." Esparza remarks, "I haven't sung this in three years," which isn't far from the truth. But he makes the song sound fresh. Then Reale makes the fresh comment, "That was good, man. I have no notes for you, but Rosie is standing in back" -- alluding to Esparza's Taboo producer.

What's interesting about the Larson ceremony is that you don't hear works from the current year's winners but, rather, songs written by the previous year's winners. So the Class of 2003 is ready to go. Nathan Tysen and Chris Miller have the pleasure of hearing Kristen Lee Kelly perform "Spring Cleaning," in which a character known as "Hot Lady" decides that "While I'm cleaning, I might as well get rid of you. I'm dumping more than the trash." The song's B-section soars as much as that of Styne and Sondheim's "Some People," only here the lyric is, "Goodbye, you parasitic blood-sucker!"

Laurence O'Keefe(Photo © Karen Tiongson)
Laurence O'Keefe
(Photo © Karen Tiongson)
Then Laurence O'Keefe gets up to accompany Kenny Boys, Herndon Lackey, and Kate Weatherhead in a song for which he composed the music and his wife Nell Benjamin wrote the lyrics. It's "60 Cents" from their charming Sarah, Plain and Tall. In it, Lackey is complaining to Boys for encouraging him to place the personal ad that attracted Sarah, who, as previously mentioned, is plain and tall -- and also wonderfully competent on the farm. The song nicely hints that, as time goes by in the show, Sarah won't just be relegated to weaning the Guernsey and cleaning the stable.

After those three up-tempo numbers, John Didrichsen gets up and apologizes for offering a ballad: "Come to Me," from his show Overpass. But it's such a beautiful song that we don't mind. What's nice is that, while he sings it in his Rod McKuen-like voice, he has his sister Susan Didrichsen join him. Who knows? Maybe they'll become the hottest sibling act since Rob and Kathleen!

Then Jeffrey Stock gets up to play his much-loved song "Serenity" from Triumph of Love. We get a brand-new rendition of it because Betty Buckley isn't on hand -- but Alice Ripley is. It's the first time I get to hear this lovely air sung by a different voice, and that puts me behind much of the rest of the country: Triumph of Love, I'm delighted to say, is getting plenty of productions here and there.

Now for the winners. Nancy Kassak Diekmann, the foundation's executive director, suggests that, in previous years, some judges have been wishy-washy about their decisions and, in other years, they've been unanimous. This year, she says, they expressed "passion and excitement" when making their choices. First come awards to two theater companies. One is Raw Impressions, whose producing artistic director David Rodwin gives his writers 10 days to write a 10-minute musical. "Do something with us that nobody else will allow you to do," is his directive -- and, over the past two-and-a-half years, that's resulted in 124 10-minute shows. Then the Village Theatre of Issaquah, Washington is cited for its production of Feeling Electric, a musical about shock therapy. Authors Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt accept the honor, looking somewhat shocked that anyone cares about their property as much as they.

Diekmann gives way to Julie Larson, Jonathan's sister, who never dreamed when she was growing up that she'd be standing in front of a musical theater crowd at 21, handing out checks. But she's used to it now and even makes a crack that "they have me on a five-second delay in case I get wild." She presents a check to lyricist Mark Campbell, who says, "I wouldn't be able to feed my dog without this." (I guess all the money he received when he won the first Kleban Award in 1990 is gone!)

Amanda Green
Amanda Green
Amanda Green wins, too, and is announced as working not only on new lyrics for the Hallelujah, Baby! revival that's headed for the George Street Playhouse next fall but also on lyrics for a musical version of the 2000 film High Fidelity. Larson reads what Green had written on her application, and I don't think any of us would say that the daughter of Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman overstated the case when she wrote, "My love for musical theater is bone-deep."

Alas, Green isn't present for the awards -- and neither is Cynthia Hopkins, whose musical is Accidental Nostalgia ("a one-woman show that deals with the pros and cons of nostalgia," says Larson). But the husband-and-wife team of Jim and Ruth Bauer are definitely here to accept for their show, The Blue Flower, which deals with the early days of the Weimar Republic. "I'll speak, I guess," says Jim before mentioning that "Not all change is good, but if things don't change, we'll all be in miserable shape." He continues speaking for a few minutes; then he's suddenly at a loss for words and looks to his wife for help. "Thank you," she says pointedly as a signal for him to stop talking. And he does.

Larson presents the final award to Gihieh Lee, a Korean woman who's been working on getting her green card and writing a musical. Sarah Schlesinger of the NYU Musical Theatre program had endorsed her heartily and the Larson Foundation powers-that-be agreed. Lee rises and tells us that "My father is a nuclear scientist who wants me to write Einstein: The Musical. I guess, if he wants me to write about nuclear stuff, I should write tick, tick...BOOM! 2." The Bauers and Lee each get a check for $12,500, which should be enough to pay last year's, this year's, or next year's rent.


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