The Jonathan Larson Project Reveals Unheard Songs by Rent Composer
Producer Jennifer Ashley Tepper premieres decades-old work by the man who changed the landscape of musical theater.
Jonathan Larson's name is synonymous with the American musical theater of the 1990s. Rent, a rock opera based on Puccini's La Bohème, put Larson on the map and earned the kinds of awards — both physical and financial — that any struggling young writer who had spent years pounding the pavement could only dream about. His unexpected death from a heart defect on the morning of the show's first off-Broadway preview in 1996 robbed the community of a singular talent, while simultaneously shifting the path of an entire genre into the future.
At the time of his passing, Larson left behind an extensive catalogue of stand-alone songs and unproduced musicals. There was a stage version of George Orwell's 1984 that never saw the light of day because of rights issues. There was Superbia, his original dystopian world musical written in response. And there was 30/90, a rock monologue about the rejection of Superbia that later became Tick, Tick…BOOM! Nearly all of it has been buried in his papers at the Library of Congress ever since.
Forever a Rent fan, Feinstein's/54 Below programming director Jennifer Ashley Tepper took it upon herself to rescue Larson's lost songs from the dusty cabinets of Washington, D.C., and the result, a pulsating concert called The Jonathan Larson Project, made its debut at the cabaret venue last week. Featuring 18 numbers performed by the kind of vibrant young artists that Larson thrived upon decades ago, this show seems destined for a future life onstage and on disc. His songs simply deserve to be heard.
Directed and curated by Tepper, with first-rate orchestrations and arrangements by Charlie Rosen, the songs on display aren't grouped by any particular through-line. But as we hear them, we begin to understand a little better the evolution of a writer whose work very consciously explored the social issues of the 1980s and 1990s.
The subjects are scarily prescient. "The Truth Is a Lie," written in 1990 for the Naked Angels Censorship Show, is a look at censorship and fake news, with lyrics that are enough to shake anyone to their core. "White Male World," a "We Didn't Start the Fire"-esque takedown of toxic masculinity from a 1991 revue called Skirting the Issues, is particularly devastating, especially as performed with blistering anger by Lauren Marcus and Krysta Rodriguez.
Marcus also stops the show with "Hosing the Furniture," a furious riff on 1930s domesticity from a 1989 revue called Sitting on the Edge of the Future, where writers were asked to respond to the 1939 World's Fair. The song won Larson the Stephen Sondheim Award, and after hearing the clever lyrics interpreted through Marcus's blazing, full-bodied performance, it's easy to see why.
Nick Blaemire and George Salazar, two performers who starred in Keen Company's recent revival of Tick, Tick…BOOM!, find just as much nuance in their material, which is more story-driven than stand-alone. Few performers today are as adept at bringing out all the colors of multilayered story songs as Salazar is, and he really brings his A game to "Iron Mike," a 1990 response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Blaemire delivers a particularly rapturous take on "Rhapsody," an angry young man's ode to New York City that had never heretofore been performed. Andy Mientus brings a strong rocker's edge to "Valentine's Day," from a student revue called "Prostate of the Union," as well as "SOS" from 1984.
In essence, The Jonathan Larson Project is a college course in Larsonese, a subject all of us '90s babies thought we knew everything about because of his seminal, industry-shifting classic. There's always more to learn, though, and as it turns out, what we knew barely scratched the surface.