FLASH FRIDAY: The Legend of Jonathan Larson & RENT
It was a story that could only be ripped from headlines, or emblazoned in the unmistakable and majestic lights of Broadway - a genius composer/lyricist in the prime of his life dying of a rare affliction nights before the world premiere of his pet project and the culmination of his life's work - a modern-day adaptation of Puccini's LA BOHEME, set in 1990s NYC. Yet, in his passing came a preview performance given in his memory by the original cast of his masterwork, RENT, by Jonathan Larson, that many writers and reviewers and Broadway babies still talk about to this very day - a for many more than merely good reasons, no doubt. A phenomenon only comes along once a decade or so, after all - and the 1990s had RENT. But, back to those blinding, white hot lights of Broadway - right now, all eyes and ears on Broadway and off are on the RENT revival that opened last night at New World Stages and today we are turning the clock back fifteen years ago to 1996 and looking at the roots of RENT and the man who made the musical, Jonathan Larson. Those lights that reveal all and spare none, as a song in the Broadway THE WILD PARTY goes written by Michael John LaChiusa, a contemporary of Larson's, and perhaps we shall cast some new illumination on Larson's work besides RENT - chiefly, his bio-musical TICK, TICK… BOOM! which premiered five years after his death to some critical acclaim and off-Broadway success, ten years ago, starring Raul Esparza. Additionally, we will take a listen to Larson himself performing material from his handful of musicals and also look at some of his lesser-known work, pre-RENT, and also some of the most recent RENT-related must-see moments.
Ask The Birds
The loss of Jonathan Larson to the theatre community is still being felt to this very day - who has replaced him? NEXT TO NORMAL was a moderate success and Jason Robert Brown has written some exceptional scores, but the wide, very vast majority of the Broadway landscape is awash in theme park attractions and soulless, mindless extravaganzas that could not be farther away from the paradigm followed by the post-Sondheim generation of composers that includes Larson, along with the aforementioned LaChiusa, alongside Tony-winner Adam Guettel, Jeanine Tesori, Ricky Ian Gordon and others - let alone Sondheim himself, who just this week exacted his exacting and chillingly apt attention to PORGY & BESS in the pages of the New York Times. Larson is far and away the most successful of the bunch and the only one for whom Sondheim was a consistent mentor and presence in the development of a project as he was for RENT; giving notes on various drafts to Larson considering RENT's twelve year reign on Broadway - and, now, the return of the rock musical to New World Stages; just Off-Broadway this time. A little more downtown seems to be the recipe of the day now - and that seems befitting, given the tough times facing us now. Michael Grief directs again and a paired-down, not-quite-period-set production has been met with mixed reviews by critics, yet the passion and poignancy and potency of Larson's message lingers on - and, if the stars are just right, really packs a punch still - and, if for only that, it is reason enough for a new production of RENT to exist. Yet, a new look at Larson's pre-RENT musicals - or better yet, a revue utilizing his cut songs and two pretty much un-produced musicals laying on the Larson Estate's shelf would be positively thrilling for theater fans thirsty for more from the man who brought the world the music and lyrics of RENT. What gifts born forth from a playwright wrought may await would such a reexamination of Larson's back catalogue produce in the age of the predominance of the jukebox musical! "So many possibilities," as one of Larson's favorite musicals, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, so exactingly intones. Time will tell what the future holds for Larson's other musical material, but for now we have this corollary to the RENT tribute in this very column from a few weeks back, here today with a look at Larson's predominantly non-RENT work - BOHO DAYS, SUPERBIA, JP MORGAN SAVES THE WORLD and more!
Kicking off our look at the legacy of posthumous Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Larson, let's take a look at some songs from his solo show filmed on 9/25/91, BOHO DAYS, to see what made the man behind the music and lyrics the unquestionable voice of a generation for fans of Broadway rock/pop scores. His music lives on though he is long gone.
First up, here is the song that became the opening number for TICK, TICK…BOOM!, the truly rocking and heartily thrilling "30/90" - and the central dilemma certainly lives on for this generation, perhaps to an even greater extent than Larson himself who waited tables his whole career could have even imagined or foreseen in the 1980s and 1990s. Twenty years later, this material is fresh as ever, is it not?
Next, here is Larson performing his homage to Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday" from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, re-imagined as taking place in a café in the Village instead - to quite hilarious and on-the-nose results. A loving homage and parody if ever there were any, lest we forget that Sondheim himself acted as a mentor to Larson in his early career and a voice message from Sondheim to Larson was unforgettably recreated in TICK, TICK… BOOM! onstage.
Singing one of the most moving and memorable songs from RENT, here is Jonathan Larson himself performing "One Song Glory". No one quite gets to the heart and guts and soul like the composer himself, as this makes painfully obvious.
Now, check out another Jonathan Larson rarity in the form of "One of These Days", which happens to also be available on the relatively recently released and quite riveting collection of his demo recordings, JONATHAN SINGS LARSON.
Experience a particularly striking and strange ballad taken from the JONATHAN SINGS LARSON collection here, titled "LCD Readout". What could have been with this show, the surreal sci-fi rock musical SUPERBIA? Maybe we will never know - then again, maybe we will after all given a miracle. Time will tell. "Can one moment mean more than the rest?" We will see…
Closing out the Larson-solo portion of the column, here is the original 1992 demo of RENT's Act One Finale, "La Vie Boheme", with the composer/lyricist multiplied many times over and performing, full-out and fully-contrapuntally with himself - musically and otherwise! Whew!
Since no Larson tribute would be entirely whole without a genuine stage musical clip or three, here is Raul Esparza, Amy Spanger and Jerry Dixon, otherwise known as the original Off-Broadway cast of the originAl Larson musical TICK, TICK… BOOM!, here singing the show's flawless final anthem, "Louder Than Words", on the TODAY Show in June, 2001.
Also, check out "Therapy" from the same TODAY broadcast.
With perhaps the piece de resistance of the entire column, here is Amy Spanger singing one of Larson's finest compositions of all, "Come To Your Senses", written for SUPERBIA, but here performed in the original production of TICK, TICK… BOOM! It's as moving and magical as anything in RENT - no question; not that a comparison of the two is necessary. It stands - and shines, oh so brightly - all on its own.
Finally, here is an unbelievably moving performance of "Why?" from TICK, TICK… BOOM! performed by Raul Esparza at the 2008 NYMF Gala. Larson would surely look proudly on this! Wow!
Larson's other musical material most assuredly stands on its own, as well - head and shoulders above most musicals today - as all of these clips stand as clear-cut evidence of, yet there are many more unseen glories yet to make it to YouTube.
As a special bonus, check out X-FACTOR judge and ex-Pussycat Dolls lead singer Nicole Scherzinger performing "Over The Moon" from the 2010 Hollywood Bowl production of RENT directed by Neil Patrick Harris who has starred in RENT and TICK, TICK… BOOM!.
Just Came To Say…
Is it too soon for a return to RENT when there is all of this marvelous other material from Larson's catalogue to consider - possibly in a theatrical milieu? Is TICK, TICK… BOOM! too small-scale in its ambitions a three-character piece for Broadway and Broadway prices? Is SUPERBIA unworkable? What about the other shows that we have heard scarcely anything from or about - certainly there is a tune or two worth salvaging there as well, if not many, many more. Maybe someday the world at large will get to hear another full-length Larson musical, but until then there are a veritable treasure trove of treats and curiosities to check out for the RENT fans, old and new. Plus, there's the new production of RENT Off-Broadway, to relive each and every one of the one song glories of the score one more time.
That's all for this week. Please remember that if you have discovered a particularly thrilling, unique, bizarre or hilarious Broadway-related clip to please send us a line at the link below. Until next week…