I never knew Jonathan Larson. But after Rent opened on Broadway, an archivist at the Library of Congress wrote to the Larson family asking them to consider donating Jonathan's papers to a collection that includes the rough drafts of significant writers and performers of the American Musical Theatre. Jonathan's family was flattered, of course, but they didn't know exactly where to start. I was recommended because I had made inventories of Irving Berlin's office correspondence and unpublished song files before they were sent to the Library. I didn't think I was the best person for this job because I was not fluent in rock music styles. But the Larsons gave me a sound-board recording and a ticket to the show. I quickly decided that I had to do this project. Here, I catch up with Jonathan's sister, Julie, and his father, Al, about their brother and son and his legacy.
READ THE FULL STORY OF CATALOGUING JONATHAN LARSON'S WORK FOR THE LIBRARY.
Julie, where did you and Jonathan grow up? Did you always know he would do something wonderful?
Julie Larson: We grew up in White Plains, New York, and we had quite a "Leave it to Beaver" childhood. I remember very clearly: In those days when we'd have to do book reports, you'd literally stand there and talk about your book with a piece of paper in front of you. Even back then, Jon would have none of that. He would make a film out of his book report or a play about his book report. The teachers always let him get away with it because they found it so fanciful and whimsical and creative. Now that's what kids do all the time, but back then it was very unusual. There was never any question that he was going down a creative path.
Al, what kind of music did you play in the house, that [Jon] grew up to have so many styles?
Al Larson: I'm thinking mostly of weekends, when I would be around the house, puttering or whatever, I would put on the Met opera sometimes, and at other points would put on show records. Jonathan would be in the other room playing rock and roll, the Beatles — all at unforgivably loud levels. When I would say something to him, he would say, "Well, you play the opera just that loud," and then I would have no answer for that. That was his music.
JL: It was more than that. There was definitely opera blasting on the weekends when my dad was puttering, and we owned pretty much every Broadway musical album. Jonnie and I would sit there, and we would listen to the music and follow along — you know on the back side they would always have the synopsis of every song and what was happening in the story. We did an awful lot of that. In addition, our family was very influenced by folk music — listening to the Weavers, Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson. A lot of songs from the labor movement. Songs of work and struggle.
Your mom, Nan Larson, hasn't been in the public eye very much. Was she involved with music, too?
JL: You know what? She was probably the person who most introduced us to the arts. When she was young, she played the piano. But she's always much more private about things. But growing up, she is the one who would take us to see shows. She always had a huge appreciation for the arts and instilled that in us.
I'm going to jump way forward in time. When did you see Rent for the first time?
AL: I think I saw it when it was in a workshop situation.
JL: The 1994 workshop at NYTW was the first time I remember seeing it in full form.
But you knew about it as it was brewing and coming together?
JL: Oh, absolutely. We knew every beat, every note. He would send us cassette tapes of whatever the latest songs were. He would call me — because I lived on the west coast — sometimes when it was too late for him to call his friends to get input on what he was working on. You know, he worked late into the night. He would call me and he'd just say, "Here — listen," and play the latest of whatever he was working on. In fact, [the songs from Rent] on an old clunky cassette tape was part of Matthew and Dylan's [my sons'] lullabies. It was just Jon singing with his keyboards as the songs were developing. Jon's nephews [were] the light of his life. He adored them, and "Unky," as he was called by them, was their favorite person on the planet. [The music publishing company is called Unky's Music.]
Turning to productions of Rent, why did you visit companies of the show all over the world?
JL: From my perspective, we felt it was important for us to be as many places as Jon would have been, had he lived. I don't think we ever actually discussed the "why." It was just something we all felt compelled to do, and it was amazing and unbelievable to us to watch the trajectory of Rent unfold. We wanted to be personally involved and observe how Rent touched peoples' lives all around the world. It was also cathartic, in some ways, while simultaneously being extremely difficult, emotionally.
One of the upsides for my parents, in all the sadness, was to have the opportunity to travel the world and get to know all the beautiful, talented young people who were carrying Jon's message. Since I had small children at home, I had to pick and choose where I went more judiciously. One of my most favorite memories, and I know it was meaningful to my parents too, was seeing the show in Milan when it was produced by Pavarotti [the titular producer was Nicoletta Mantovani, Pavarotti's financée], and seeing him giving a standing ovation with tears in his eyes.
AL: As I've said over and over, I was in a total funk for several years after Jon died, and —even though I hadn't the slightest idea of what I was doing— had this mad urge to make sure everyone understood that it was Jonnie's show, to be presented as if he was there keeping everyone on their toes. I don't think I fully appreciated that the show got into the blood of the people involved in it, and they didn't need my urging at all. But, as I say, I think that in some ways I was somewhat crazy. (We all truly do deal with grief in our own particular ways.) It was pure luck for me that everyone indulged and included me and called me "Pop."
JL: It was very important, especially to my dad, for the casts to get a sense of who Jonnie was and personalize it for them, which is why we tried to do "Peasant's Feasts" for as many new casts as possible. My dad didn't want it to be "just another gig" for the people involved, so sharing some of ourselves and Jon was important.
What do you think about the larger message of Rent? We all know "no day but today"….
JL: Exactly. So much of it is so universal, and sometimes it gets missed because — I always say "the wrapping" [of AIDS and drugs and gay lovers] — can seem distasteful to some people. They don't really see the real messages. Other than the discussion about AIDS and all that, the bigger messages are, to me, about tolerance and inclusion and community and being present in your life and hope. Those things are very universal, whether it's downtown New York in the middle of the AIDS crisis, or any other time or place.
Aside from Rent itself, Jonathan's legacy continued first in the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation and now the Jonathan Larson Awards. Could you talk a little about how that came to be and why?
AL: When Jonathan died and Rent burst forth, I — speaking just for myself — was in a total stupor. Because all I knew was: Jonnie was dead. And [Rent] started to report earnings that nobody had been anticipating — other than Jon. And, frankly, in my head at that point, this was Jonnie's, this was his. This was money for Jon and he wasn't there to spend it. But how would he want to see it used? He was a great one for… helping each other and loving each other. So I said, let's start giving some help to others that were in the same boat Jon had been in all those years.
JL: Jonathan had won [several] grants and awards. A lot of times they were small grants monetarily, but they were the impetus and the encouragement that he needed at just the right time, that told him: You're doing something that we find worthy and worthwhile — keep going. We wanted to be able to pass that along to promising art makers as well. That was a really good way to celebrate Jon's legacy.
The grants are made without restrictions about how they can be used. One year the prize was given to two women collaborators who were parents, and they said, "We can use this for babysitting so we have time to actually work together!"
JL: That was the point. Because for Jonnie, partly, it was the money, but it wasn't necessarily a huge amount of money — not to mount a production or anything. For some people it was to make copies of their work, and, you know, the very basics. To us it was, and still is, for whatever the person needs and finds most useful for them, so they can keep continuing to work. [Note: Since 2008 the American Theatre Wing has administered the Jonathan Larson Grants. The 2016 winners will be announced will be March 21.]
He also impacted the medical community since Jonathan's death was caused by Marfan syndrome. Not many people knew about Marfan then.
AL: Marfan is a connective tissue disorder. [We produced] videos, one particular video was aimed at medical professionals to make them aware of it, and one was to make the general population a little more aware of recognizing the signs. [In the weeks before his death, Jonathan had gone to two emergency rooms with heart pain, but was sent home.] The Marfan Foundation was a very small organization. Over the last 20 years it has grown mightily.
I, personally, in those early days, particularly, got a number of messages, letters. I got communications from people who said, "Rent saved my life," because they were gay [or other reasons], and Rent gave them the strength to face up to their families, in many cases, and the world at large. You've seen how that's changed over 20 years. On a medical front the Marfan organization gets all sorts of communications from people.
I remember one, particularly, where a gentleman wrote to me. He was in a small town in West Virginia, I believe, and had what turned out to be an attack and was taken to the local hospital. The doctor recognized Marfan because he had had some training in it, and he told the patient that this is what saved your life. The knowledge. Frankly, it's the most rewarding aspect of all of this. There's nothing like the feeling you get when you're hearing from somebody who says: It saved my life.
The Rent cast, particularly Anthony Rapp, after many performances, handed out literature and collected donations at the back of the theatres. Hopefully, they'll continue to do that at future performances.
Speaking of the original cast, do you stay in touch with them?
JL: Very much so and not only the original cast — a lot of cast members from a lot of different productions. It truly became a huge family. Not just for us, but with each other. Cast members are always saying there was something very unique and special about the experience of working on Rent, whether it was a touring company or the Broadway or Off-Broadway company. There seems to have been some very strong bonds and very strong connections attached to that show.
What do you dream, hope, imagine for the next 20 years?
AL: I'd sure be happy to stick around and see what's going to happen in those next 20 years. [Al is 90.] In terms of Jonathan, I am hopeful of some of his other works. Tick, Tick... Boom! I'm sure will get some more play. The other pieces? Some of them could. Other than that — I've become such a Lin-Manuel [Miranda] fan. I get the same degree of pleasure from seeing Lin-Manuel's work as I do from seeing Jonnie get recognition. More than that I can't ask for.
JL: I would say that we are incredibly grateful and blown away that after 20 years there are still so many people that tell us that Rent changed their lives, or they made huge friendships, whether it was sleeping out on the line waiting for tickets together or sharing their own stories together. How many lives the show has saved that we've been told about through letters and people telling us in person that it literally saved their lives.
AL: The last word from me should be that we constantly get reminders that Jonathan has influenced, not just Lin-Manuel, but a whole generation of theatre people, creators and the actors, and to me that's a hell of a legacy. I'll settle with that.