Jonathan Larson kept all of his rejection letters “as fuel,” according to his sister, Julie. Yet the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation finds its fuel in its power to “Say ‘Yes’ To Artists”—the theme of the September 16 American Theatre Wing Gala.
The night honored Larson's legacy and family and all of the vital “yeses” they have given through the Jonathan Larson Grants since 1997. The Grants have been administered by The Wing since 2008, and are only one piece of the Wing’s 102-year record of supporting artists in the American theatre.
Today’s musical theatre writers weren’t just inspired by Larson’s work—a number of them proclaimed their Renthead status from the stage at Cipriani 42nd Street—they were directly impacted by the support and funds they received as recipients of the Jonathan Larson Grant. Dear Evan Hansen’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, A Strange Loop’s Michael R. Jackson, Bella: An American Tall Tale’s Kirsten Childs, and more are all past recipients of the grant that paid their rent so they could write.
Larson knew the importance of these grants, as he applied for many during his lifetime. In fact, in a highlight of the evening, Wing Chairman David Henry Hwang read from Larson’s application for the Kleban Prize:
My goal as a lyricist-composer is to take the best aspects of traditional American Musicals and combine them with current themes, aesthetics, and music. I believe theatre should (and could) again be a source of Pop Music, which would attract a new audience.
I'm 29 and support myself primarily by waiting tables. Although it's a grind, I generally have found time for my real work. But lately, the more ruthless I am with myself, the longer it takes to complete a song -yet the results are better and better. … And as costs rise, everything gets harder and harder to do. … I'm [currently] contributing to National Lampoon's TRICENTENIAL REVUE , as well as continuing my work on SUPERBIA. … [And] I'm working on an updated version of the LA BOHEME story- set in the East Village.
He didn’t win that prize, but the theatre community benefited—and continues to—from his persistence. The gala was proof.
After an opening rendition of “Come to Your Senses” from Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM! sung by Krysta Rodriguez, the evening featured performances of songs by Larson Grant recipients, beginning with Benj Pasek. Norm Lewis wowed with his rendition of “Part of a Painting” from Pasek and Paul’s song cycle EDGES. Tony Award winner Nikki M. James then took the stage. It seems her fate to forge a path in musical theatre was sealed back in the sixth grade, when she wrote a 28-page paper on Larson. James stood in for 2014 Larson Grant recipient Shaina Taub and sang her song “Lighten Up” from Old Hats.
Childs, one of the earliest recipients of the Larson Grant in 1999, thanked the Larson family “for giving hope, validation, and much needed cash” to writers like herself. She then introduced Once On This Island alum Hailey Kilgore singing “Pretty” from her The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. A 2006 Larson Grant recipient, Joe Iconis took the stage to introduce a song from his upcoming musical Love in Hate Nation, which bows at Two River Theater in New Jersey—notably where Be More Chill got its start. The 1962-set musical follows two girls who fall in love in a juvenile hall. The cast—Sydney Farley, Amina Faye, Jasmine Forsberg, Lauren Marcus, Kelly McIntyre, Lena Skeele, Emerson Mae Smith, and Tatiana Wechsler—hit the stage for a performance of “Revolution Song.”
Jackson, whose A Strange Loop wrapped up a critically acclaimed and soldout run this summer, thanked the Larson family for validating him back in 2017 with a grant before introducing Tony nominee Brandon Victor Dixon, who sang “Memory Song” from the high concept meta-musical. Dixon then introduced the cast of The Jonathan Larson Project; Lauren Marcus, Nick Blaemire, Andy Mientus, Krysta Rodriguez, and Jason Tam sang “The Truth Is a Lies from the song cycle assembled by Jennifer Ashley Tepper, which showcased the unheard songs of Larson. Of course, the final performance had to be “Season of Love,” led by original Rent cast members Fredi Walker and Daphne Rubin-Vega.
Through it all, Julie Larson glowed with pride at her brother’s legacy, albeit one that feels separate from the man she knew. “Honestly, we didn’t know Jonathan Larson,” she said. “He was Jonny to his family and Jon to his friends. … We saw him struggling one moment and sure he would change musical theatre the next. We watched him receive many many almosts and mountains of rejections.”
Thanks to The American Theatre Wing and the Jonathan Larson Foundation, for many artists those mountains have been reduced to molehills and the theatre community is richer for all the times they say “yes” to artists.