I never knew Jonathan Larson, but when his death was reported, I vaguely remembered that I had read the New York Times review of J. P. Morgan Saves the Nation, a 1995 site-specific production for which Jonathan wrote the score. A few months later, I was steeping myself in his life and work.
Soon after Rent opened on Broadway, Mark Horowitz, an archivist at the Library of Congress, wrote to the family to ask them to consider donating Jonathan’s papers to a collection that includes the rough drafts of such greats as Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and many other significant writers and performers of American Musical Theatre. It didn’t hurt that Stephen Sondheim, Jonathan Larson’s idol and mentor, had promised his archive would go there, too. Jonathan’s family was flattered, of course, but they didn’t know exactly what was inside those overstuffed yellow envelopes in Jonathan’s beat-up filing cabinets.
In the summer of 1996, Al Larson (Jonathan's father) and Jonathan Burkhart (one of Jonathan's closest friends) set up "Unky's Music," an office where Jonathan's working files — six or seven filing drawers of scripts, notes, draft lyrics, programs, resumes — and around 500 audio cassettes and DATs — and everything on his computer hard drive could be reviewed. The first priorities were to register every song for copyright protection, make a backup copy of every single thing and figure out what it all was. Horowitz gave them the names of a few people in New York City who might be good for the project. I had made inventories of Irving Berlin’s office correspondence and unpublished song files before they were sent to the Library. And it is completely true that I told Al (or Burkhart, can't remember exactly) that I probably wasn't the best person for the job, because I was not fluent in rock music styles. They gave me a sound-board recording and a ticket to the show. I changed my mind.
Burkhart and I started opening up envelopes and playing tapes. I soon found out that Jonathan hadn't come out of nowhere — he'd been writing musicals and trying to get them produced for 15 years. It seemed like Jonathan had saved everything — starting with several satirical revues he wrote as an acting student at Adelphi (on a full merit scholarship, his family was very proud to say). He had written a musical version of 1984 in 1982. He had a cabaret act with summer stock friends Marin Mazzie (not yet a Broadway leading lady) and Scott Burkell (not yet writing musicals of his own). He wrote scores for modern dancers. There was a tremendous amount of material for a sci-fi musical called Superbia. There was a 30-minute video for kids with a singing puppet. There were lists of song titles and there were resumes (sometimes with fudged dates, we discovered), pitch letters and grant applications and invitations addressed to well-established writers to see Jonathan's work performed. I pulled out some of the amazing documents that now appear in the Rent coffee table book, which are now at the Library of Congress.
I was joined by Kari O'Donnell (now Otero) and Adriana Rowe (now Roze) — and we became the "Unky Girls." We started making a database of every song title — who the lyricist was (in early years Jon didn't write his own); the approximate date; what project it belonged to; what recordings we had of it; and whether there was any notated music. We collected anything Jonathan said about the work he was trying to do and his descriptions of particular songs. Nancy Kassak Diekmann was setting up the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation on the other side of the room and getting a flood of applications. We gathered song material for the March 1997 Today 4 U concert and other events. We cranked the music loud and sang along with Jonathan's demos. I hoped that I was putting the clues together correctly.
Over time I met Jonathan's mother, Nan, and his sister, Julie, and other family, friends and even some of his college classmates and teachers. But I was always a little shy, because the only reason I had this amazing project was because Jonathan was dead. I hoped I was putting the clues together correctly. I wished Jonathan was there to answer the questions himself.