Originally presented as a concert at Feinstein's/54 Below in fall 2018, The Jonathan Larson Project is now available as an album from Ghostlight Records. Featuring previously unrecorded music by the late Rent composer, including songs from never-produced shows like 1984 and Superbia; cut songs; and musical numbers written for theatrical revues and the radio, the album captures performances from the concert's original cast: Nick Blaemire (tick tick… BOOM!), Lauren Marcus (Be More Chill), Andy Mientus (Spring Awakening), Krysta Rodriguez (Spring Awakening), and George Salazar (Be More Chill), as well as band members Natalie Tenenbaum (musical director), Charlie Rosen (who also served as music supervisor, orchestrator, and arranger), Cody Owen Stine, Megan Talay, and Marques Walls.
Here, director of the concert Jennifer Ashley Tepper shares the behind-the-scenes stories of how she constructed the song cycle from the Jonathan Larson archives.
“Greene Street” is a standalone “theatre song” that Jonathan wrote in 1983. He was 23 years old and had just moved to New York City after growing up in White Plains and going to college in Garden City.
Before The Jonathan Larson Project, "Greene Street” had never been publicly performed or commercially recorded and existed only as a demo featuring Jonathan Larson and a piano, held in a collection at the Library of Congress. Music supervisor/orchestrator/arranger Charlie Rosen and I expanded the song into a full opening number for our company.
“One of These Days”
For over six years in the 1980s, Jonathan worked tirelessly on his futuristic dystopian original musical Superbia. He hoped it would make a statement about the lack of authentic human connection and compassion in a technology-burdened generation. He also hoped it would combine pop music and musical theatre in an unprecedented way.
Superbia never received a full production, but it did receive readings and workshops, including at both Playwrights Horizons and the Public Theater, and win Jonathan “promising writer” accolades and awards. He rewrote Superbia endlessly and sent it to every producer and theater and person in power you can imagine. He got hundreds of rejections.
“One of These Days” was the original I Want song for Superbia’s protagonist, Josh Out, in early versions of the show. Josh Out is an imaginative inventor who is obsessed with finding objects from the old world and bringing them back to life—a total freak and danger to Superbia society. Nick Blaemire imbues the song with an energetic, nerd-soul ambition that makes it catch fire.
“Break Out the Booze”
Jonathan was involved with the theatre group Naked Angels and wrote songs for various benefits and evenings they put together. Tell Them Angel Sent Me was a piece performed on December 2, 1990, at Tatou, a hot club on the east side that was originally designed as an opera house. (A month before Tell Them Angel Sent Me, Mariah Carey received her first professional showcase at Tatou.)
Tell Them Angel Sent Me was an environmentally staged play with music, featuring contributions from artists including Peter Gallagher, Ilana Levine, Jane Krakowski, and June Havoc. The piece took place on the last night of Prohibition. After bootlegger and mobster Angel Cortini was rubbed out by his archrival, his moll unknowingly sang “Break Out The Booze” to an audience that she thought included him.
Here, “Break Out the Booze” belongs in every sense of the word to Lauren Marcus, who proclaims “The government’s awful/ So let’s be unlawful” with such vicious determination that where she leads, we will follow, drinks in hand.
During our week-long run of The Jonathan Larson Project at Feinstein’s/54 Below, we switched the order of “One Of These Days” and “Break Out The Booze” within the show. “Break Out The Booze”, with its old-school saloon swing, is such a departure from what audiences have come to expect from Jonathan’s voice that it was important to set up his sound before we busted assumptions. The switch idea first came from the brain of (Larson Grant winner) Joe Iconis, my constant collaborator and writer of some amazing liner notes for the limited edition CD package of The Jonathan Larson Project. His support and insight throughout the whole process was essential (and his pure fanboy reactions during every performance at Feinstein’s/54 Below were a fun bonus).
“Out of My Dreams”
In addition to writing musicals and theatre songs, Jonathan also wrote pop songs he hoped would
play on the radio someday. “Out of My Dreams,” penned in 1991, is one of those pop songs, and it’s also semi-autobiographical, based on poetry that Jonathan wrote about his on-again off-again girlfriend.
Krysta Rodriguez brought her extraordinary pop diva instincts and style to “Out of My Dreams,” slinking around the audience and even on the tables during The Jonathan Larson Project. Krysta’s forceful, take-no-prisoners dedication to delivering the radio-friendly banger makes the song all the more electrifying. The track, as recorded and mixed masterfully by the great Ian Kagey, allows you to imagine the “Out of My Dreams” music video that might have been. In its fully produced glory, the song shows even more of Jonathan’s versatility. He was writing in so many different genres.
“Out of My Dreams” includes the lyric “Us vs. them.” Throughout The Jonathan Larson Project are little seeds that point to work Jonathan would create later. While writing Rent and thinking no one would ever hear “Out of My Dreams,” Jonathan re-crafted this lyric into the now-iconic “To being an us for once, instead of a them.”
At Adelphi, where Jonathan went to college, the theatre program created original cabarets and
musicals. Jonathan returned in 1987 to write a cabaret for the students called Prostate of the Union, with collaborator Michael Lindsay. The subtitle of the show was “The Evils of Ronald Reagan’s America”. The character depicted in this song is very similar to a character Jonathan would later create in full: Mimi in Rent. He actually put “Valentine’s Day” in some early versions of Rent, but it was cut.
Andy Mientus’ deeply soulful, full throttle rendition of “Valentine’s Day” makes the number everything it was always meant to be. When we were in the studio making the album, Andy excitedly mentioned to the rest of us that it would actually be his first time recording lead vocals on a show recording. I’m so moved listening to Andy slay his big solo numbers on this album—his passion and his intelligence as an actor come through in his gorgeous vocals.
Our truly unbelievable band gets some opportunities to shine on this track. Music director Natalie Tenenbaum is on piano and music supervisor/orchestrator/arranger Charlie Rosen is on bass, plus we have Marques Walls on drums, Megan Talay on guitar one and Cody Owen Stine on keys two and guitar two. When Charlie and I first broke down “Valentine’s Day” we realized that on some of Jonathan’s demos for the song, he was making sounds vocally that were actually meant to emulate certain instruments he intended to be integrated.
“White Male World”
In 1991, director Maggie Lally put together a show called Skirting The Issues that ran for two weeks in New York and featured songs and scenes from 10 different writers. This number was Jonathan’s contribution. The show was described as “the post-Barbie generation takes aim at everything.”
If a new musical theatre writer presented this song at Feinstein’s/54 Below tonight, I would be blown away by their ability to slam the patriarchy in a way that resonates so potently in 2019. The fact that Jonathan wrote it almost three decades ago is truly astonishing. Lauren and Krysta’s gut-wrenching interpretation is the definition of powerful.
I remember sitting on the Amtrak back to New York after a Washington, D.C., Larson research trip, staring out the window and listening to Jonathan’s demo of “White Male World” on repeat. I imagined it would be a song for the two women in the show I would create someday, and I imagined the gasps from the audience at its relevance. It all came true.
“La Di Da Rap”
In 1989, Jonathan was invited by producer Nelle Nugent to write some songs for a planned Broadway revue about presidential politics called National Lampoon’s Tricentennial Revue. The show was supposed to have a couple regional theater tryouts and then play the Ritz (now Walter Kerr). It never came to pass. This is one of Jonathan’s four songs, written about campaign strategy and the marketing of president candidates. Krysta executes it with style and gusto.
(Don’t even get me started on how “Make America great” is a lyric.)
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill was one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters of all time. Jonathan wrote this song as a reaction to it. It was performed once: at the Naked Angels Earth Day Show in 1990.
George Salazar has a way of feeling the songs he performs from the tips of his toes to the top of his headband and “Iron Mike” is no exception. Your heart breaks for the wildlife, the ocean, our planet, as he shares this shanty-style story song with such anger and also such hope.
Many of the songs in The Jonathan Larson Project are political and loud about changing the world. They feel so relevant today.
“Find the Key”
“Find the Key” is a cut song from tick, tick… BOOM!. While it was written as a solo, Charlie and I felt this would be a great opportunity in The Jonathan Larson Project to hear all three men come together on a number. Jonathan wrote “Find the Key” about simultaneously struggling in his relationship and in his writing. But as with much great art, the specificity makes it feel universal. The idea of being isolated in your apartment trying to find the keys to unlock your problems is relatable—an idea we felt would be magnified by hearing three voices at once.
“Hosing the Furniture”
The American Musical Theatre Festival in Philadelphia put together a 1989 revue called Sitting on the Edge of the Future, which featured various writers creating pieces in response to the 1939 World’s Fair. The World’s Fair that year had an exhibit of a “city of the future,” featuring what 1939 citizens imagined would be the scientific advances associated with domestic life in the future. Michael John LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Scott Frankel also participated.
Jonathan was extremely proud of “Hosing the Furniture” and it later won him the Stephen Sondheim Award. In it, I think you can hear the time Jonathan spent observing rehearsals of the original Into The Woods. It’s surprising that “Hosing the Furniture” has never been recorded—until now. Lauren delivers the showstopper with such specificity of character and such vocal dexterity, I get breathless just listening to it. She gives us an entire show in five minutes—layering in massive subtext while singing her face off and giving each lyric fascinating significance. The final moment is everything.
After Lauren did one take, album producer and president of Ghostlight Kurt Deutsch turned to me, raised an eyebrow, and said, “Well, we got it.”
This is a standalone pop song Jonathan wrote in 1991.
There is a reason that George gets “Iron Mike” and “Pura Vida” in The Jonathan Larson Project, just as there’s a reason for the exact material each role in the show has. In George’s case, both numbers are about our Earth, but come at it from different perspectives. (In case you were curious, Lauren has “the substance track.”) George’s interpretation of both numbers is stunning and heartbreaking—and makes me want to save our planet.
The fabric of The Jonathan Larson Project was greatly impacted by the fact that the five actors sang backup for each other. On numbers like “Out of My Dreams” and “Valentine’s Day” and “Pura Vida,” actors would switch from lead on one song to backup on the next, and it enhanced the communal spirit inherent in Jonathan’s work.
“The Truth Is a Lie”
Written for another Naked Angels benefit, called The Naked Angels Censorship Show, this is the song that made me think the most about Be More Chill as I was directing. Our Be More Chill creative team has endeavored to create a piece of work that says: you can be anxious, depressed, isolated… and still get excited about things, still celebrate what you love, still have a dance party. I thought about that as I instructed the cast to rock out to their heart’s content as they spewed harsh facts about government disasters and societal failures. Jonathan wrote a song that calls out the problems of inequality for women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community, that screams about the government’s failures regarding AIDS, the environment, the Cold War… while all the time rocking, soaring, wailing, jamming.
At 1:16, Krysta’s little “hey!”, claiming her space as she jumps into her verse, is one of my favorite moments. Just a perfect tiny example of how these five actors felt this work in their souls, knew what it meant, how to honor it, and how to make it theirs. In every small and big way.
Before The Jonathan Larson Project, “The Truth Is a Lie” existed only as a demo featuring solely Jonathan and a synth. Our orchestration is one of my favorites that Charlie created. Jonathan was clearly partially inspired by Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” so the bones of that are in the track, and Charlie integrated ’80s new wave vibes too in the world of Depeche Mode and The Eurythmics. (Relevant side bar: we also had a list to consult of every album and tape Jonathan had in his personal collection.) The way “The Truth Is a Lie” builds musically now, getting more urgent and insistent, is something that’s so true to what lives on Jonathan’s demo and is now fully realized by our cast and band. Charlie took every number and looked to make it authentic to Jonathan’s intentions and also part of our larger project. He integrated such a wide range of influences and yet musically made Jonathan’s originality shine through in every song.
There was no one in the world who could sing this song like Nick Blaemire could sing this song.
When you create work with longtime collaborators, you have such a foundation of understanding that you can employ to make every project stronger and truer. I knew Nick would find the depth of yearning for success, the style of humor about the struggle, and the fragile nature of the race at the heart of “Rhapsody,” I knew he would understand and be able to communicate exactly what Jonathan wanted us to know about being a young artist trying to make a life in New York City.
The first time the rest of the Jonathan Larson Project cast saw Nick perform “Rhapsody” at a rehearsal at Studios 353 on 48th Street, their jaws literally dropped. “I know it’s important/ But I feel like I’ve gotten my priorities/ Beaten out of me/ With a rolled-up New York Times.”
Musical director Natalie Tenenbaum’s piano prowess during this number is wild to experience. Her ability to play material so technically complicated yet so conversational, and make it feel like a vital breathing opus every time… unbelievable. This number was also made what it is by our wizard of a copyist Danielle Gimbal, who crafted dazzling sheet music for The Jonathan Larson Project that connected Jonathan’s demos with the creative process happening in our rehearsal room—all the while ascertaining every lyric and note accurately.
One of my favorite memories of our week-long run at Feinstein’s/54 Below was looking over at a table of twelve new musical theatre writers experiencing “Rhapsody.” We had a different special guest at each performance, and one of these was a slew of Larson Grant winners. On the night they were there, the song received audible gasps of recognition.
The first major musical Jonathan wrote was an adaptation of the book 1984 by George Orwell. His goal was to get it produced by/in the year 1984 itself. He worked incredibly hard to obtain the rights to the property, but he never could. After years of failing to get the rights, he decided that if he couldn’t do 1984, he would instead write his own original futuristic dystopian musical, and that became Superbia.
“SOS” is sung by Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, at the very end of the show. Much of the score of 1984 is more traditional than Jonathan’s later work. “SOS” calls out most to the pop-rock influence Jonathan would later integrate into his musicals. The desperate ache and isolation Andy fills the number with are so moving, and help to knit it to “Rhapsody”—I believe the two songs are brothers, even though one is very autobiographical and one is very much in the world of 1984.
When Marin Mazzie passed away, I wrote about her and Jonathan’s friendship and collaboration for Playbill. In their act, J. Glitz, she frequently sang a gorgeous and melancholy Larson composition from 1984 called “After The Revolution”. This was happening at the same time as Jonathan was knocking on doors to try to get 1984 produced.
Jonathan wrote “SOS” when he was 22 years old.
Alison Gertz was one of several of Jonathan’s close friends, also including Gordon Rogers and Pam Shaw, who died of AIDS at young ages in the early 1990s and to whom he paid tribute by name in the song “Life Support” in Rent. Alison was an AIDS activist who did a lot of important work promoting research and awareness.
Victoria Leacock Hoffman commissioned Jonathan to write “Love Heals” for the foundation that Ali named and that Victoria, along with Dini von Mueffling and Stefani Greenfield, founded in Ali’s memory to educated young people about HIV/AIDS. Jonathan wrote the song in 1992 based on interviews with Victoria, Dini, and Stefani, and their feelings after the devastating loss of Ali at 26.
I first heard “Love Heals” on Sherie Rene Scott’s … Men I’ve Had album, and it was later included on the soundtrack of the Rent movie. As led by Krysta, with such soaring, open-hearted vocals and emotion, it felt like the perfect penultimate number for The Jonathan Larson Project.
While there are hundreds of tapes of Jonathan’s work in the collections at the Library of Congress, there is one labeled simply “Jonathan Larson Music ’83” that is perhaps my favorite. Jonathan was 23 years old when he made it, and so it mostly features songs he wrote for college shows at Adelphi University. Littered among these are also his early standalone theater songs.
The tape contains 21 tracks. “Greene Street” is first and “Piano” is last. “Rhapsody” is near the end. These are perhaps the three most obscure songs that I placed in The Jonathan Larson Project, the songs that absolutely no one knew before we presented them. They wound up shaping the very groundwork of the song cycle we created.
I always wanted The Jonathan Larson Project to be the new musical theatre song cycle that Jonathan never created—but could have. From the moment I heard “Piano” I knew it was our finale.
Like Rent, “Piano” is unfinished and that’s part of its power. Jonathan wasn’t done. The first time Krysta sang the nonsense syllables in rehearsal, she did so with tears running down her face. “He would have finished that lyric, I think,” she told me later. I agree.
I sat inside the actual recording studio for a few takes of “Piano.” I felt the voices and music coming at me live and even months later now, I can still feel that moment.
“Bonus Track: Greene Street” (Jonathan Larson 1983 Demo)
When I discovered the song “Greene Street” on a tape at the Library of Congress in December of 2016, I was floored. I sat under the fluorescent lights and rewound and then I rewound again.
Jonathan captured perfectly the exuberant, terrifying, impossible feeling of being young and new to New York City. “Greene Street” is the musical manifestation of running down the street, finding elation in the energy of the strangers around you, the buildings, the air. In this song Jonathan wrote at age 23, he was already establishing one of his main ideologies: the joy of existence does not depend on how much cash is in your wallet.
I listened to the tape of Jonathan at his piano, pounding out “Greene Street” so many times. I couldn’t believe no one had ever heard this song. His family and closest friends didn’t remember it. There was no evidence he had ever played it in a concert or at an event. It latched onto my heart where it stayed for months, known by me alone, until I brought it over to Charlie Rosen’s apartment. We imagined what “Greene Street” could be as a fully orchestrated group number to open our show. I am so grateful we get to include this demo track on the album because not only is it pure Larson magic, it also gives a glimpse into our process of taking Jonathan’s demos, examining their intentions and every other detail, and creating a new song cycle from them.
In a December 26, 2016, email to Joe Iconis, I wrote: “I cannot wait to play ‘Greene Street’ for you. Of all of it, I think it's still my favorite thing I've found. It's the thing that makes me feel most like I knew him.”