Before his untimely death in 1996 at the age of 35, composer and playwright Jonathan Larson created groundbreaking work that would become the touchstone of a generation and a watershed moment for new theater. Garnering worldwide acclaim with his rock musicals tick, tick . . . BOOM! and Rent, for which he was posthumously recognized with three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, Larson left a treasure trove of prodigious material that had not been publicly produced, recorded, performed, or heard – until now, in The Jonathan Larson Project, presented this month at Feinstein’s/54 Below.
Conceived and directed by Creative and Programming Director Jennifer Ashley Tepper, the series of shows pays tribute to Larson with work culled from her five years of archival research at The New York Public Library and The Library of Congress, which houses the Jonathan Larson Collection, as well as from interviews with his family, friends, and colleagues. Tepper’s brilliantly-balanced selection of little-known or never-before-heard songs, performed here by some of the most impressive talents of the contemporary New York stage, highlights Larson’s innovative post-modern style and incisive themes that speak to a youthful audience and hold universal appeal in their messages about life, love, and social issues.
Starring Nick Blaemire, Lauren Marcus, Andy Mientus, Krysta Rodriguez, and George Salazar, each performance features a set list of eighteen numbers, along with an additional appearance by guest artists, including such notables as Julia Mattison and Will Roland (Salazar’s castmate in the smash-hit sensation Be More Chill), who were on for the date I attended, and offered a funny duet on “Turn the Key.” Every song was consummately matched to the styles and personalities of the singers, whose acting skills enhanced their masterful vocals and brought the lyrics to life, as they moved around the stage, through the venue, and into the audience, assumed the identities and demeanors of the protagonists in Larson’s engaging musical narratives, and made good use of a few minimal props, costume accessories, colorful mood lighting, and video projections related to the subjects.
The range of numbers, with program notes by Tepper that contextualize every one of the rediscovered works, included pieces that were cut from Larson’s two biggest hit musicals, or were composed for still-unproduced shows, for revues and benefits, and as stand-alone theater and pop songs. Opening with the cast’s rendition of the catchy upbeat “Greene Street,” written by the 23-year-old Larson upon moving to Manhattan in 1983, the heartfelt emotions shift from “laughing the day away” to the empathetic ensemble respectfully listening to, and touched by, the closing demo tape of Larson paying homage to the power of musical theater with “Piano,” calling on the instrument to “save my soul.”
In between, the featured solos, duets, and group harmonies, backed by a spot-on six-piece band (with expert music supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements by Charlie Rosen), delivered the humor, heartbreak, and happiness of Larson’s musical vision and his personal, economic, and socio-political perspectives on our late 20th-century culture.
Among the highlights of the all-around entertaining and touching evening were Marcus’s old-style gritty blues on “Break Out the Booze,” Rodriguez’s grinding and sexy “Out of My Dreams,” the women’s sardonic hard-driving send-up of our “White Male World” and 1939-era domesticity in “Hosing the Furniture,” Blaemire’s plaintive sentiments of not being free in “Rhapsody,” Mientus’s British-Invasion-style lead “v, v, v” vocal in “Valentine’s Day,” Salazar’s grippingly-beautiful “Pura Vida” and “Iron Mike,” both brimming with his characteristically sincere compassion and profoundly expressive storytelling, and the full ensemble’s eerily prescient “The Truth Is a Lie,” with its now-timely observations about “fake news” set to a rock beat.
Kudos are due to Tepper, Feinstein’s/54 Below, and the entire cast and team of The Jonathan Larson Project for bringing to light his extraordinary work and giving it a new life more than twenty years after his tragic death. Let’s hope this is just the beginning of expanding Larson’s legacy and reaching more audiences with future productions of his affecting, relevant, and largely-unknown canon.
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, without intermission.