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Researcher Stories: Jennifer Ashley Tepper

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This is a guest post by theater historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper. It ran in the Library of Congress Magazine April/May 2020 issue.

Jennifer Ashley Tepper. Photo: Shawn Miller.

I grew up inspired by Jonathan Larson’s musicals. Even as a teenager, I identified deeply with his ideals — his dedication to art made from the heart, his passion for bringing musical theater to new generations, his devotion to friendship and community, and, of course, the undeniable genius with which he channeled all this into characters, stories and songs that changed the world.

In 2016, I spent a day at the Library, immersed in the Jonathan Larson Collection — an experience that ultimately led me to create “The Jonathan Larson Project,” a song cycle of previously unheard works by the late composer and playwright.

Nothing in my work as a theater historian has knocked me out like his collection did that day — hundreds of hours of audio recordings and hundreds of files of written material, each one incredible.

There was a momentous reading of Jonathan’s unproduced musical “Superbia; mix tapes filled with songs taped off the radio that inspired the characters of his smash musical, “Rent”; songs from never-produced musicals about presidential elections and the end of the world; an outline for a musical version of “Polar Express”; and original audition notes for “Rent at New York Theatre Workshop.

I returned to the Library half a dozen times over the next year — the adventure of a theater historian’s wildest dreams. It also was, at times, devastating. With his voice in my ears and his papers in my hands, I could see with a new level of intimacy how hard Jonathan persevered and how ahead of his time he was.

Even though 95 percent of what I discovered wasn’t included in the project, it all was part in a way. I staged a cut song from “Superbia,” having read six drafts of the show. I collaborated with actors on songs about loss, knowing in detail about those friends Jonathan loved and lost. I brought never-performed songs to life, songs that reveal pieces of Jonathan’s life and era I understand profoundly because of all I was able to access.

Now, because of this collection, new audiences can experience songs and ideas of Jonathan’s that were previously only experienced by one woman, wiping away tears at a library desk.

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