Finding Jonathan Larson’s Lost Works In Tapes and Boxes…and Turning Them Into a Show

The following is a guest post from Jennifer Ashley Tepper, Creative & Programming Director at Feinstein’s/54 Below and author of The Untold Stories of Broadway book series. She is the producer of the musical Be More Chill and the creator of The Jonathan Larson Project, which will premiere this fall. She is also the historian consultant on the upcoming Tick, Tick…Boom! movie.

 

Jennifer Ashley Tepper.

In April of 1999, my Bat Mitzvah sign-in board featured me dressed as Mimi popping out of a pile of Rent Playbills. In June of 2001 when I visited New York City for the first time, the Nederlander Theatre was my first stop. In June of 2014, I created a mini-concert at New York City Center featuring lesser known Jonathan Larson works, presented before a performance of Tick, Tick…Boom!. In November of 2015, my second book was published, featuring interviews I conducted about Jonathan Larson, Rent and the Nederlander.

And in October of 2016, I boarded a train to Washington D.C., not knowing that my connection to Jonathan Larson’s life and work was about to change completely.

I grew up inspired by Jonathan Larson’s musicals. Even as a teenager living in Boca Raton, Florida, I identified deeply with his ideals: with his unwavering dedication to art made from the heart, with his passion for bringing musical theatre to a new generation, with the devotion to friendship and community layered into all of his work… and of course, with his undeniable genius in channeling all of this into characters, stories, and songs that have changed the world.

As the Creative & Programming Director at Feinstein’s/54 Below, I always had an expanded version of my 2014 concert of lesser known Larson works on my “dream show” list. I planted some seeds through the years to make it happen and knew that these would take root when the time was right.

When my close friend Jason SweetTooth Williams was appearing in Freaky Friday in Washington D.C. in the fall of 2016, I went to visit him and spent a day at the Library of Congress, immersed in the Jonathan Larson Collection.

I have worked as a theatre historian for almost a decade now, and nothing has knocked me out quite like this collection did that day.

There were hundreds of hours of audio recordings and hundreds of files of written material: each one incredible. I sat at the library that day feeling like the little mermaid in her grotto, marveling at treasures galore from a time and place I longed to transport myself to: Jonathan Larson’s world.

The recordings included a momentous reading of Jonathan’s unproduced musical Superbia followed by discussion of the piece with a panel of writers including Stephen Sondheim. A demo of jingles written for Tang, J.C. Penney, and Kellogg’s Cornflakes with wit and style. A hilarious tune written on spec for Saturday Night Live with Ben Stiller and Jeff Kahn. Mix tapes filled with pop and rock songs taped off the radio that inspired the characters of Rent. A live recording of a cabaret act at Don’t Tell Mama with Marin Mazzie and Scott Burkell, filled with youthful abandon and in-jokes. Tapes of Jonathan banging on the keys in his apartment wailing out covers of songs by Billy Joel and Elton John, seemingly trying to ingest them into his musical vocabulary. Songs from promising-but-never-produced musicals about presidential elections (National Lampoon’s Tricentennial Revue) and the end of the world (1984). Songs written for cabaret and for the radio full of political power and soaring melodies and unmistakable originality. Early demos and cut songs from Tick, Tick…Boom! and Rent.

Lyric sheet, draft of “No Day But Today” from Rent. Jonathan Larson Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

The written material was equally exhilarating to explore. A letter from Jeffrey Seller to Jonathan in 1990, telling him how much he’d loved his concert of Boho Days (an early version of Tick, Tick…Boom!) and that he hoped to work on something together someday. An outline for a musical version of Polar Express. Original audition notes for Rent at New York Theatre Workshop. Scripts and lyric drafts and budgets and programs and sheet music and photos and letters. Free-style essays. Lists of words. Journal entries. Ideas scribbled quickly on wait staff notepads from the Moondance Diner.

I returned to the Library of Congress half a dozen times over the next year. I spent days going through the recordings and folders. After that first visit I connected with Julie Larson, Jonathan’s sister, who generously gave me permission to go full steam ahead with my show: The Jonathan Larson Project.

A piece featuring Jonathan’s unheard works deserved a creator who was going to listen to every tape and read every page. It was a privilege to do so. ‘Privilege’ doesn’t cover it—it was the adventure of a theatre historian’s wildest dreams. It was also at times devastating. With Jonathan’s voice in my ears and his papers in my hands, I could see with a new level of intimacy how hard he persevered and how ahead of his time he was.

Script for Superbia, April 27, 1987. Jonathan Larson Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Jonathan saved dozens of rejection letters. He rewrote shows including Superbia and Tick, Tick…Boom! endlessly. He did everything he could to try to convince the powers-that-be of the 1980s and 1990s that he was the future of musical theatre, that he was going to change its sound. He worked hard to create musicals and songs about what was really happening in the world, that sounded like the time he was living in. He pinched every penny and woke up for early shifts at the Moondance Diner and banged on every door. And he didn’t get to live to see that every dream he ever had came true.

I sometimes had to leave my desk at the theatre collection and walk around the nearby National Mall because loud crying is frowned upon at libraries. I will always associate the United States Capitol with Jonathan Larson because on breaks I stared at it and thought about his words and our country. So much of Jonathan’s work was political. I was on a research trip the week after the 2016 presidential election, navigating increased D.C. security, when I discovered the Jonathan Larson song “The Truth Is a Lie.” A number about censorship and fake news that Jonathan wrote in 1990 reached through time and shook me by the shoulders as I sat underneath the fluorescent lights 26 years later.

 

Larson’s Playbill for They’re Playing Our Song. Jonathan Larson Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

The Jonathan Larson Collection allowed me to see the man behind the work better than ever before. So much of theatre history is about what’s scrawled in the margins. Jonathan’s margins are rich with details of his inspirations, frustrations, ideas, and loves. I delighted in finding Jonathan’s They’re Playing Our Song Playbill from when he saw the show on Broadway at the age of 18. On the cover he wrote down one Carole Bayer Sager lyric from the show in red pen: “Does the man make the music or does the music make the man?” On a notebook page covered in research for Rent, Jonathan also scribbled the lyric from Merrily We Roll Along “We’re opening doors” and underlined it three times. Underneath it, he wrote “why they won’t ever sell out.” Finding Jonathan’s personal connections to other musical theatre felt revealing and significant.

The Jonathan Larson Project will be presented at Feinstein’s/54 Below in October of this year. We will share dozens of Jonathan’s extraordinary unheard songs. Even though 95% of what I discovered at the Library of Congress will not literally be part of the concert, it will all be part of the concert in a way. The opportunity to learn so much about a man and artist I have admired endlessly has impacted the piece immeasurably. I will be staging a cut song from Superbia having read six drafts of the show. I will be collaborating with actors on songs about loss, knowing in detail about those friends Jonathan lost and loved dearly. I will be bringing to life songs that have never before been performed publicly, which reveal pieces of Jonathan’s life and era I understand profoundly because of all I was able to access.

Jonathan was indeed the future of musical theater, and his work changed the world. Now, because of this collection, new audiences will experience songs and ideas of Jonathan’s that were previously only experienced by one woman, wiping away tears at a library desk.

To days of inspiration.

One Comment

  1. Susan
    September 6, 2018 at 9:55 am

    Thank you to Jennifer Ashley Tepper for her touching article. Actually, I had never heard of Jonathan Larson, but her article gave life again to the memory of the composer. And gave to us as well, an example of how passion and love for craft–both hers and Jonathan’s–can live in this world of shallowness and apathy.

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