Revisiting the Legacy of Jonathan Larson: The Jonathan Larson Project at Feinstein’s/54 Below

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Kerry Breen

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For six nights this week, little-known and never-heard songs of Jonathan Larson were performed at Feinstein’s 54/Below, in a concert carefully curated by creative and programming director and theatre historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper.

 Starring George Salazar (Be More Chill, Tick, Tick… BOOM!), Nick Blaemire (Tick, Tick… BOOM!, Godspell), Krysta Rodriguez (Spring Awakening, Smash), Andy Mientus (Les Miserables, Smash) and Lauren Marcus (Be More Chill, Company), the show featured eighteen Larson songs (over the course of eighteen years, he wrote more than 200 pieces) of various genres, including theatre songs, songs written for benefits and cabarets and revues, and songs written for the radio.

The show also featured a different guest star at every performance, each performing a different, unheard Larson song. Guests included Daphne Rubin-Vega (RENT, Miss You Like Hell), Caissie Levy (Frozen, Les Miserables), and Amy Spanger (Tick, Tick... BOOM!, Kiss Me, Kate). Also included were recent Jonathan Larson Grant Award winners.

I was lucky enough to see the Jonathan Larson Project three times this week, and it is one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen on a stage. The project has been in the works for years, and the effort invested and care taken was obvious in every note.

In an essay in the back of the provided program, Tepper, who served as the show’s director and producer, detailed her path to this project. After visiting the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. in 2016 and accessing hundreds of hours of audio recordings and hundred of written files, Tepper devoted herself to exploring and cataloging Larson’s works as she developed this concert, collaborating with Larson’s family and visiting the library a dozen more times.

Many of the songs, according to Tepper, were only piano demos when she first looked at them. Charlie Rosen, a frequent collaborator of Tepper’s, served as music supervisor, orchestrator, and arranger, putting music to lyrics; Annastasia Victory served as the associate musical director and Danielle Gimbal worked as a copyist.

Performed by the stellar cast and extraordinary band (including Rosen, musical director Natalie Tenenbaum, Cody Owen Stine, Megan Talay, and Marques Walls), the music was contextualized by program notes from Tepper, including details about why the song was written, what project it was written for, and how Larson felt about the song as indicated in his notes (which Tepper also had access to).

The concert opened with the never-before-heard “Greene Street,” a standalone ‘theatre song’ written by Larson in 1983, performed by the full cast, an exuberant, New-York based number that set the tone for the rest of the evening.

The final number, “Piano,” is simply one of the most stunning moments that I have ever experienced in any sort of theatrical capacity. Another standalone theatre song that was not associated with any other projects, the 1983 song was the most obviously autobiographical of the evening, and there was nothing better to end the concert with.

Other highlight moments were Marcus’s comedic performance of “Hosing the Furniture,” which Larson wrote in 1989 for a revue (the song also won the Stephen Sondheim Award), and Mientus’s heartbreaking performance of “S.O.S.,” a song that Larson wrote while he was working on a musicalized version of 1984 in 1982 (after not being able to obtain the rights to 1984, he started work on an original futuristic dystopia musical, Superbia. Songs from Superbia were also featured in the concert).

Salazar delivered an expert performance of “Iron Mike,” written in 1990 in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and Blaemire gave a heartfelt, heartbreaking rendition of “Rhapsody,” a personal song by Larson that was never heard before this concert run. Rodriguez sang pop song “Out of my Dreams,” which Larson wrote in 1991 and hoped would end up on the radio.

While each performer had a few solos and featured moments, there were also beautiful ensemble moments, included the aforementioned “Greene Street” and “Piano.” Marcus and Rodriguez dueted on “White Male World,” an energetic 1991 number written for a show called “Skirting the Issues,” which was described as “the post-Barbie generation takes aim at everything.” Blaemire, Mientus, and Salazar performed the number “Find the Key,” which was cut from Tick, Tick… BOOM!

To summarize exactly what was so special about this concert would take decades, if not centuries. With Larson’s family in attendance and an audience that eagerly awaited each new number, the atmosphere in Feinstein’s/54 Below was like I’d never experienced it before – a mix of reverence and celebration and remembrance.

 Jonathan Larson wrote over 200 songs in his lifetime. Only some of them are commonly known, through productions of RENT and Tick, Tick… BOOM!. Others had a life in the 80s and 90s, but have never been heard since. Some were cut; others were changed. To hear the early songs that show the first hints of Larson finding his niche, to hear songs about frustrations that are as common now as they were 30 years ago, to hear protest songs that match current situations a little-too-perfectly, is astounding. To hear songs that were cut from his musicals is astounding. To see how his style changed and evolved and grew is astounding. The fact that I have had Jonathan Larson’s personal songs, songs that I never imagined might exist, stuck in my head for a week is astounding.

I can think of no better way to honor and remember Larson and his genius than through this concert, and I hope to see it on stage again soon.