I first listened to Jonathan Larson's magnum opus piece, "Rent," when I was fourteen years old. I was a mini-Broadway fan at the time, slowly discovering musicals that I knew meant a lot to other fans. As someone who had only previously listened to strictly rock musicals or the standard musical theatre style, "Rent" was a show that had blended both genres. When I finally finished listening to the show, I was hungry for more. I turned to the internet looking for more shows from this composer, Jonathan Larson.
I knew that "Rent" was Larson's first major show, written in 1996, so I expected to fall through a rabbit hole of eighteen years worth of musicals, each one better than the one before it. I expected to find interviews of Larson on YouTube, talking of his early days as a struggling composer but now having countless Tony Awards, a modern-day Sondheim. But when I typed in his name, I only found two musicals listed, "Rent" and "tick...tick...BOOM!" the latter being a posthumous, off-broadway release.
The morning of "Rent"'s first off-broadway preview performance on January 25th, 1996, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at 35-years-old. He never got to see his show go onto a successful Broadway run (12 years to be exact, and the eleventh longest-running Broadway show of all time), win four Tony awards (including best musical), and receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (one of only nine musicals to ever receive the honor in the Pulitzer Prize's almost one hundred year history). His previously written one-man show "tick...tick...BOOM!" was rewritten and was given an off-broadway run in 2001.
As a young teenager, this was shocking to me, as it had just dawned on me that you could work your whole life toward a certain goal, and never see it come to fruition. In "Rent," the character Roger sings of his "One Song Glory," and unbeknownst to Larson, he was writing his own. "Rent" remains one of my favorite musicals, even after spending almost six years listening to, what feels like at this point, a hundred different shows. This show spoke for a whole generation, and with it's genius score paired with Larson's story, it has always stuck with me.
It's now 2019. "Rent" premiered twenty-three years ago. Larson, if he were still alive, would be 59. And this year, he came out with a brand new album.
Theatre historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper produced and directed a concert, and later this album, titled "The Jonathan Larson Project." The songs that are included a range from cut songs from "Rent" to music that was written, but never recorded or performed. As I sit here, currently listening to this album, I wonder if Larson was planning another show, some of these songs to be included.
The songs received new orchestrations, and five young, well-known musical theatre actors bring them to life. Krysta Rodriguez, one whose voice I can only describe as a force of nature, shines in her solo pieces, most notably "Out of My Dreams." Andy Mientus' contemporary alternative voice fits so well in "Valentine's Day" (a song that was in a few early versions of "Rent") and "SOS." Three newer actors on my radar, George Salazar, Nick Blaemire, and Lauren Marcus have all blown me away with their performances as well, most notably Salazar's powerful "Iron Mike," Blaemire's bittersweet "One of These Days," and Marcus' hilarious "Hosing the Furniture."
I have to give it to Tepper to putting this all together, and I am so happy that this album can open the floodgates to young theatre fans like I was, discovering Larson's genius.
In the final track, "Piano," you can hear Larson performing a demo of the song before it fades into the modern-day, as if Larson was there, performing with them. Through his artistry, he lives on and will continue to live on years after his death, having left a mark on the world.