This fall, Feinstein’s/54 Below will present The Jonathan Larson Project, an evening of unheard work written by the beloved creator of Rent and tick tick BOOM. The Jonathan Larson Project will feature performances from Nick Blaemire, Lauren Marcus, Andy Mientus, Destinee Rea, and George Salazar, and orchestrations by Charlie Rosen. Tickets cost $40 and can be purchased here.
Here, Jennifer Ashley Tepper, director and conceiver of the piece, gives us the inside scoop on five songs audience members can expect to hear in the show.
“SOS” (1984), 1982
The first full book musical Jonathan wrote was an adaptation of the book 1984 by George Orwell. His goal was to get it produced in the year 1984 itself. After years of failing to get the rights, he decided that if he couldn’t do 1984, he would instead write his own original futuristic dystopian musical, and that became Superbia.
“SOS” is sung by Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, at the very end of the show. Much of the score of 1984 is more traditional than Jonathan’s later work, but “SOS” calls out most to the pop-rock influence he would later integrate into his musicals.
Jonathan saved many of his rejection letters. (While doing research at the Library of Congress with the Jonathan Larson Papers, I even found a letter he saved from The Duplex, rejecting his cabaret act!). While Jonathan never obtained the rights to adapt 1984, this didn’t stop him from sending it to theatres and producers. He received rejection letters from every major not-for-profit and commercial producer in New York. He kept going.
“Rhapsody” (Theater Songs), 1983
“Rhapsody” is a very personal song of Jonathan’s about New York City and money and struggle and day jobs and relationships, written when he was 23 years old. It’s never been recorded or publicly performed. Until now.
Jonathan created a song index document a couple of years before he died, listing (almost) every song he wrote, by project. As I listened to his tapes, I worked to match each audio recording with a song title in the index. After falling in love with the recording of this song, I searched for a title like “Not Free” or “In The City” (phrases which appear repeatedly in the lyric) and came up empty. I could not find any sheet music or papers that matched up with this song either. Some of Jonathan’s tapes include him singing covers; there are incredible recordings of him wailing out Billy Joel and Elton John tunes among other treasurers. Could this song have been written by someone else? I knew it couldn’t. It was pure Jonathan. But what was it?
Finally, near the end of my research, I realized there was a song listed in the index as “Rhapsody” that didn’t match up with any other tape. There was one lyric at the end of this audio that suddenly made it clear that was the name of this song: “I love ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ too. It’s just that he was rich when he wrote it.”
“One Of These Days” (cut from Superbia), 1985
For over six years, Jonathan Larson worked tirelessly on his futuristic dystopian original musical Superbia. It never received a full production, but it did receive readings and workshops (including at both Playwrights Horizons and the Public) and won Jonathan “promising writer” accolades and awards. Jonathan received encouragement and advice from Stephen Sondheim about Superbia as well.
“One Of These Days” was the original I Want Song for the protagonist, Josh Out, in early versions of the show. Josh Out is an imaginative inventor who is obsessed with finding objects from the old world and bringing them back to life—a total freak and danger to Superbia society. And while “One Of These Days” perfectly fits Josh Out’s story, there’s no doubt it fits Jonathan’s as well:
“One of these days / I’ll find a way /
I’ll rise above the throng / They’ll be amazed at who they see /
One of these days /
Someone will say / I knew it all along /
One of these days / That’s what will be.”
“Valentine's Day” (Prostate of the Union; cut from Rent), 1987
According to several of his friends and family members, Jonathan was very proud of this song. At Adelphi, where Jonathan went to college, the theatre program created original cabarets and musicals. Often student writers would collaborate with faculty. Jonathan participated in this while he was at school there from 1978 to 1982. He also returned in 1987 to write a cabaret for the students called Prostate of the Union, with collaborator Michael Lindsay. The subtitle of the show was “The Evils of Ronald Reagan’s America.”
The character depicted in “Valentine’s Day” is very similar to a character Jonathan would later create in full: Mimi from Rent. He also actually put this song in some early versions of Rent, but it was cut.
“White Male World” (Skirting the Issues), 1991
The Repertory Theatre was a small space on 83rd Street that today is a Crunch Gym. In 1991, Maggie Lally put together a show called Skirting the Issues that ran for two weeks and featured songs and scenes from ten different writers. This number was Jonathan’s contribution. The show was described as “The post-Barbie generation takes aim at everything.”
My jaw dropped when I first heard “White Male World.” If a writer premiered this at Feinstein’s/54 Below tonight, the entire audience would be agape at its bold words, up-to-date wokeness, and strong stance about gender equality. And Jonathan wrote it in 1991!
Jonathan was a true ally and historically ahead of his time in how he championed women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community in his writing. Many of the songs in The Jonathan Larson Project are loudly political and horrifyingly relevant. Think about “La Vie Boheme” and what it was like in 1996 to hear lyrics like that on Broadway. Hearing songs like “White Male World,” one can tell that Jonathan was preparing to write that for his entire life, as he skewered topics like Ronald Reagan, presidential elections, and, here, toxic white male masculinity.