'Rent' Creator Gets His Due

Gwen Stewart, Anthony Rapp and Natascia Diaz, below, were among the performers featured in Monday's Library of Congress tribute to the late composer Jonathan Larson. His parents, Al and Nan Larson, were in the audience.
Gwen Stewart, Anthony Rapp and Natascia Diaz, below, were among the performers featured in Monday's Library of Congress tribute to the late composer Jonathan Larson. His parents, Al and Nan Larson, were in the audience. (Photos By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

It isn't often that the Library of Congress books a rock band. The emphatic pulse of drum and electric guitar filled the august institution Monday night, though, as it celebrated the induction into its archives of "Rent" composer Jonathan Larson's papers.

Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm in 1996 at age 35-- days before the premiere of his landmark rock opera -- is the first of a younger cadre of Broadway songwriters to have his manuscripts, letters and other materials preserved at the library alongside those of Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein. Library officials say that scholars already are inquiring about access to Larson's collection.

"It's a surprisingly rich collection for someone who died so young," said Mark Eden Horowitz, the senior music specialist who spearheaded the library's efforts to acquire Larson's papers, which consist of about 3,800 items. "I've never seen anyone who wrote down his thoughts as much as he did. There's just so much of the person there, what he was thinking and feeling about things."

The library's musical commemoration was an exuberant retrospective that featured a half-dozen Broadway singers -- including "Rent" original cast members Anthony Rapp and Gwen Stewart -- performing Larson's pop-inflected compositions from both his well-known and unproduced shows.

A large, particularly fascinating portion of the evening was devoted to songs that were either cut from "Rent" or completely overhauled before the show's off-Broadway opening in January 1996 at the New York Theatre Workshop. (It moved later that year to Broadway, where it won a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize.)

The members of "Rent's" original onstage band -- Daniel Weiss, Kenny Brescia, Jeff Potter and Steven Mack -- reunited for the concert under the guidance of Tim Weil, the rock opera's music director, who put together the evening. Seated near the front of the library's Coolidge Auditorium were Larson's parents, Al and Nan, as well as his sister Julie, who -- using some of the long-running musical's proceeds -- formed the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation, which supports budding musical-theater writers.

Horowitz said he approached the Larsons a decade ago about securing the composer's papers, which the family found in his Lower Manhattan apartment. (The flat, with a bathtub in the kitchen and a toilet in the closet, is alluded to in his songs.) The collection, which includes 651 sound recordings, arrived at the library in 2004, but the cataloguing of of such acquisitions routinely takes years.

An unusual aspect of the collection is that all of it was produced by a composer in virtual anonymity. (A long-ago letter to Public Theater producer Joseph Papp, pleading with him to see one of Larson's early shows, was among the items on display outside the auditorium.)

"I saw 'Rent' fairly shortly after its Broadway opening in '96," said Horowitz, himself a student of musical theater and composers such as Stephen Sondheim. "And I felt it was important enough and valuable enough that I wanted to make sure his papers were preserved in some way."

For the Larsons, "Rent" has always been a source of joy wrapped up in anguish, and sitting with them before the concert, one could sense that the occasion drew on emotional extremes. "It's a mind-blowing thing for me," Al Larson said. "I'd trade this, though, in a minute. Time does dull, but it doesn't change the facts."

"Rent"-heads, of course, were in their glory. Rapp, who befriended Larson during the musical's workshop productions, told the audience a story about inviting the unknown Larson to a party. Another friend walked up to Rapp and said: "What's up with that guy? I was talking to him and he said with a perfectly straight face, 'I'm the future of musical theater.' "

As Rapp recalled it, the friend added: "Like, dude, who would ever want to admit that?"

The poignant truth was that Larson did not have much future left. The talent, however, would endure, and Monday's concert gave Rapp, Stewart and four other big voices (those of Michael McElroy, Randy Graff, Natascia Diaz and Jeremy Kushnier) the opportunity to show that -- in the breadth of Larson's work from such early efforts as "Superbia" and "tick, tick . . . Boom!" to "Rent."

Rapp said that Larson wrote 386 songs in 20 years at the keyboard. On the basis of the library's concert, his songbook might make for a tantalizing revue even without "Rent." Larson's comic gifts were underlined in Graff's jazzy rendition of the song "Break Out the Booze," and in Diaz's impression of a neat-freak mom in "Hosing the Furniture." Larson's fluid way with a pop ballad was affirmed in Stewart and McElroy's "You Called My Name," and Diaz's "Come to Your Senses" showed off the power in Larson's ballads, too.

The concert's second half surveyed songs that Larson excised from "Rent" or rewrote extensively. As delivered by Kushnier, for instance, the driving music in the plaintive "One Song Glory" -- performed by the character Roger, the AIDS-stricken musician -- had been sung to the words of a song titled "Right Brain."

There was also "Over It," a song cut from "Rent" that is a duet for the characters Mark and Maureen, who break up after Maureen runs off with a woman. (The two were played by Rapp and Idina Menzel in the stage and movie versions.) The number was eventually replaced in the show by "Tango: Maureen," a song for Mark and Maureen's lover, Joanne. In a rendition by Rapp and Diaz, "Over It" provided a new layer of tension in one of the musical's key relationships.

At the end of the evening, the Washington-based gospel group the Ministers of Music joined the actors onstage for the signature Larson anthem, "Seasons of Love." Not only were the papers of a singular American talent there, but the spirit was, too.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company