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Ethan Putterman on Jonathan Larson and the Persistence of Genius 


“Jonathan Larson is regarded as a great composer yet it’s really a disservice to the wider lesson of his brief life,” says Ethan Putterman, “beyond amazing scores and lyrics is a tale of do-or-die perseverance for the benefit of art.” 

The creator of the blockbuster musical, ‘Rent’, Larson, who passed away at the premature age of 35 from an undiagnosed heart condition in 1995, is finding renewed celebrity in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Tick, Tick, Boom!,’ starring Andrew Garfield on Netflix. 

The story of Larson’s frustrating and futile efforts to get an earlier musical produced, ‘Superbia’, when the late composer was still an undiscovered, struggling twentysomething in New York City in the 90’s, it is an enchanting blurring of facts and fiction originally staged as a one man show. 

With just Larson with a supporting band, ‘Tick, Tick, Boom!,’ arrived and disappeared with little fanfare until the marathon success of ‘Rent’ ushered forth a new generation of theatregoers -‘Rentheads’- hungry for everything Jonathan Larson.

According to Putterman, a former professor at the National University of Singapore, specializing on the intersection of politics and culture, Larson’s true contribution to the arts is underrated in a similar way to Bob Dylan until the latter was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, without ever having written a book.

“Many of Larson’s best compositions prefigure death expressly, and they were penned when he was afflicted by total poverty. It is not just that Larson tells audience members to cherish every moment in life, in songs such as ‘Why’ and ‘Louder Than Words’ (Tick, Tick, Boom) and ‘One Song Glory’ (Rent), but the powerful example of his personal life shows us how -that we can do it because he did it, and he did it haunted by a spectre of death.”

This is evident even in the short children’s video co-written, directed and produced by Larson and Bob Golden back in the mid-90’s, ‘Away We Go.’ With a cameo by him, ‘Away We Go,’ closes with a song called, ‘Destination Sky,’ a haunting song about air travel that doesn’t identify any clear place of landing. Sung almost in a monotone, the song anticipates the superior numbers in ‘Rent’ and ‘Tick, Tick, Boom!’ such as ‘One Song Glory.’

Unusually, according to Putterman, it is not in the productions of the stage shows that where Larson’s star shines brightest, but in the early demo tracks housed in the Library of Congress today. Recorded inside of the bedroom and living room of his ramshackle top floor walkup at 508 Greenwich Street in the East Village, they capture the essence of what it means to be an artist.

“Beyond talent, art is nothing but tenacity and perseverance, a committed refusal to never give up, whatever the odds. This is what you find with Jonathan Larson, throughout the entirety of his musical corpus. A consistent and burning refusal to never give up regardless of the odds. He was doing what made him happy, gave life meaning, and it was all that mattered to him in the end.”  

Despairing to listeners accustomed to the joyously full-bodied harmonies of ‘Rent’, and its full cast recordings of the past two decades in countries as far away as Korea and South Africa, the spartan tapings made by Larson alone in his apartment, as he played Casio synth, are spartan and wanting. Singing in a whisper, occasionally, each appears a sad reminder of the success Larson didn’t know, the staggering recognition of his posthumous talent that nobody before his death appreciated. One of the longest shows in the history of Broadway, the original ‘Rent,’ lasted 12 years.

Although a number of demos can be heard on YouTube today, or the out-of-print ‘Larson Sings Larson’, most are housed at the Library of Congress and can be accessed with permission. As expected of any great composer, a number of clunkers exist too, ill-fated songs Larson cut out of ‘Superbia,’ ‘Rent’ and ‘Tick, Tick, Boom,’ in favour of superior compositions. 

According to ‘Rent’ folklore, during its original staging at the New York Theater Workshop in 1993-95, Director Michael Grief asked Larson to replace a clunker and, after three weeks, the nondescript composer returned with a showstopper, “Take me Baby, Take Me As I Am.” One of the barnburners of musical show, second only to La Vie Boheme, perhaps, it was even played in dance clubs back in the 1990’s. This said, it was always impossible to choose when comparing to others greats such as ‘Without You,’ ‘One Song Glory,’ and ‘Light My Candle.’

A number of songs were cut out of the show and are available only at the Library of Congress today, and it is likely for the better with a few of them. ‘Rent’ was always a work in progress and one that would likely have improved with additions or changes made by Larson in subsequent years had he lived. 

Arguably, the same might be true for ‘Tick, Tick, Boom!’ as it was reimagined on Broadway and on film by Lim-Manuel Miranda. Updated from a one-person show into a three people extravaganza on stage, Lin-Manuel Miranda returned to Larson’s original for the movie with starring Andrew Garfield and Alex Shipp. Arguably, Larson might have taken ‘Tick, Tick, Boom!’ into a whole different direction after thirty years. 

Yet who knows? And it is exactly such questions which serve to remind theatregoers of the seismic loss of Larson, his chasmic death, and all of the uncomposed, unproduced musicals that our world will forever be deprived over the next thirty.

“Although, Jonathan harbored dreams of Broadway, it was within the wretchedness of the Greenwood Street apartment that his artistry achieved a kind of zenith,” comments Putterman. “It goes beyond Tennessee William’s verity that few great works of art are produced by the edge of a hotel swimming pool. This is undoubtedly true. But Larson’s life, a central part of his legacy, is his serving as a living example to all artists, everywhere, at all times, to never give up. He sung about it and lived it, what more can you ask?”  

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