AMERICAN THEATER | Jonathan Larson talks about his writing process and his “hiring”

Jonathan Larson.

On pop music in the theater

JOHN ISTEL: Do you consider your music to be part of the American musical theater tradition?
JONATHAN LARSON: My thing is that American popular music came from theater and Tin Pan Alley, and there’s no reason why contemporary theater can’t reflect real contemporary music, and why music recorded or made into video cannot be from a show. Popular music as part of the theater ended with Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair and rock musicals in the late 1960s. A number of things happened. The first was that there had been singers in the 1940s, 50s, even the early 60s who sang anybody – Frank Sinatra, what have you. Then, starting with the Beatles, you had songwriters and bands that only sang their own material. So you didn’t have that venue for theater music to be popular.

What do you think of Randy Newman’s latest musical project [Faust] and other pop stars working in the theatre?
New York review published this article [about what was killing Broadway]. The last part had a 12 step program – 12 ways to renovate Broadway. Number 12 brought new music to Broadway. They were all excited about Randy Newman, and Prince is obviously thinking about it, and Paul Simon is working on a new musical. It’s exciting if they succeed and bring young people to the theater who wouldn’t normally go. But it’s almost a step backwards to have a musical generated by songwriters because of the pitfalls they can fall into.

They’re used to a number of things: not collaborating, not making edits, and writing in their own voice. There’s so much that Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Sondheim taught us about how to move a song’s plot, character, and theme forward. Often you get contemporary pop writers who know how to write a verse and a chorus, but they don’t necessarily know how to write an interior monologue where a character gets a change at the end of the song to keep the plot and the story going. . .

On those messy concept albums like the Who’s tommy or the Kinks Serialthere are so many things left to the imagination or left unspecified because you don’t have to materialize them.
Law. And that was the problem with tommy. At least Pete Townshend knew he had to work with a writer, Des McAnuff, who was a theater man. Even though I don’t agree with the story they chose to tell tommy, which was kind of a throwback to family values ​​in the end, at least he understood the concept of collaboration. It’s easy to write 18 songs, but it’s not easy to write a two and a half hour track that has an arc.

On the maturation of a musical theater author

What is Jonathan Larson’s style?
I’m rock and roll at heart and I’m influenced by contemporary music. There is a Jonathan Larson style, but I can’t fully describe it.

Who were your favorite composers?
Well, I loved Pete Townshend growing up, and I loved the old Police and Prince – or whatever he’s called – he’s brilliant. I love Kurt Cobain and Liz Phair. Beatles. And in the theater—Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim. I absolutely love them.

Did you study theater at university?
Yeah. I was also an actor. I had a four-year scholarship at Adelphi. Adelphi was a lousy place to go to school in the sense that it’s in the suburbs and that’s where I grew up. But it was run by a disciple of Robert Brustein named Jacques Burdick, who basically did an undergraduate version of the Yale Drama School. And I was mature enough out of high school to appreciate it. I have to do everything from Lonesco to Shakespeare to original plays or musicals.

The best thing, though, was that, like Yale, they had four original cabarets a year, and they were always looking for people to write them. So by the end of my stay there, I had written eight or ten shows. And I found that I liked it as much as acting. I had a talent for doing it. When I arrived in New York, I had gotten my Equity card because I had done summer stock. I started going to cattle calls, but at the same time I got my first musical, which was a really bad rock version of 1984, according to Orwell. It was getting a lot of attention and serious consideration, basically because it was 1982. We were close to getting the rights, but it was a good thing we didn’t because it wasn’t. was not a very good show. But it was my first real attempt to write a great show.

At Adelphi we wrote Nick and Nora Charles’ original musical – it was called Steak tartare with capers— 10 years before they made it to Broadway. We were doing Sho Gun Cabaret– we were well ahead of our time.

Then, when I arrived in New York, Sondheim was always a great mentor. He encouraged me to be a writer rather than an actor and suggested that I join ASCAP and take the musical theater workshop. ASCAP was like a 12-step meeting for people who write musicals, but you can show your work to leading professionals in the field.

Two things amazed me at ASCAP: the first was that I had written 100 songs at the time, seen them in productions, and whether or not I had seen them work with audiences. If Peter Stone, head of the Dramatists Guild, or Sondheim, said something I disagreed with, I said, “I disagree and I’ll tell you why.” Some of my peers, even the older ones, had never seen their work done. And they would say, “Okay, I’m just going to give up on my project. You are right, it sucks.

On the genesis of “rent”

Ira Weitzman put me in touch with Billy Aronson, who had the idea years ago to make a The Bohemia. Billy did stuff at the Ensemble Studio Theater and with Showtime and TV, and he’s kind of Woody Allen, and he wanted to do a modern movie Bohemian, put it on the Upper West Side and make it yuppies and funny. I said, “I’m not interested in that, but if you want to put it in Tompkins Square Park and do it seriously, I really like that idea.” He had never spent time in the East Village, but he wrote a booklet. He wanted to write the book and the lyrics, and I had to put some of the songs to music and see what everyone’s response was. I also found the title of To rent. So I wrote “Rent”, “Santa Fe” and “I Should Tell You”.

I found different types of contemporary music for each character, so the hero [Roger] in To rent sings in a Kurt Cobain style and the street transvestite sings like De La Soul. And there is a character à la Tom Waits. The American musical has always taken contemporary music and used it to tell a story. So I’m just trying to do that. We made a demo tape and everyone loved the concepts, loved the music, but when they read the booklet that came with it, they weren’t too strong on it. So we just put him on hold. I loved the concept, but I had no burning reason to go back to it. And then I did.

Two years later, a number of my friends, men and women, discovered that they were HIV-positive. I was devastated and needed to do something. I decided to ask Billy if he would let me go on my own, and he was very cool about it.

I’m the kind of person who, when I write my own work, I have something to say. It amazes me that in musicals, even plays today, sometimes I don’t see what the impetus was, other than to think it was a good smart idea or it might make them some money or something like that.

On Composition in American Musical Theater

What’s it like to make a living as a composer in theater these days?
Well, the old thing about how you can do a kill but you can’t make a living is absolutely true. I am proof. Now I have the ability to compete trying to write jingles, trying to make other types of music that make money, and I didn’t put myself there. My feeling is that it’s not what I want to do, and I would be competing with guys who want it. So I just work on musicals – it’s like this huge wall, and I carve it with a screwdriver. I just keep moving forward a bit more. I’ve had a lot of very generous grants, but they’re all piecemeal. I receive a small allowance, but I cannot live on commissions.

I work two days a week at the waiting tables at Moondance in Soho. I’ve been there for eight and a half years but it doesn’t bother me. I actually love the customers, the regulars are fantastic. The management and owner are totally supportive of me. I can take a few months off when I need to do a show, come back, and I’ve actually worked there twice. There was a little piece on me in new York magazine a few years ago, and one of the regular customers I’ve known for years, Bob Golden, brought it up and said, “I saw you were in new York magazine and you wrote for ‘Sesame Street’. I said, “Yeah, it was mostly independent.” He said, “Have you ever considered making a kids video yourself? You can earn lots of money. I said, “I would like to, but I don’t have the capital to put up.” He said, “Well, I know that.”

And the next week, I brought a five-page budget and concept and handed it to him with his eggs, and he totally went for it. It’s a half hour video titled We leave. It features a puppet called Newt the Newt. (Unfortunately, we found that name before it took on other connotations.) It’s for very young children, the “Sesame Street” age. The great thing about it – besides someone trusting me and funding the money – was that I had something tangible that no one could take away from me. The theater is so ephemeral. You have programs, and you may have a recording of the show, but that’s it. It’s such a weird medium.

Writer and critic John Istel is editor of stage poster and a regular contributor to this magazine.

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Scott R. Banks