On Pop Music in the Theatre
JOHN ISTEL: Do you see your music as part of the American musical theatre tradition?
JONATHAN LARSON: My whole thing is that American popular music used to come from theatre and Tin Pan Alley, and there’s no reason why contemporary theatre can’t reflect real contemporary music, and why music that’s recorded or that’s made into a video cannot be from a show. Popular music being a part of theatre ended with Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair and rock musicals in the late 1960s. A number of things happened. One was that there had been singers in the ’40s, ’50s, even early ’60s, who would sing anybody’s material—Frank Sinatra, what have you. Then, beginning with the Beatles, you had songwriters and bands who were singing only their own material. So you didn’t have that venue for theatre music to be popular.
What do you think about Randy Newman’s latest musical project [Faust] and other pop stars working in the theatre?
New York magazine ran this article [about what was killing Broadway]. The last part had a 12-step program—12 ways to renovate Broadway. Number 12 was bringing new music to Broadway. They were getting all excited about Randy Newman, and Prince evidently is thinking about it, and Paul Simon is working on a new musical. That’s exciting if they’re successful and if they bring younger people to the theatre who wouldn’t normally go. But it’s almost going backwards to have a musical that is songwriter-generated because of the traps they can fall into.
They’re used to a number of things: not collaborating, not making changes and writing in their own voice. There’s so much that Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim have taught us about how to advance plot and character and theme in a song. 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 inner monologue where a character goes through a change by the end of the song so the plot and story continues.
On those messy concept albums like the Who’s Tommy or the Kinks’s Soap Opera, there’s so much left to the imagination or that isn’t spelled out because you don’t have to physicalize it.
Right. And that was the problem with Tommy. At least Pete Townshend knew he had to work with a book writer, Des McAnuff, who was a theatre person. Even if I don’t agree with the story they chose to tell in Tommy, which was this sort of return-to-family-values thing at the end, at least he understood the concept of collaborating. It’s easy to write 18 songs, but it’s not easy to write a two-and-a-half hour piece that has an arc.
On the Maturation of a Musical Theatre Writer
What’s Jonathan Larson’s style?
I’m a rock-and-roller at heart and I’m influenced by contemporary music. There is a Jonathan Larson style, but I can’t totally describe it.
Who were your favorite composers?
Well, I loved Pete Townshend growing up, and I loved the old Police and Prince—or whatever his name is—he’s brilliant. I love Kurt Cobain and Liz Phair. Beatles. And in the theatre—Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim. I absolutely love them.
Were you a theatre major in college?
Yeah. I was an actor, too. I had a four-year acting scholarship to Adelphi. Adelphi was a lousy place to go to school in the sense that it’s in suburbia and that’s where I grew up. But it was run by a disciple of Robert Brustein’s named Jacques Burdick, who basically made an undergraduate version of Yale Drama School. And I was mature enough coming out of high school to appreciate it. I got 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 time there I had written eight or ten shows. And I found that I liked it as much as performing. I had a skill doing it. When I came to 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 had my first musical, which was a really bad rock version of 1984, based on Orwell. It was getting a lot of attention and serious consideration-basically because the year was 1982. We came close to getting the rights, but it was a good thing we didn’t because it was not a very good show. But it was my first real attempt to write a big show.
At Adelphi we wrote the original Nick and Nora Charles musical—it was called The Steak Tartar Caper—10 years before they did it on Broadway. We did ShoGun Cabaret—we were way ahead of our time.
Then, when I came to New York, Sondheim was always a big mentor. He encouraged me to be a writer as opposed to being an actor, and suggested that I join ASCAP and do the musical theatre workshop. ASCAP was sort of a 12-step meeting for people who write musicals, but you get to show your work to top-notch professionals in the field.
Two things amazed me at ASCAP: One was that I had written 100 songs by then, had seen them in productions, and had seen them work or not work with audiences. If Peter Stone, head of the Dramatists Guild, or Sondheim, said something that I disagreed with, I said,”I disagree and I’ll tell you why.” Some of my peers, and those even older, had never had their work performed. And they would be like, “Okay, I’ll just throw out my project. You’re rightit sucks.”
On the Genesis of ‘Rent’
Ira Weitzman put me in touch with Billy Aronson, who had an idea—years ago—to do a modern-day La Bohème. Billy’s done stuff at Ensemble Studio Theatre and with Showtime and TV, and he’s a sort of Woody Allen type, and he wanted to do a modern-day La Bohème, set it on the Upper West Side, and make it about yuppies and funny. I said, “That doesn’t interest me, but if you want to set it in Tompkins Square Park and do it seriously, I like that idea a lot.” He had never spent any time in the East Village, but he wrote a libretto. He wanted to write the book and lyrics, and I was to set a few of the songs to music and see what everyone’s response was. I also came up with the title of 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 Rent sings in a Kurt Cobain–esque style and the street transvestite sings like De La Soul. And there’s a Tom Waits–esque character. The American musical has always been taking contemporary music and using 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 accompanying libretto,they weren’t too strong on it. So we just put it on hold. I loved the concept, but I didn’t have a burning reason to go back to it. And then I did.
Two years later a number of my friends, men and women, were finding out they were HIV-positive. I was devastated, and needed to do something. I decided to ask Billy if he would let me continue by myself, and he was very cool about it.
I am the kind of person that when I write my own work, I have something I need to say. It surprises me that in musicals, even plays today, sometimes I don’t see what the impetus was, other than thinking it was a good smart idea or it could make them some money or something.
On Composing in the American Musical Theatre
What’s it like making a living as a composer in the theatre these days?
Well, the old thing about how you can make a killing but you can’t make a living is absolutely true. I’m proof of that. Now, I have the ability to compete trying to write jingles, trying to do other kinds of music that makes money, and I haven’t put myself out there. My feeling is that it’s not what I want to do, and I would be competing with guys who do want to. So I’m just working on musicals—it’s like this huge wall, and I’m chipping away at it with a screwdriver. I just keep making a little more headway. I’ve had a lot of very generous grants, but they all go to the play. I get a little stipend, but I can’t live off the commissions.
I work two days a week waiting tables at Moondance in Soho. I’ve been there for eight-and-a-half years but I don’t mind it. In fact, I love the customers—the regulars are fantastic. The management and the owner totally support me. I can take a couple of months off when I need to do a show, come back, and I’ve actually gotten work there twice. There was a little piece on me in New York magazine a few years ago, and one of the regular customers who I’d known for years, Bob Golden, brought it up and said, “I saw that you were in New York magazine and that you wrote for ‘Sesame Street.'” I said, “Yeah, it was mostly freelance.” He said, “Have you ever considered making a children’s video yourself? You can make a lot of money.” I said, “I’d love to but I don’t have the capital to put up.” He said, “Well, I do.”
And the next week I brought in 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 called Away We Go. It stars a puppet called Newt the Newt. (Unfortunately, we came up with that name before it took on other connotations.) It’s for very young kids, “Sesame Street” age. The great thing about that—besides that someone was trusting me and putting up the money—was I had something tangible that no one could take away from me. Theatre is so ephemeral. You have programs, and you have maybe a recording of the show, but that’s it. It’s such a weird medium.
Writer and critic John Istel is senior editor of Stagebill and a regular contributor to this magazine.