REVIEW: The Jonathan Larson Project

Recording CoverI'm not going to pretend that any review is at all objective, but even so, it's hard to even pretend an objectivity when it comes to The Jonathan Larson Project. The original cast recording of Rent came out the week I started college, and no matter how old and cynical I get, Jonathan Larson's music has an indelible hold on my heart. Those of us who were blown away in real time when his unique voice burst through into the mainstream faced crushing disappointment when we realized near simultaneously that we weren't going to get to hear more from him.

That turned out not to be entirely true. We got a Tick, Tick... Boom! cast recording in 2001 and Jonathan Sings Larson in 2007, but nothing more in over a decade. Well, that's not entirely true. In 2014, Encores! Off-Center presented a brief revival of Tick, Tick... Boom! As part of their Lobby Project, which presents free musicals events in City Center's mezzanine lobby in advance of certain Off-Center performances, producer Jennifer Ashley Tepper presented a handful of unknown Larson tunes. That event served as the seed that eventually grew (thanks in part to Tepper immersing herself in Larson's papers at the Library of Congress) to a series of concerts at Feinstein's/54 Below, which has now been preserved in the studio and served to us as this album.

And what a feast it is! The album offers 16 Larson originals arranged for a five-piece band by Charlie Rosen and performed by Nick Blaemire (currently on tour with Falsettos), Lauren Marcus (Be More Chill), Andy Mientus (Spring Awakening), Krysta Rodriguez (First Date), and George Salazar (Be More Chill). Four of the songs ("One of These Days," "Break Out the Booze," "Valentine's Day," and "Find the Key") also appeared on Jonathan Sings Larson; the rest are receiving their premiere recordings – some never heard publicly at all prior to the Larson Project concerts.

Honestly, simply hearing so much new material from a composer dead more than two decades is enough to make me giddy, but it's not just new – it's good! The singers, are perfectly matched to their songs, which provide ample opportunities to do what each does best: Blaemire delivering sweet nerdy angst next to Mientus's throaty rock crooning (making one wonder if they could be Mark and Roger in the next production of Rent), Salazar offering sweet earnest ballads, Rodriguez rocking out and Marcus performing character numbers that you might think were straight from a Maltby & Shire revue (especially "Hosing the Furniture”).

The songs range from the pop-rock of late 20th century Broadway (like the peppy "Green Street" which opens the disc) to 80s dance-pop ("Out of My Dreams," which the liner notes indicate was written with Whitney Houston in mind, but you would know that just from Rodriguez's knockout performance) to cabaret agitprop ("White Male World"). You come away with a real sense of Larson's range, which was far broader than the already broad range on display in Rent. I'm not sure any of these songs were classics-in-waiting, although some of them will surely find long lives in high school choruses and college cabaret showcases.

The package comes with a gorgeous 42-page booklet that includes all the lyrics, an essay about the project by Tepper, information about the origins of each of the songs, and ample photos both from the Larson Project concerts and recording sessions as well as from the Larson archives.

Thanks to Tepper's theatrical sequencing of the songs and Rosen's versatility as an arranger-orchestrator, the whole feels greater than the sum of its parts. In particular I can't say enough good things about Rosen's ability to give each song a distinctive sound (somehow simultaneously era-appropriate and fresh) that nevertheless feels part of a unit. His charts give the impression of a much larger band at work than the five players actually making it happen – credit is also due to Music Director Natalie Tenebaum.

It all adds up to a fine album, maybe even a great one. I imagine it will be in heavy rotation on my iPhone for the foreseeable future.

This album is available through Ghostlight Records, who have created a one-stop page to find it from your favorite purveyor of digital/streaming music or pre-order the physical CD, which will be available June 14.


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