By MARK EDEN HOROWITZ
The special collections of the Music Division of the Library of Congress include many strengths and areas of focus, but it is quite possible that American musical theater is its strongest subject area. The collections include the papers of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner, Burton Lane, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, and dozens of others.
So it is not surprising that the Library of Congress pursued the acquisition of the Jonathan Larson papers beginning a few months after his untimely death on January 25, 1996, at the age of 35. Larson died from an aortic aneurysm (a result of Marfan Syndrome) the day before the off-Broadway opening of his now legendary rock musical “Rent.” A musical adaption and update of Puccini’s opera “La Bohème,” the work became the ninth-longest-running musical on Broadway, earning Larson a posthumous Pulitzer Prize and three Tony awards. Two film versions have been produced and released commercially; the second being a filming of the show’s closing performance on Broadway.
After consultation with Larson’s mentor, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim (whose papers have been promised to the Library as a bequest), the Library contacted Larson’s parents in July 1996. This began several years of discussions and interactions with the family, including their visit to the Library during the summer of 1997 to view its facilities and collections.
With guidance from the Library, the Larson estate hired an archivist to review the collection to organize and identify its contents. With this process completed, the collection finally arrived at the Library in February of 2004. It has since been processed and has been used by several researchers, upon request.
Though not a huge collection—it is estimated at approximately 4,000 items—the Larson papers are remarkably rich. Larson was involved in far more projects than one might assume, given his relative youth and the early stage of his career at the time of his death.
In addition to extensive documentation pertaining to “Rent,” the collection includes material on 47 other projects, though not all of them were produced. Most notable among them is “tick, tick … Boom!” an autobiographical work originally performed by Larson as a one-man show. Revamped by playwright David Auburn as a three-actor piece, the play was premiered off- Broadway in 2001. Since then, the show has had a London production, an American national tour and numerous local productions.
The Larson Collection also includes more than 600 recordings (housed in the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division), many of them featuring Larson performing his works. The collection is among the first of its kind to include a significant number of computer disks containing “born digital” material—an exciting new avenue for researchers interested in the intersection of creativity and technology.
But the jewel in the crown is “Rent”—lyric sketches, numerous drafts of the script and research materials such as biographies of the fictional characters and notes and essays by Larson.
Largely hand-written, the collection also reveals Larson’s hopes and dreams (“get married, have a family and become a famous composer”), a self-assessment of his special skills (ranging from “good w/ children + cats” to “composer/lyricist”) and various outlines that reveal the product of an ordered mind.
Perhaps most poignant is a math worksheet that Larson devised to arrive at the figure of “525,600 minutes” that “measure a year.” As every aficionado of “Rent” knows, these are lyrics from “Seasons of Love.”
Though Larson had too few seasons, his legacy endures. After his death, the composer’s family and friends started the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation in his memory to provide monetary grants to artists, especially musical theater composers and writers, to support their creative work. And researchers can explore his creative process in his collection housed at the Library of Congress.
On Oct. 23, 2006, the Library produced a Jonathan Larson concert that featured the original musicians and musical director (Tim Weil) from “Rent” along with original cast members Anthony Rapp and Gwen Stewart. They were joined by later additions to the cast, Natascia Diaz, Jeremy Kushnier and Michael McElroy. The concert featured selections from “Rent” and other Larson works, along with songs written and performed by three of the songwriters who have received grants from the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation: Cynthia Hopkins, Joe Iconis and Steven Lutvak. Titled “American Creativity,” a film of the concert will be shown at the Library on April 12, 2012, at 7 p.m.
In 2007, the Library underwrote the “Jonathan Sings Larson” CD/DVD package as part of the Songwriter Series, with support from the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust for the Benefit of the Library of Congress. On May 9, 2011, curator Mark Eden Horowitz discussed Larson’s life and work. The program may be viewed at www.loc.gov/webcasts/
Mark Eden Horowitz is a senior music specialist and curator of the Jonathan