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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, June 18, 2001

'Rent' creator's early work revived

By Mark Evans
Associated Press

NEW YORK — As his 30th birthday neared, struggling composer Jonathan Larson toiled on an autobiographical monologue — a raw, musical rant about the frustrating demands of life as an artist.

A couple of years later, on the cusp of success with another work, a full-scale rock opera called "Rent," Larson set aside the unfinished "Tick Tick ... Boom!"

Tragically, Larson died in 1996, at age 35. He never knew what a stir "Rent" would cause on Broadway that year, nor did he know of its four Tony Awards, Pulitzer Prize and cult of fans that still swarm to see it.

His abrupt death, from an undiagnosed heart ailment, also left his family and close friends with a nagging question: What to do with the five rough drafts and the fragmented song lists of the autobiographical piece, which along with "Rent," comprised most of what remained of Larson's aborted creative life.

This week, that question got a definitive answer: "Tick Tick ... Boom!" opened off-Broadway.

Larson's father, Al Larson, labored over the family's decision to allow the abandoned musical to be brought to the stage.

"It was hard. At first, we couldn't bring ourselves to even think of anybody other than Jonathan performing it. We thought of the play as this extremely personal thing, where one guy is up there saying, 'This is my life,'" Al Larson says.

"We couldn't conceive of (staging) it — until we were sort of pushed about it. And then the question really boiled down to, 'Well, do you want to have Jonathan's other material just buried with him?"

The musical, in its current form, bears only some resemblance to what Jonathan Larson began to work on in the late 1980s. By then, he was already somewhat grizzled by New York's theater grind, having devoted much of his adult life to writing and performing, but with little to show for it. He was still working at a diner, barely making ends meet.

"He very quickly wrote the first draft in 1989. It was so angry. But it was also good. ... It just never quite hit its stride," recalls Victoria Leacock, one of Larson's closest friends, and a co-producer of "Tick Tick ... Boom!"

That early version, called "30/90," was followed by other drafts, some of them staged for friends or his agent, or at small clubs. By 1993, Larson brought yet another revised version to a small audience at New York Theatre Workshop.

It was a frenetic piece of performance art, with Larson singing, acting and directing an accompanying rock band. And more than ever, it was angry in tone, an expression of growing futility in Larson's own life, Leacock recalls.

"I've got to say that the final version was pretty hard to watch — for a close friend of his. He was so frustrated," Leacock says. "You know, the tag line now on the poster says, 'An artist of the verge of exploding.' Well, he certainly was. He had really hit this wall of frustration."

In the coming months, that wall began to crumble. Larson's other work-in-progress, "Rent," was finally taking shape, and he was given a grant to continue working on it. The stark reality that several of his friends had contracted AIDS also pushed him to focus exclusively on "Rent," a modern-day "La Boheme" which depicts, in part, the tragedy of that disease.

With "Rent" firmly in his mind, Larson abandoned the imperfect ``Tick Tick ... Boom!,'' and would never return to it.

No one can say whether Jonathan Larson would have chosen to revive the piece. In some ways, "Tick Tick ... Boom!" explores some of the same themes as ``Rent,'' taking on the troubles of artists trying to find a true, creative path. It's possible Larson might have considered his autobiographical piece immature — simply a precursor to the Broadway hit.

Grappling with those issues, Leacock says that the impulse to produce the play after Larson's death simply grew too strong to ignore. She finally approached Al Larson last year with her idea.

"Al doesn't believe in all this spirit stuff, but I actually think that Jon really has been hovering, and nudging me for a while," Leacock says. "And, finally, I couldn't stand it, and so I said, 'Let's just do this.'"

After getting the family's permission, Leacock enlisted director Scott Schwartz. He, in turn, approached David Auburn, author of this year's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Proof," to help with the script.

Both were handed five drafts of the show along with tapes of Larson's early performances.

Since neither knew Larson, Schwartz went to see "Rent" again, sifted through diaries, and interviewed family and friends.

"I felt I really needed to get to know this guy a little bit. I wanted to interpret his work in a way, I hope, he would approve of," Schwartz says. "I found the story very, very compelling ... and I think it's a particularly poignant message given what happened with Jonathan."

Auburn, who was impressed with the beauty of the songs, sought to find a clear narrative through-line in the five drafts while staying true to Larson's vision.

The most obvious change from the original is that the musical now has three actors — not one. The result may be a piece that is more entertaining while evoking less of the anger that Larson's versions did.

"We kept, I think, the quality of what he was after," Auburn says.

Al Larson, for one, is pleased with the result. "They've shown concern for Jonathan's memory," he says.

Even so, he's careful not to lose the bigger picture in the details.

"Most of what you're seeing there on stage is really very personal stuff from Jonathan's life,'' he says. ``I see Jonathan up there, and a very, very good person who really cared about the world."