On April 29, 1996, the day that Rent opened on Broadway, it became apparent that the musical theater had lost a major new voice when the show's songwriter and librettist, Jonathan Larson, died of an aneurysm three months earlier at the age of 35. More than 11 and a half years later, when the album of demos Jonathan Sings Larson was released by PS Classics as part of the Library of Congress Songwriter Series on November 6, 2007, Rent was still playing on Broadway and in productions around the world. But the disc is another reminder of what was lost, even as it confirms that Rent only marked the culmination of years of excellent songwriting. Larson's earlier work, tick, tick...BOOM!, earned an off-Broadway production and a cast album in 2001. Jonathan Sings Larson presents the songwriter's versions of numbers from both it and Rent, as well as songs for his first unproduced musical, Superbia; from Boho Days, an earlier version of tick, tick...BOOM!; and some non-show songs written for various purposes. In his final interview with Anthony Tommassini of The New York Times, conducted the night before his death and reproduced in the CD booklet, Larson spoke of his desire to meld contemporary pop/rock music with the musical theater, and his songs are informed by rock of the post-Beatles era, even as they express a smart urban sensibility much like that of the characters in Rent. His demos tend to be somewhat more polished than the usual piano/vocal tapes of composers, employing synthesizers, overdubbing, and extra instruments. And he is a good singer who presents his songs with understandable enthusiasm. But these are still demos, with a flat sound, bum notes, and sudden stops. (Larson's bravura version of "One Song Glory" from Rent ends amid what sounds like someone pounding on his apartment wall, perhaps to complain about the noise.) There are a few live tracks on the CD, one of "Boho Days," a definite precursor to Rent, taken from a 2006 concert celebrating Larson and sung a cappella by the trio of Jeremy Kushnier, Michael McElroy, and Anthony Rapp (who was in the original Broadway cast of Rent), and two taken from Larson's performance of tick, tick...BOOM! at a nightclub in Greenwich Village in 1991. Four more songs from this show are included on an accompanying DVD, shot with a single, hand-held camera, but the songwriter's passion and creativity come through clearly. Jonathan Sings Larson is a must-have for musical theater fans and for anyone who, having seen Rent, wonders about its creator and his other songs.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2