When Jonathan Larson tragically died at age 35 on the same morning that his musical Rent began preview performances Off-Broadway, the world lost one of its most brilliant and groundbreaking musical theater composers. Following Larson’s death in 1996, Rent went on to become one of the most universally acclaimed and commercially successful musicals of all time. Along with tick, tick… BOOM!, it is one of only two pieces of Larson’s work that has been preserved in the form of cast recordings. Until now.
Available now digitally (and physically on June 14 as part of a collectible 40-page hardbound book), The Jonathan Larson Project is a brand new album of never-before-heard songs written by Larson. Released by Ghostlight Records, this collection features songs from never-produced shows like 1984 and Superbia, numbers that were cut from Rent and tick, tick… BOOM! and an array of standalone tracks.
The five-person cast of The Jonathan Larson Project includes Andy Mientus, best known for Broadway revivals of Les Misérables and Spring Awakening and television shows such as SMASH and The Flash. To celebrate the digital release of The Jonathan Larson Project, I caught up with the 32-year-old Mientus about all things Jonathan Larson, his own writing, career highlights and more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: The Jonathan Larson Project began as a concert at 54 Below. How did you and the rest of the cast come together to bring these lost works to life?
ANDY MIENTUS: We were all handpicked by the show’s director/curator, Jennifer Ashley Tepper, for which I’m endlessly grateful. Jen and I had geeked out about Jonathan Larson many times over the years and so when I heard she was putting this together, I wanted to be a part of it desperately. But I also didn’t want to reach out and express my interest because I wanted her to cast who she wanted to cast without our friendship clouding her vision. Luckily, she called anyway and I was over the moon.
What’s the wildest part about originating never-before-heard music written by Jonathan Larson?
I wore out my cast albums of Rent and tick, tick… BOOM! in middle and high school. They were my prime examples of the kinds of shows I wanted to be in and the kind of sound I wanted my voice to make. For obvious reasons, I always thought of premiering and recording new Larson material as totally impossible. If my thirteen-year-old self could have known that there would someday be a third Larson cast album and that he would be a soloist on it, I think he would have hid under the bed.
Even before this project, how formative has Larson’s work been on your own journey as a musical theater performer?
Like so many performers of my generation, Rent was the gateway. It was the first professional musical I ever saw, on tour in Pittsburgh. From then on, when I saw other musicals, I always wondered why they weren’t as current, political, or musically accessible. Rent completely set my theater taste for life.
Beyond Jonathan’s influence in my performing, seeing Rent so early provided me with representation I didn’t know I needed. It was my first time seeing bisexuality and gender fluidity treated with respect in any medium. I saw myself in his work before I knew myself.
One of your solos, “Valentine’s Day,” was originally written to be included in the Rent score but was ultimately cut from the final version of the musical. You described the song as “my favorite song I’ve ever gotten to sing in any show.” Can you please elaborate a bit about why that is?
I grew up in a household filled with music – classic rock, folk, soul, country, new wave, ‘90s alternative – but not musical theater. My parents just weren’t into it. So when I was a kid, I wanted to sound like Springsteen or Morrissey or The Replacements and that’s still how I sing when I’m in the shower or when singing original music. When I heard “Valentine’s Day,” which sounds straight off of late ‘80s/early ‘90s college radio, I got so excited to apply those early influences to theater music.
I also think this song does what the best musical theater songs do, which is seduce the listener with a catchy, accessible melody while telling a clear and impactful story. The lyrics paint a whole world and very distinct characters, while the “v-v-v” hook is as catchy as any pop song I’ve ever heard.
Larson wrote your other solo, “SOS,” for his first major musical – an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. While the rest of the music that he wrote for 1984 was more traditional than his later work, this song tips its hat to the pop-rock influence that he later became known for. As both a fan of his and as a performer, what are the most rewarding aspects of getting to record one of Larson’s earliest compositions?
I cried when I first heard his demo of it. He sounds soyoung on it and while it’s a character-specific song in a book musical, toward the end of the song, it really seems like the character becomes Jonathan himself – wondering what he is writing and if it matters, before determining that “it does, in 1984.”
Because Rent was what brought me to theater, it seemed like Jonathan’s music had just always existed and that he was this mythic figure. But hearing that demo, I could really picture him more clearly than ever as a frustrated young artist braving New York and his own self-doubt. He reminds me of my friends and myself on that recording. And I think a lot about it laying dormant for years on a cassette tape in the bottom of a box in the Library of Congress. To be the one to breathe life into it again after all these years is an overwhelming honor.
The album closes with “Piano,” an ensemble number that has never before been publicly performed or recorded. Why is this the perfect song to end the record with and what does it mean to you to be part of the recording that introduces this standalone theater song to the world?
Across the album, you get so much of Jonathan’s range – the rock-inflected musical theater we know him for, but also character songs, comedy, environmental anthems and radio-ready pop. You hear his rage, frustration, exuberance and humor. It’s clear that he felt very deeply and that he processed those feelings in his music. For all of the musical and lyrical fireworks on the album, to end with a stark, simple, universal song about a writer’s relationship to his instrument feels right. And that the song is so obscure, nearly lost to time, is a reminder of what Jennifer accomplished with her work in pulling these songs together and getting them out into the world.
While Larson has been considered a legend in the musical theater world for decades, it seems that there has been a renewed cultural interest in his work. From the release of this album to the recent live TV production of Rent to the upcoming Lin-Manuel Miranda-directed movie adaptation of tick, tick… BOOM!,his expanded catalog is becoming more and more accessible to the mainstream public. What do you think it is about his music that has made it both so timeless and relevant for today’s audiences?
I think Jonathan was very good at writing about universal themes through very specific lenses. Rent is about AIDS and artists and queerness and drug addiction and New York on one level, but ultimately it is about how love and friendship can get humans through trauma. tick, tick… BOOM! is about a young writer trying to get a musical produced – but really, it’s about that moment in life when we become aware of our mortality and decide if the path we’ve been on is really the path we want to stay on for our remaining time. Those deeper, universal themes keep the work relevant, while the specifics of his settings make them feel real and alive as snapshots of a time and place.
Kyle Bishop, your character on SMASH, suffered a similar tragic fate as Larson did – in that he died right before the opening night of his hit musical. How much did Larson influence your portrayal of Kyle? And are there any plans to revive Hit List in any capacity?
Josh Safran, the showrunner of season two of SMASH, was very close with the original company of Rent, and so he wanted to include an homage to Rentwith the way Kyle tragically doesn’t get to see his creation through to fruition. I didn’t actively seek to play Jonathan as Kyle, but I do think they have a similar drive and passion for the art form.
There are presently no plans to revisit Hit List– but I’m always game!
In 2017, a musical you wrote called Burn All Night made its debut at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What inspired you to write this show and are there plans for future productions of it?
The show was a reaction to a specific time in my life and the people and places I surrounded myself with to deal with that time. As I get further from that time, the show keeps changing dramatically. So based on that and what we learned about it in Cambridge, it’s back in the oven for the time being, becoming something else. I’m hoping it will be ready for another production again soon!
Speaking of writing, you’ve also been hard at work authoring the middle-grade series, The Backstagers.The first book came out last fall, the second came out last month and the third will be released in October. Three books in one year is quite an accomplishment – congratulations! What inspired you to write books for such young readers?
The project actually came to me through a few twists of fate. My publisher acquired the rights to The Backstagers comics and knew they wanted to continue the series as novels for middle grade readers. They thought with my theater background, I might be the right writer to tackle it. It’s been such a surprise joy in my life and career.
You recently co-starred on the procedural TV show, Gone,which is currently airing on WGN America. If the series were to be renewed, what would be some dream plot points and/or themes you’d like to see explored in season two?
We allude to my character’s dark back-story in the series, but it isn’t fully dealt with on camera. He was driven into human trafficking because his family cast him out for being gay. It’s a horrific set of circumstances, but I’m sure young men are driven down that path all the time in America. So I think it would be a really important story to tell unflinchingly, had we more time.
Later this year, you’ll be appearing in the episode “Two Doors Down” in Netflix’s anthology series, Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, which peels back the inspirations and backstories behind Dolly’s greatest hits. Have you always been a big fan of Dolly’s? What can you tell us about the character you’re playing?
Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, Dolly was definitely on rotation in our house – but I didn’t really appreciate her as a songwriter until after college when I was growing into my queerness. I’m playing a young Southern man who comes home for his sister’s wedding and tries to be a good son in the face of mounting family drama. To say more would give away some key plot points. I can reveal that Melissa Leo plays my mother, which is fun because we worked together once before on a pilot that didn’t make it to series, so there was already a connection. I think we found some beautiful chemistry in the episode.
Your husband, Michael Arden, is both a two-time Tony-nominated director and an actor, currently starring in Broadway’s King Lear. You’ve also worked together many times, including on the acclaimed Deaf West Theatre production of Spring Awakening. Do you have any upcoming collaborations you can tease? Do you find it easy and/or necessary to separate your personal and professional lives when you’re working together on a project?
The Spring Awakening experience was a special one because we developed the project together and it was only by accident that I wound up acting in it. Thus, it wasn’t strange to be in an actor/director relationship because we both knew what we wanted the show to be and were each contributing what we could toward making that happen.
There are no present plans to collaborate directly/publicly. We help each other on all of our projects because we come home to each other every night and discuss them. Therefore, you could say everything we do is a collaboration on some level.
Last summer, you starred as the titular character in Tommy at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Are there any plans to bring this revival to Broadway? If not, what type of show and/or role would you be most interested in to make your return to the Great White Way?
I can’t speak to any future plans for that production but we were all so excited that people in New York and around the country took notice of us and are wanting to see another iteration of what we did! It’s a beautiful reimagining and was a dream role I didn’t really know I had. I’d love to take it all the way to Broadway.
I’d also love to do something queer and/or something non-musical. Musicals take over one’s life in a way that is rewarding but draining. I do love being onstage though so I think a play would be a wonderful experience.
Lastly, you’ll be performing in Max Vernon’s Existential Life Crisis Lullaby concert residency at Joe’s Pub on April 23. What can your fans expect from this performance and what is it that attracted you to Vernon’s music?
I find Max’s music incredibly exciting. He does what Jonathan was so great at, which is making music with an understanding of what makes classic dramatic theater music but in a style that is unique to him and totally fresh. I’ll be singing one of his tunes and probably wearing something ridiculous!