How well do we know the work of Jonathan Larson? We know him, of course, as the composer of Rent, and that he tragically and unexpectedly died twenty years ago in 1996 on the very day of the show’s Off-Broadway preview. But there is more to the story than that, and this one-off cabaret-style evening set out to give us the broader picture, showcasing some of the creative output that preceded Rent, offering strong and affectionate performances of many of the familiar numbers, and some insights into the influence his work has had on many collaborators and later generations of performers.

Taking his most famous song, Seasons of Love as the thematic point of departure, producer Katy Lipson and director Grant Murphy organised the programme into four ‘seasons’, reflecting discrete phases of Larson’s short life. This framework was very loosely drawn, but managed to encompass most of the famous numbers from Renttogether with a goodly selection of earlier material that was never performed or delivered for particular long-forgotten commissions. 

The repertory was shared out between five performers, all of whom had a long-standing performance history with Larson’s catalogue (Krysten Cummings, Damien Flood, Debbie Kurup, Anton Stephans, and Noel Sullivan). There was a pleasing blend of solo and ensemble numbers and in the second half they were joined by a backing chorus and guest appearances from Mig Ayesha and Flood’s young daughter, Scarlett Silver. Gareth Bretherton arranged and directed the five-piece band.

There were many positive elements to the evening, both technical and creative. These one-off retrospectives are difficult to bring off successfully and often rely on less than adequate rehearsal time; but there were no major problems in this respect (unlike, for example, the recent Kings of Broadway at the Palace Theatre). There was no compere, but instead continuity was provided through links and introductions from the performers, who spoke with feeling and inside knowledge of the music, though the device of leaving tributes for Larson as voicemail messages was rather overdone. The lighting design by Andrew Ellis was consistently inventive and sympathetic to the individual numbers; and the band played excellently throughout, with many filigree guitar solos and keyboard riffs interpolated sympathetically and good contrasts of introspection and full rock groove as needed.

The singing from all contributors was never less than efficient though on the whole the women had a better evening than the men. This is punishing music to sing over a whole evening, when there is no dramatic respite between numbers; and some of the voices were certainly showing the strain of competing with the band by the end of the evening.

Krysten Cummings was consistently impressive throughout, and reminded us again of how fine an interpreter she was of the role of Mimi Marquez in the original London production. She nailed her every number, but if I had to single out one it would be Bring out the Booze not least because of the way the intensity of both music and performance gradually piled up rather than going full-on too soon. Each of the singers had fine moments – Flood took full advantage of One Song Glory, Kurup laid vehement claim to What You Own, Stephans was very affecting in I’ll Cover You, and Sullivan was consistently good at projecting Larson’s complicated lyrics even when going full throttle. 

In many ways the second half of the evening was more satisfactory than the first because the contrast of mood and manner between the songs was greater and also the genuine emotion of several of the cast members catalysed the moment. Up to that point there was some uncertainty both onstage and in the audience as to whether we were part of a tribute event or a straight-forward performance – thereafter the two gelled very satisfactorily, culminating in a rendition of Love Heals that brought the audience to its feet.

What lessons and reflections were there to take away from this evening? Firstly, and transcendently, the quality and superabundance of the songs written for Rent still shines through, and it was easy to share and endorse the sense of loss that that performers expressed over what might have been. It is a while since I have heard these numbers together and it is good to be reminded of the craft and skill that Larson had achieved.

Of course, hearing the numbers on their own made you then want to have the dramatic context restored too. For one should not forget that one of the key ingredients to the success of Rent was the way it transferred intact the complex emotional matrix of the characters in Puccini’s La Bohème, and redeployed it in a new context, no small achievement in itself. The ethos of No Day But Today that runs through all this music is an example of creative alchemy that is all too rare – when one artist takes a work we think is hackneyed and familiar and finds a way of re-inventing it for a new musical generation, but with a true spirit of integrated affiliation with the original.

There was no sense that the catalogue of rarely or unperformed early material contained any lost masterpieces. A lot of this material sounded very close to the Sondheim of Company and Follies, full of highly- even over-wrought urban sophistication, but lacking the powerful individuality of what came later. Destination Sky, charmingly sung by Scarlett Silver, did, however, show a very different and gentler side to Larson that one wished he had explored further. 

Mention of Sondheim leads me to a final thought that troubled me a little at the end of this absorbing evening. We know that Larson idolised the older composer and his influence is palpable throughout in the verbal sharpness and psychological penetration of the lyrics. In the introductions to the songs one was struck continually at the felicity of invention and the way in which harmonic side-slips and inflections mirror the apt tenor of the words – there is a graceful balance between words and music of which Sondheim would have been proud. Yet time and again as the song gathered emotional force in repetition and the band ramped up to full rock intensity and volume, the words were lost, and the overall effect of the song diminished unless the performer’s acting got the message across instead. There is a tension there in the composition between verbal intentions and chosen musical genre that perhaps helps to explain why only the finest performers can bring this music off across the length of an evening.

This was a very ‘90s’ evening, in every sense, not least in the audience, the majority of whom were in their 40s, and therefore recalling their own youth as well as Larson’s music. There was a lot of nostalgia all round, but also plenty of precise and focused reminders of a special moment in the history of musical theatre, and why it remains so twenty years on.

Three stars

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…