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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the March 17, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
George Street Goes `Tick, tick…Boom!"
When the now-legendary bohemian composer Jonathan Larson got his first
big break, he phoned his friend, director David Saint, who had just
left New York to take a job with the Seattle Rep. And Larson’s opening
line was predictably: "I’ve got good news and bad news."
The good news was that "Rent," his rock opera based on Puccini’s "La
Boheme," was finally going to get its first staging by the Second
Stage Theater. The bad news was that the show had been selected as a
hasty replacement for a canceled show: rehearsals would begin in three
weeks. Saint, Larson’s long-time collaborator, would not be able to
direct the fledgling show.
"Rent" had its world premiere at the New York Theater Workshop on
February 13, 1996. The night before its first preview, January 25,
1996, Larson died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm. He was 35 years old.
Now David Saint is preparing to direct a new production of "Tick,
tick…Boom!," a three-actor musical by Jonathan Larson. Opening night
is Friday, March 19, for the show that runs to April 11.
In a phone interview from George Street Playhouse last week, where
rehearsals for "Tick, tick…Boom!" were under way, David Saint is
transported back to the late 1980s and early ’90s when his friendship
with Larson began. "Working on this piece now is much more emotional
than I thought it would be. It has really swept over me much more
powerfully than I thought it would," he says.
"Tick, tick…Boom!" premiered in New York just two years ago as a
reworking of Larson’s one-man show, "Boho Days," a rock monologue
Larson performed solo, with a live band.
"This show resonates with me on many levels. I was a friend of
Jonathan’s and directed the original incarnation of this piece, a
one-man show originally called ’30/90′ and then ‘Boho Days,’ with
Jonathan as performer." Saint says he will present this production as
a tribute to Larson.
"It took me a long time to cast this show. The actor that I cast as
Jonathan didn’t need to look like Jonathan, but I wasn’t going to be
happy until I found someone who had the essence of Jonathan, someone
who had his spirit," he says. "This kid, Colin Hanlon, is so
passionate that now it’s hard for me to watch. I feel as if Jonathan’s
in the same room with me."
"Jonathan and I started working on this piece in 1989. It was his
story," says Saint. On the very day that the drowned body of missing
monologist Spalding Gray was discovered, Saint notes that Larson used
to call "Boho Days," "his Spalding Gray for the musical theater."
"Boho Days" was produced at the Second Stage Theater in 1990.
"Originally it was called 30/90," recalls Saint, "and then because we
wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t only about turning 30 in 1990,
we decided to change the title to ‘Boho Days’ – It’s short for
Bohemian and for where he lived on Greenwich Avenue, ‘by Soho.’"
"Jonathan lived in an apartment with six roommates, a constantly
revolving door, and without two nickels to rub together – he was the
Saint, who describes himself as "sort of a pack rat," has kept all his
notes, letters, and even a videotape of Larson performing the original
one-man show, all of which he has used to refresh his memory.
"The New York version was adapted with the help of David Auburn," says
Saint. "And they did a good job, but also left out a lot of stuff –
some of the passion and the bite and the edge of Jonathan – which I
have in my study." Saint consulted Larson’s father, Al Larson, before
deciding to re-shape the show and add some material. Al Larson, in
turn, has asked Saint to donate these materials to the Larson
Collection of the Smithsonian Institute after the show opens. Larson’s
parents, Al and Nan Larson, will attend the opening night performance.
Saint and Larson first met in New York in the mid-’80s, introduced by
Ira Whitesman, who was at Playwrights Horizons, now at Lincoln Center.
"I was becoming interested in trying to develop musical works with
young composers, and Ira suggested I get in touch with Jonathan," he
recalls. "So I visited him in his sixth floor walkup – the one where
you throw the keys out the window because there’s no buzzer," says
Saint, taking the reference right out of Larson’s "Rent." "He spent
the evening playing the music he had written for ‘Superbia,’" Larson’s
early rock musical that won a prestigious Richard Rodgers
"I knew this was a pure spirit," Saint recalls. "I was so drawn to him
because he never was bitter. He was passionate and struggling and dirt
poor, but he had a humility about him and an innate talent."
"He worked in the Moondance Diner for several years as a waiter,
that’s what he was doing to survive. Now ‘Rent’ has made so much money
that he’d be a millionaire a million times over."
In 1996 "Rent" became a runaway hit in the U.S. and in London. It
received the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama and four 1996 Tony Awards,
including Best Musical and Best Score for a Musical. Still going
strong on tour and in New York, the show last month became Broadway’s
10th-longest running show and is expected soon to pass ."Grease" and
"Fiddler on the Roof."
"Jonathan started developing both ’30/90′ and ‘Rent’ at about that
time," says Saint. "So many of the themes in ‘Rent’ are the same
themes that appear in ‘Tick, tick, Boom!’" At 29 Larson was
preoccupied about turning 30 and not having "made it" on or off
"What snapped Jonathan out of his obsession with trying to prove
himself by age of 30 was when his best friend (the character Michael
is based on) told him he had AIDS, at a time when HIV was a virtual
death sentence. It was a huge smack in the face that told him ‘I’ve
got to start thinking about bigger things,’" says Saint. "So that’s
the journey of the play."
"Jonathan thought he was going to lose his best friend," he continues.
"The irony now is that his best friend is still alive and Jonathan is
the one who died."
Larson and Saint’s friendship made its way into the show with a lyric:
"It’s an uphill battle – maybe we should all move to Seattle," a
reference to Saint’s taking a job at the Seattle Rep.
Saint is in his sixth season as artistic director of George Street
Playhouse, where he has directed world premieres by Charles Evered,
Arthur Laurents, Anne Meara, and Velina Hasu Houston, among others. He
also directed the world premiere production of the musical, "The
Spitfire Grill," which went on to earn accolades and become one of the
most produced plays in the nation last year. Saint has directed on and
off Broadway, and at many regional theaters, including the Seattle
Repertory Theater where he served as associate artistic director to
"Tick, tick…Boom!" is Larson’s own story, the musical tale of his
days as a struggling artist in New York’s Soho district, a modern-day
Bohemia with cheap rents making the neighborhood a haven for many
artists. It is set in 1990, and "Rent" is still six years away from
its Broadway debut.
The cast features Colin Hanlon (who comes to GSP from the Broadway
cast of "Rent") as Larson, Sarah Litzsinger (Broadway’s
longest-running Belle in "Beauty and the Beast") as his girlfriend,
Susan, and Stephen Bienskie (most recently seen in the Off-Broadway
hit "The Last Session") as best friend, Michael. Choreography is by
Christopher Gatelli, who choreographed the show’s original
Off-Broadway run, and musical direction is by Randy Cohen.
In "Tick, tick…Boom!" Jonathan (played by Hanlon) is on the verge of
turning 30 and is faced with some life-altering choices, while
fighting to continue the pursuit of his dreams. His girlfriend Susan
(Litzsinger), a dancer, wants to get married and move out of the city.
His best friend, Michael (Bienskie), is making big bucks on Madison
Avenue, driving a BMW, and moving to a swank uptown apartment, while
Jonathan is still waiting tables and trying to write the great
"Jonathan used to say ‘I want to write the ‘Hair’ for the ’90s’ and in
many ways he succeeded," says Saint. He vividly remembers his last
phone conversation with Larson, the conversation they had as Saint
prepared to fly from Seattle to New York for the preview of "Rent." "I
know I still have a lot of work to do on it," he told Saint. "Well,
Jonathan wasn’t finished. And if you asked him, he would have said,
‘Well no, I wasn’t finished yet.’"
– Nicole Plett
Tick, tick…Boom!, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New
Brunswick, 732-246-7717. www.GSPonline.org. Opening night for the
Jonathan Larson musical, directed by David Saint. Show runs to April
11. $28-$52. Friday, March 19, 8 p.m.
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