A few days after seeing Tick, Tick…Boom I happened to be driving south of 14th Street and it occurred to me that I kept passing places that were important to Jonathan Larson’s life. But this same journey also hit places that were important to my early life, and on came a rush of memories. Now, I’m certainly not maintaining he and I lived parallel lives – I mean, how could I possibly know what it was like to turn 30 in 1990? – but I’ve long loved giving tours of lesser-seen parts of my home town. And so, a travelogue.
Sixth Avenue between Canal and Houston
Driving up this weirdly wide thoroughfare, I thought: Where have I just seen this place? Of course, I was thinking of Tick, Tick…Boom, a show presented without any scenery. But something in the writing created the image in my mind of Larson, running from his keyboard to the roof, catching a glimpse of the Hudson, smoking a jay. Now, I don’t know exactly where he lived (“on the edge of Soho”) but I thought, maybe Here. By which I meant the little arts complex known as Here, where my first two Second City adventures had played. Under the sure-handed stewardship of Kevin Scott, a bunch of funny actors assembled with the idea of creating a funny revue in ten weeks or so. Now, I’ve written some of my shows in less time, so I know it can be done, assuming everybody can think of plenty of stuff to laugh about. But the first meeting took place right after September 11, 2001, so how daunting was that quest to create zany insouciance?
Much has been written about the emotions experienced by the original cast of Rent, who, immediately after hearing of the death of Jonathan Larson, had to go out there and present his work to a downtown audience. Rent, at least, is a moving piece, imbued with the tears that come from sickness and early death. Sometime around Thanksgiving, 2001, the cast of We Built This City On Rent Control ran onto Here’s stage and got people to laugh, and to feel it was finally O.K. to laugh. All I did was two songs, and one had a tune I’d used before, but man I’m proud to have been a part of that.
While I was looking to the right, on Sixth, for Larson’s place of work, a lowly-regarded greasy spoon, Joy was looking to the left for the place we got married. The Soho Playhouse is still standing, and if you’re saying “Wait, you got married in a theatre?” have I got a story for you. And an original cast CD, which you can still buy for $20 bucks (e-mail me). I’ve written about Our Wedding here and there. And here and there. And so has The New York Times, Peter Filichia, and Jeffrey Sweet.
East Fourth between Cooper Square and Second
What caught my eye was a sign for Upright Citizens Brigade, New York’s foremost comedy factory. I was among UCB’s first ten students in New York, long before Amy Poehler was famous, but would have been thinking about my life in improv on this block anyway thanks to some mad times I’d spent performing at the Kraine and some Fringe venue on the La Mama side of the street with The Chainsaw Boys. Now that I think of it, The Red Room, a few stories above the Kraine, was where I’d actually performed with the original UCB – as an actor. The Chainsaw Boys used me as musical director and composer, where I’m a little more comfortable. And paid.
So many tiny venues on one thin block. The place seemed mine alone until Joy pointed out that one of those venues was New York Theatre Workshop, where Rent premiered. So, at the time of his death, it probably seemed like Larson’s block. But anyone with a sense of the larger history of the block would say the city should name it for Ellen Stewart.
Tompkins Square Park
This was our destination that day. I knew it contains a playground Adelaide’s enjoyed in the past, and she did again. But over a quarter century ago, the place was associated with a riotous protest involving the poor squatters in the surrounding buildings and the gentrifying yuppies trying to force them out. Gee, sound like any musical you know? For me, as a New Yorker, the plot of Rent seemed rather dated, not because of the La bohème parallels, but the fact that it was revisiting some East Village events and issues from eight years before. I know few people in the world are the least bit bothered by this, but take it as a warning: it’s hard to write a musical about current events because, chances are, it will take so long to make it to the stage, they won’t be current anymore.
111 Second Avenue
Last week I made reference to the devastating experience of being one of the babies thrown out with the bathwater when the BMI Workshop cleaned house following the death of Lehman Engel. I didn’t take my dismissal lying down, but enlisted the support of one of BMI’s most famous composers. He signed a letter that I wrote telling them they’d be foolish to give up on the 22-year-old me. This did nothing. But there was nothing for me to do but get on with my life and my projects. Around that time I met Blaise (not his real name), a preternaturally talented young playwright and fascinating intellectual. He had all sorts of theatre projects going, each needing a limited amount of music. Working on those helped me put the workshop behind me. I was now out-in-the-world, doing it. Eventually, we conjured up an entire musical. It played at 111 Second, with young actors that would grow up to join the original casts of the Tony-winning musicals Jersey Boys and Spring Awakening. After rehearsals, they might have popped over to Life Café to discuss Pablo Neruda and Susan Sontag. Here they talked of revolution, lit the flame, sang about tomorrow, and – wait, those were other students. Sorry. La vie bohème!