Friday, 23 November 2007

INTERVIEW: "Jonathan Sings Larson" Producers

On 6 Nov., PS Classics in conjunction with the Library of Congress released the newest CD in their Songwriter Series, Jonathan Sings Larson. Comprised of 16 tracks, the CD looks at Jonathan Larson’s personal demo recordings in addition to a pair of live tracks and a bonus DVD featuring Larson performing four songs from tick, tick...BOOM! in 1991. Copious liner notes include excerpts from interviews with Larson, his family and friends, and Steven Schwartz, the composer of Godspell and Wicked. The CD may be purchased at Amazon, CD Universe, or as legal MP3 downloads through eMusic.

Recently, producer Steve Nelson and assistant producer Ashley Griffin were kind enough to answer some questions for this site.

Q: How were you chosen to be the producer for this album?

Steve: I started the Songwriter Series back in the early 90s. I chose Larson as our next project in conjunction with the Library of Congress Advisory panel. [The Library of Congress] has funded the Series since '99.

Ashley: I was hired by Series Producer Steve Nelson to be the Asst. Producer/Production Assistant for the Library of Congress Songwriter Series. In addition to Jonathan Sings Larson I was also the Associate Producer of Charles Sings Strouse.

Q: What did the job entail?

Steve: This is basically audio archaeology - Larson's cassette demos were generally in good shape although new digital transfers had to be made in a few cases. Editing was a bit tricky in spots, but nothing too daunting.

Ashley: The job entailed spending many hours researching, listening to, and archiving everything and anything to do with Jonathan Larson. I spent many hours in the Larson office listening to, and watching all the archival footage they had, making notes, writing down song lengths, and ultimately spending a lot of time thinking about, and discussing with Steve what should be included on the CD and DVD. Once that was decided we got to work typing up lyrics, writing liner notes, etc.

Steve: The DVD was the new thing, as the series had been audio only up to this point. The original High-8 analog tapes weren't in great shape, but the sound as OK and we got the best we could within our time/budget constraints. There is extensive Larson video that awaits a thorough restoration, but that is probably several projects at least.

Q: How much research and pre-planning went into the CD?

Steve: Far too much. This was a complicated one with 100s of hours of listening and trips back and forth between NYC and DC (where the original tapes are housed). The DVD and booklet work were also time consuming.

Ashley: Jonathan Sings Larson took a little more than a year from start to finish. I actually knew quite a bit about Jonathan Larson and his work before I started on the project. The most difficult thing was keeping track of everything we were listening to so that we could go back and decide what we wanted to, or what even could be included. There were hundreds of audio tapes, and dozens of different versions of songs, so we didn't want anything getting lost in the shuffle. In addition to listening, I also read interviews, scripts, play synopsis, etc. so that I could put the material in context. Just keeping track of all the work done on Superbia was incredibly challenging as Jonathan completely rewrote the show several times over about ten years, so it was very important to keep all the material straight.

Q: Considering the sheer volume of material you were assessing, what did you do to avoid burnout?

Ashley: Honestly that was one problem I was fortunate not to have. I did have to make sure that I planned how many hours I’d be in the office ahead of time, and make myself leave at a certain point. Jonathan Larson is so near and dear to my heart that I just felt such an overwhelming responsibility to Jonathan, history, and his fans. Any time I’d start to get tired I’d just remind myself that this was being archived for history. The song I spaced out on might be the song that the fans would most want to hear on the album.

Q: How organised was the original source material?

Steve: Everything's at LC, including all original audio. The Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation has listening copies, but these aren't available to the public.

Ashley: Everything was organized and labelled with a date. Some things were mis-marked, but that was pretty easy to deal with. There was literally a giant tape rack in the middle of the office with all the tapes organized (with individual numbers) so we just went from one end of the rack to the other listening.

Q: What were your initial criteria for song selection?

Steve: Use the best we had with an eye to as thorough a career span as we could get in a single CD.

Ashley: The most basic criteria is that it has to be sung by the composer - in this case Jonathan Larson. Although there were hundreds of demos of Jonathan performing his own work there were several wonderful songs that he never recorded. Also, we wanted to focus on material that no one had heard before. Everyone knows Rent, and many know tick, tick...BOOM! so we wanted to offer material that you couldn't get anywhere else. Ultimately the most important criteria was that we chose the songs that we wanted to listen to ourselves: the songs that we kept singing once we left the office. The ones we wished we could listen to on our iPod.

Q: What surprised you when putting together the collection?

Steve: He recorded a lot and was quite meticulous and demanding as to the sound he wanted.

Ashley: I don't know if one particular thing surprised me, it was more the general experience. Everyone talks about the brilliance of Jonathan Larson, and how he revolutionized musical theater with his innovative new sound and style. But when you’re living in the middle of all his work - watching home movies of him in his apartment trying things out - seeing and hearing his work as he intended for it to be done was so eye opening and made it so clear exactly how revolutionary he was. It's as close as I'll ever be able to get to hanging out with him in his living room. And to get to see that personal intimate side of Jonathan apart from the tragedy of his death which is so a part of, say, going to see Rent, gave a whole new outlook on his life and work.

I really heard everything from the Beatles to David Bowie to Rodgers and Hammerstein in his music in a striking and raw way that became so clear once you began to literally see the progression he made as a writer. How this song gave way to this one, which was rewritten as this.

Superbia was also a bit of a surprise for me. Like all Rent-heads I was incredibly intrigued by this "lost third show." One of the first things I did once I got to the office was to watch the DVD of one of the workshops Jonathan did of Superbia. It's ahead of its time for now; I can only imagine what it must have been like to see it in the 80's.

Q: Were there any tracks you wanted to include, but couldn't due to fidelity issues, participants unwilling to give clearance, outvoting from co-workers, etc.?

Steve: Not really.

Ashley: "Turn the Key/Ever After/Dear Mr. Hammerstein II" - this was a lovely piece from Superbia where (in the first draft of the script) the romantic leads Josh and Elizabeth meet for the first time. They are the only people in Superbia who have emotions, and the only way they have been able to learn about feelings is by reading "ancient" books of old musical theater lyrics (namely by Oscar Hammerstein II.) It couldn't be included unfortunately because 1.) There was no recording of Jonathan singing it, 2.) The only recording was from when the show was presented at a musical theater panel discussion, and there are interruptions from the crowd, narration, etc. 3.) The recording wasn't the best quality. (Meaning the technical aspects, not the performers.)

Q: What are your favourite tracks on the disc?

Steve: I like the live stuff (the DVD tracks), "One of These Days" and most of the RENT tracks. A lot of energy; a lot of him in those tracks. As Michael Greif said, "He wanted it bad."

Ashley: Well, I love all of them of course, but if I had to pick, I'd say my favorites are: "One of These Days", "LCD Readout" (the Superbia tracks), "All I Know", and "Find The Key."

Q: When choosing between multiple versions of the same song, how did you choose which to include - the one closest to the final, the best fidelity, the earliest?

Steve: I almost always go with the most engaging performance - the one that sells the song best.

Ashley: In some instances Jonathan had rewritten some of the lyrics, and then it was an aesthetics call - which we preferred. We mainly chose based on the best performance.

Q: There's very little material from Superbia on this disc, which is a bit of a disappointment to long-term Larson fans. Were there issues with the tapes or was this a creative decision?

Steve: There is a complete concert video of him doing it with Roger Bart and friends. I'd like to see that come out at some point, but that's ultimately a call for my collaborator Victoria Leacock Hoffman and the Larson family.

Ashley: We were originally going to put “Lets All Sing” and “Doin’ it on the Air” on the DVD for this album. [However,] Superbia is NOT in a definitive form, and it’s such a good show that we didn’t want to put something out and have people think “Oh! THIS is Superbia."

Q: The original demo for the song "Boho Days" is on the OCR from tick,tick...BOOM!, and the version on the CD is from the 2006 Library of Congress tribute concert. Why use this song and version rather than one of the other, possibly more obscure, songs from that event?

Steve: We thought about it, but this was the only one that really held its own with [Larson’s] versions. We almost released "Hosing the Furniture," which I would definitely use if there's a volume 2.

Q: A video of "Sunday" is an extra on the "Broadway: An American Musical" DVD set from PBS. What was your motivation for including this track instead of an alternative?

Steve: Ours is a different performance. I like this one better, although video quality on the PBS one is superior.

Q: The runtime for the CD is ~61 minutes. Was the plan to limit the CD to an hour vs. the media's capacity at 80 minutes, or did tracks cut during the selection process throw off the balance?

Steve: I've found over the years that 80 minutes is too much (though we have released CDs in the 70-75 minute range. There were quite a few things I wanted in (as well as quite a bit of video), so maybe there's a volume 2? We'll see.

A big round of thanks are due to Steve and Ashley for their participation. A review of the CD/DVD will be posted shortly.

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