Max Vernon says he wants to create “provocative musicals that have a social conscience — to introduce stories and characters you wouldn’t expect to see on stage — pushing forward and modernizing the form.”
His ambition brings to mind a trailblazer from another generation whose example inspired the American Theatre Wing, which awards the Tonys for Broadway excellence each year, to establish a grant in Jonathan Larson’s name to help emerging musical theater creative artists.
Three Larson Legacy grants amounting to $10,000 each were awarded last year. The program is named for the creator of “Rent,” who died of an aortic dissection on the morning of the show’s first performance Off-Broadway in 1996. “Rent” went on to earn its author a stack of posthumous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony for best musical. “Rent” became the 10th-longest-running musical in Broadway history — though it was recently surpassed by “Wicked.” “Rent” played at the Nederlander Theatre from 1996 to 2008.
Larson graduated from Adelphi University and wrote his first musical, “Libro de Buen Amor,” with his mentor, Jacques Burdick, Adelphi’s theater department head at the time. This year, for the first time, Adelphi invited winners of the Larson Legacy grants to the university for showcase performances. Vernon will play a solo concert Sunday at Adelphi’s Olmstead Theatre. Fellow Larson Legacy winner Sam Willmott, like Vernon a composer and lyricist, performed last fall on the Garden City campus.
Vernon, 27, lives in Brooklyn and is a New York University alum who has performed concerts all over the city, including sold-out shows at Joe’s Pub (“Frisk Me: The Songs of Max Vernon”) and a Metropolitan Museum of Art concert series called “Let Me Ascertain You.”
Vernon says he saw “Rent” when he was 8, on its first national tour. “My mom took me to see it in L.A. A lot of it was over my head,” he recalls, “but it inspired me.”
His father, who lives in Plainview, “wouldn’t let me see it on Broadway because he thought it might be inappropriate because I had an uncle who died of AIDS and this plotline in ‘Rent’ might hit too close to home.”
Vernon has written music and lyrics for “The View UpStairs” at NYU and “KPOP” at Ars Nova. “I like to do stories that haven’t been done before,” he said, adding with a laugh, “As far as I know, no one’s done a musical about Korean pop stars before. I’m drawn to music you don’t hear on Broadway — electronic and punk.”
A musical he wrote with Jason Kim is opening in May at Keen Company on Theatre Row and he has a workshop presentation of his “View UpStairs,” coming up in April.
Vernon’s concert Sunday features original songs from his shows as he accompanies himself and a cast of “downtown divas” on piano — gliding from indie pop to punk-inspired musical theater for the 20-something generation.