About Jonathan Larson
Jonathan Larson (February 4, 1960 - January 25, 1996)
Composer-lyricist-librettist of Rent, a rock opera inspired by La Bohème, Jonathan Larson was born in Mt. Vernon, New York, and raised in suburban White Plains, the second child of Allan and Nanette Larson. Both Jonathan's parents loved music and theatre, and show tunes and folk music were always playing in their home. Jon and his sister Julie took piano lessons during elementary school. He could play by ear, and his teacher encouraged him to experiment with rhythm, harmony, and setting words. By high school, he was called the "Piano Man" after the enormously popular song of that title by Billy Joel; he also played tuba in the school marching band. Active in school and community theatre, Jonathan had major roles in several musicals.
In 1978, Jonathan entered the acting conservatory at Adelphi University with a four-year full-tuition merit scholarship. He told an interviewer in 1993 that the program was "an undergrad version of the Yale Rep [the theatre where students of the Yale School of Drama work alongside veteran professionals]. And I was serious enough about theatre to know that this was what I wanted to do." He earned his Equity card doing summer stock and received a BFA with honors in 1982.
His favorite part of the Adelphi curriculum was the original political cabarets. With classmates, Larson wrote rock-flavored attacks on the New Christian Right, Reaganomics, and the mind-numbing effects of television. He also scored El Libro de Buenamor (1979) and The Steak Tartare Caper (1981), musicals with lyrics and libretti by faculty members. He had a knack for pastiche and for complex ensemble numbers that used themes in counterpoint.
In class, Jonathan studied the theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Peter Brook. Among his musical influences were Jesus Christ Superstar, the Beatles, Prince, and the Police, but the writer he admired most was Stephen Sondheim, to whom he wrote during his last year in college. The distinguished composer-lyricist answered him and became an adviser to the young songwriter.
After graduation, Jonathan moved to Manhattan, went on acting auditions, performed in a nightclub trio, and composed songs for a musical version of Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Books". In 1982 he adapted George Orwell's "1984" for the musical stage. Deeply affected by the novel, and unflappably confident, he completed book, music, and lyrics, recorded a demo tape, sent a script to director Harold Prince, and wrote to Orwell's estate. The theatrical rights were unfortunately not available. "So all the work that I had done on that transmogrified into Superbia, which was my own dystopia."
In the earliest drafts of Superbia, a young man with a music box wants to wake up an emotionally numb futuristic society. In later drafts, the hero never gets a chance to make his point. This shift seems to echo Jonathan's own experience with mounting a new musical. During the Superbia years, 1985-1991, Larson was chosen for ASCAP and Dramatist Guild development workshops. He lived on the edge of poverty, preferring to work as a waiter rather than divide his concentration with jingle- or copywriting. Organized and disciplined, he revised draft after draft of Superbia and submitted material to scores of regional theatres. In 1988 he won a $14,766 Richard Rodgers Development Grant, which funded a staged reading of Superbia at Playwrights Horizons.
Jonathan's belief in his work was just as large as his talent. He could say with a straight face (and often did), "I am the future of the American Musical". But all of Jonathan's talent, devotion, connections, and persistence could not secure a full-scale production of the show.
Jon addressed his disappointment in Tick, Tick . . . Boom! (1990), an autobiographical rock monologue influenced by the work of Eric Bogosian and Spalding Gray. In the course of twelve songs and stories, he told half-funny, half-bitter tales of bad readings and waiting tables. His character worried about turning thirty, whether to give up writing musicals, and if his current girlfriend was "the one"; he learned that his best friend from childhood was HIV-positive. Tick was deliberately easy to stage - "No sets, no costumes, no cast. Just me, a piano, and a band" - but Larson's hopes for a larger production or a record deal went unfulfilled. He did occasional downtown performances of the piece through 1994.
In 1989, the playwright Billy Aronson asked Jonathan to collaborate on an update of La Bohème: a show about would-be artists of the present day coping with poverty, disease, and heartache. Jonathan suggested the multilayered title Rent. They wrote three songs and amicably separated. In 1991, three more of Larson's friends were diagnosed HIV-positive, and he returned alone to the project, with Aronson's blessings.
In contrast to many Broadway shows of the time, which valued spectacle over meaning and technology over personal interaction, Jonathan envisioned a great rock opera that would bring people together, address social issues, and make musical theatre relevant to his generation: "Hair for the '90s." Some of the Rent characters were gay, others straight, most were long on style, short on cash, and battling AIDS, addiction, or loneliness. Jonathan's score used pop music styles from heavy metal to gospel.
He began the arduous dual development process again. While he did extensive research and tried out new material in friends' living rooms, he also applied for grants and looked for producers. In 1992, he approached New York Theatre Workshop, a downtown theatre specializing in new and avant-garde work. They expressed great interest in Rent and gave Jonathan an artistic home and rigorous feedback as he worked out the plot.
While developing Rent, Jonathan continued to create new works with other collaborators including Blocks (1993), a revue about teen issues, with lyrics by Broadway veteran Hal Hackady. With songwriter Bob Golden, he wrote the script and songs, directed, and produced a thirty-minute video for children called Away We Go (1994). J. P. Morgan Saves The Nation (1995) was a sardonic history lesson about capitalism. Playwright Jeffrey M. Jones wrote the piece specifically for outdoor performances in New York City's financial district. Jonathan set Jones' lyrics to Sousa-style marches, grunge rock, and everything in between.
When he won a $45,000 Richard Rodgers grant for Rent in 1994, New York Theatre Workshop agreed to mount a "studio production". Following this workshop the show still needed focus, and Fall 1995 was a time of intense work with the project's director Michael Greif and the theatre's Artistic Director, Jim Nicola; a time of passionate arguments about the show's shape and production timeline. With a small advance from the producers in his pocket, Jonathan quit his waiter job in October to work full-time on the show. Finally, just before Christmas, the show was cast and rehearsals began.
Twice during "tech week," Jonathan went to hospital emergency rooms with severe chest pains but was released, diagnosed with food poisoning or the flu. Still feeling under the weather, he rested during the day and then attended the first and only full dress rehearsal for Rent on January 24, 1996. Anthony Tommasini, a music critic for the New York Times, attended, planning to mention Rent in an article about the centenary of La Bohème. Impressed by the score, Tommasini interviewed Larson at length that night and told him that the work was something special.
A few hours later, alone in his apartment, Jonathan put on a kettle to make tea, and died from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. It is believed that he died as a result of Marfan Syndrome. (To learn more about this condition, contact the National Marfan Foundation at www.marfan.org)
After two weeks of previews, Rent opened on February 13, 1996 to rave reviews, and the original downtown run quickly sold out. A flood of publicity fueled the transfer of the show to Broadway, where it opened on April 29, 1996. The show was an explosion of energy, with all the lead performers wearing small headset microphones as in a rock concert. Teenagers camped on the sidewalk outside the Nederlander Theatre for precious $20 tickets and testified in Internet chat rooms about how the show had changed their lives. Characters who happened to be homosexuals, people of color, infected, or homeless became familiar to audiences in a way that statistics or strangers never could. The 1996 Democratic Convention concluded with a performance of the Rent song "Seasons of Love." Among other awards, the show and its author won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four Tonys.
By the year 2000, Rent had been performed on five continents, spreading its message of tolerance and hope.
The ninth-longest running Broadway show in history, the original Broadway production of Rent closed on September 7, 2008. Rent has already had a major off-Broadway revival which concluded in 2012. The show continues to be produced at regional theaters around the world.
- adapted from an article written by Amy Asch for American National Biography
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