Larson, Jonathan, 1960-1996

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Jonathan David Larson (February 4, 1960 – January 25, 1996) was an American composer, lyricist and playwright who explored the social issues of multiculturalism, addiction, and homophobia in his work. Typical examples of his use of these themes are found in his musicals Rent and Tick, Tick... Boom! He received three posthumous Tony Awards and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the rock musical Rent.

Larson was born in Mt. Vernon, New York to Nanette (née Notarius) and Allan Larson of White Plains, New York, on February 4, 1960. His family was Jewish.[1][2][3] His grandfather, who was born in Russia, had changed the family surname from Lazarson.[4] Larson was exposed to the performing arts, especially music and theatre, from an early age, as he played the trumpet and tuba, sang in his school's choir, and took piano lessons. His early musical influences were his favorite rock musicians such as Elton John, The Beatles, The Doors, The Who, and Billy Joel, as well as the classic composers of musical theatre, especially Stephen Sondheim. Larson was also involved in acting in high school, performing in lead roles in various productions at White Plains High School.[5] He had a sister, Julie.

Larson graduated from White Plains Senior High School in 1978. There, he was active in dramatic and musical productions. He attended Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, with a four-year scholarship as an acting major, in addition to performing in numerous plays and musical theatre. During his college years, he began music composition, composing music first for small student productions, called cabarets, and later the score to a musical entitled Libro de Buen Amor, written by the department head, Jacques Burdick. Burdick acted as Larson's mentor during his college education. After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Larson participated in a summer stock theatre program at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan, as a piano player, which resulted in his earning an Equity card for membership in the Actors' Equity Association.

Larson moved to a loft with no heat on the fifth floor of a building at the corner of Greenwich Street and Spring Street in Lower Manhattan, where he lived with Greg Beals, a journalist for Newsweek magazine and the brother of actress Jennifer Beals. Eventually, Larson put acting on the back-burner in order to focus on his compositions. For nine and a half years Larson worked as a waiter at the Moondance Diner on the weekends and worked on composing and writing musicals during the week. At the diner Larson met Jesse L. Martin, who was his waiting trainee and later would perform the role of Tom Collins in the original cast of Larson's Rent. When Rent was being produced by the New York Theatre Workshop, Larson was able to quit his job at the diner.

Before composing and writing the musical Rent, his most popular work, Larson wrote a variety of early theatrical pieces, with varying degrees of success and production.

Among his early creative works is Sacrimmoralinority, his first musical, which he co-wrote with David Glenn Armstrong while they were students at Adelphi University. A Brechtian-themed musical cabaret, the work was first staged at the university in the winter of 1981. After Larson and Armstrong graduated in 1982, they renamed it Saved! - An Immoral Musical on the Moral Majority. It played a four-week showcase run at Rusty's Storefront Blitz, a small theatre on 42nd Street in New York, Manhattan, and won both authors a writing award from ASCAP.

In 1983, Larson planned to write a musical adaptation of George Orwell's book Nineteen Eighty-Four, which he planned to get produced in the year 1984. When he applied for the right to adapt the novel, the Orwell estate denied him permission. At this point, Larson began the process of adapting his work on 1984 into a futuristic story of his own, titled Superbia.

In the first drafts of Superbia, (SUPERBIA: A Musical Comedy) the story followed the character Josh Out #1775839662, a member of OUTLAND, a society where emotions are erased at birth. Due to complications at birth, Josh maintained his emotions, and has spent his life as an inventor, searching for something that could wake up the rest of his family and society. One day, Josh discovers a Music Box, which has the power to bring emotions to the other members of OUTLAND. He meets Elizabeth In #25149, a girl his age from INCITY, who convinces him to spread the power of the music box. Josh travels to INCITY, where the INs live. The INs are the celebrities of this society who spend their days having their scripted lives filmed and transmitted to the OUTs as entertainment. In INCITY, Josh must face the temptations of fame in order to succeed on his mission.

Through several workshops and performances, Superbia went through several large changes. By the time Larson finished his most recent draft of the show, it was a much darker piece that took a deeper look into the power of emotions and mankind's attachment to technology. In this version, Josh is already married to Elizabeth at the beginning of the story and they are both OUTs. Like the other OUTs, Elizabeth is addicted to technology, and is unable to truly love. As the story begins, Josh leaves Elizabeth in order to find a greater life. Elizabeth wakes up from her technological trance and goes after Josh.

Superbia won the Richard Rodgers Production Award and the Richard Rodgers Development Grant.[5] However, despite performances at Playwrights Horizons and a rock concert version produced by Larson's close friend and producer Victoria Leacock at the Village Gate in September 1989, Superbia was never fully produced.[6] In the 2001 three-person musical version of Larson's monologue TICK, TICK... BOOM, the 11 o'clock number from the Musical Comedy version of Superbia, "Come to your Senses" was included. Another song from Superbia "LCD Readout" was included on the 2007 album "Jonathan Sings Larson". In 2019, the song "One of these Days", originally sung by Josh near the beginning of the early drafts of Superbia was included on the album "The Jonathan Larson Project". On February 4, 2022, "Sextet Montage" was released on streaming platforms. The song was released as a single and is currently the only song from Superbia available for streaming.[7]

Tick, Tick… Boom!
His next work, completed in 1991, was an autobiographical "rock monologue" entitled 30/90, which was later renamed Boho Days and finally titled tick, tick... BOOM! This piece, written for only Larson with a piano and rock band, drew on his feelings of rejection caused by the disappointment of Superbia. The show was performed off-Broadway at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, then at the Second Stage Theater on the Upper West Side. Both of these productions were produced by Victoria Leacock. The producer Jeffrey Seller saw a reading of Boho Days and expressed interest in producing Larson's musicals. After Larson's death, the work was reworked into a stage musical by playwright David Auburn and arranger and musical director Stephen Oremus. The stage version premiered off-Broadway in 2001 and has since been produced on the West End. A film adaptation of tick, tick... BOOM!, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring Andrew Garfield (in an Academy Award nominated performance) as Larson, with a rewritten script by Steven Levenson was released on Netflix on November 12, 2021.

In 1992, Larson collaborated with fellow composer/lyricists Rusty Magee, Bob Golden, Paul Scott Goodman, and Jeremy Roberts on Sacred Cows, which was devised and pitched to television networks as a weekly anthology with each episode taking a different Biblical or mythological story and giving it a '90s celebrity twist. The project was shelved due to scheduling conflicts among the five composers but resurfaced over 20 years later in a six-page article. The demo for Sacred Cows was released on iTunes.[8]

Larson's strongest musical theatre influence was Stephen Sondheim, whom he met in college and to whom he occasionally submitted his work for review. One tick, tick... BOOM! song, called "Sunday," is a homage to Sondheim, who supported Larson, staying close to the melody and lyrics of Sondheim's own song of the same title but turning it from a manifesto about art into a waiter's lament. Sondheim wrote several letters of recommendation for Larson to various producers. Larson later won the Stephen Sondheim Award.

In addition to his three larger theatrical pieces written before Rent, Larson also wrote music for J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation;[9] numerous individual numbers; music for Sesame Street; music for the children's book cassettes of An American Tail and The Land Before Time; music for Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner; a musical called Mowgli; and four songs for the children's video Away We Go!, which he also conceived with collaborator and composer Bob Golden and directed. He performed in John Gray's musical Billy Bishop Goes to War, which starred his close friend actor Roger Bart (Desperate Housewives). For his early works, Larson won a grant and award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and the Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla Theatre Foundation's Commendation Award.[10]

Playwright Billy Aronson came up with the idea to write a musical update of La Bohème in 1988. He wanted to create "a musical inspired by Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème, in which the luscious splendor of Puccini's world would be replaced with the coarseness and noise of modern New York".[11]

In 1989, Aronson called Ira Weitzman with his idea, asking for ideas for collaborators, and Weitzman put Larson together with Aronson to collaborate on the new project. Larson came up with the title and suggested moving the setting from the Upper West Side to downtown, where Larson and his roommates lived in a rundown apartment.[12] For a while, he and his roommates kept an illegal wood-burning stove because of lack of heat in their building. He also dated a dancer for four years who sometimes left him for other men, though she eventually left him for a woman. These experiences would influence the autobiographical aspects of Rent. Larson wanted to write about his own experience, and in 1991, he asked Aronson if he could use the original concept they collaborated on and make Rent his own.[11] They made an agreement that if the show went to Broadway, Aronson would share in the proceeds. Eventually they decided on setting the musical not in SoHo, where Larson lived, but rather in Alphabet City in the East Village.

Rent started as a staged reading in 1993 at the New York Theatre Workshop, followed by a studio production that played a three-week run a year later. However, the version that is now known worldwide, the result of three years of collaboration and editing between Larson and the producers and director, was not publicly performed before Larson's death. The show premiered Off-Broadway on schedule. Larson's parents (who were flying in for the show anyway) gave their blessing to open the show. Due to Larson's death the day before the first preview performance, the cast agreed that they would premiere the show by simply singing it through, all the while sitting at three prop tables lined up on stage. But by the time the show got to its high energy "La Vie Boheme", the cast could no longer contain themselves and did the rest of the show as it was meant to be, minus costumes, to the crowd and the Larson family's approval. Once the show was over, there was a long applause followed by silence which was eventually broken when an audience member shouted out "Thank you, Jonathan Larson."[13]

Rent played through its planned engagement to sold-out crowds and was continually extended. The decision was finally made to move the show to Broadway, and it opened at the Nederlander Theatre on April 29, 1996.[14] In addition to the New York Theatre Workshop, Rent was and is produced by Jeffrey Seller, who was introduced to Larson's work when attending an off-Broadway performance of Boho Days, and two of his producer friends who also wished to support the work, Kevin McCollum and Allan S. Gordon.

For his work on Rent, Larson was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama,[10] the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score; the Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Book of a Musical, Outstanding Music, and Outstanding Lyrics;[15] the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical; the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical in the Off-Broadway category; and Obie Awards for Outstanding Book, Outstanding Lyrics, and Outstanding Music.

Larson died at his home in the early morning of January 25, 1996, ten days before his 36th birthday, the day of Rent's first Off-Broadway preview performance. He suffered an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome.[16][17] He had been suffering severe chest pains, dizziness, and shortness of breath for several days before his death, but doctors at Cabrini Medical Center and St. Vincent's Hospital could not find signs of an aortic dissection even after conducting a chest X-ray and electrocardiogram, so they misdiagnosed it either as flu or stress.[16] New York State medical investigators concluded that if the aortic dissection had been properly diagnosed and treated with surgical repair, Larson may have lived.[18]

Rent played on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre from its debut in April 1996 until September 7, 2008.[19] It is the 11th longest running show in Broadway history.[20] In addition, it has toured throughout the United States, Canada, Brazil, Japan, United Kingdom, Australia, China, Singapore, Philippines, Mexico, Germany, Poland, and throughout Europe, as well as in other locations. A film version was released in 2005.

After his death, Larson's family and friends started the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation to provide monetary grants to artists, especially musical theatre composers and writers, to support their creative work. The Jonathan Larson Grants are now administered by the American Theatre Wing, thanks to an endowment funded by the Foundation and the Larson Family.[21]

Larson's work was given to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in December 2003. The Jonathan Larson Collection is a new addition to its major holdings in the area of musical theater. The collection documents Larson's surprisingly prolific output, including numerous musicals, revues, cabarets, pop songs, dance and video projects – both produced and unproduced.

Less than three years after Rent closed on Broadway, the show was revived Off-Broadway at Stage 1 of New World Stages just outside the Theater District. The show was directed by Michael Greif, who had directed the original productions. The show began previews on July 14, 2011, and opened August 11, 2011.

From October 9 to 14, 2018, Feinstein's/54 Below presented The Jonathan Larson Project, a concert of several previously unheard songs by Larson. The show was conceived and directed by Jennifer Ashley Tepper. It starred George Salazar, Lauren Marcus, Andy Mientus, Krysta Rodriguez, and Nick Blaemire. A CD of the show was released by Ghostlight Records in April 2019.[22][23]

Jonathan is portrayed by actor Andrew Garfield in the biographical musical drama Tick, Tick... Boom! which was released on the streaming service Netflix on November 19, 2021. The film received generally positive reviews from critics, with high praise for director Lin-Manuel Miranda’s direction in his directorial debut, score, and musical sequences, and Garfield’s performance garnering universal acclaim. It was named one of the best films of 2021 by the American Film Institute, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy (Garfield) at the 79th Golden Globe Awards, with Garfield winning the latter.

Jonathan Larson Grants
In memory of Larson, in 1996,[24] the Larson family along with the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation put together an award honoring emerging musical theater writers and composers.[25] In 2008, the American Theatre Wing adopted and continued on the legacy through the Jonathan Larson Grants, an unrestricted cash gift to aid in the creative endeavors of the writers and promote their work.[21] Notable winners of the grant include Dave Malloy, Laurence O'Keefe, Nell Benjamin, Amanda Green, Joe Iconis, Pasek and Paul, Shaina Taub and Michael R. Jackson.


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Name Entry: Larson, Jonathan, 1960-1996

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