Spotlight on: Jonathan Larson

By Heather Oberlander
Rent Dramaturg

Jonathan+Larson+jonathanlarsonJonathan Larson, the writer and composer of Rent, was born February 4, 1960, in White Plains, New York. He became interested in music at a very early age, playing the trumpet, tuba, and piano. Musically, he was influenced by individuals in the music world as well as the theater world. His favorites were Elton John, Billy Joel, and Stephen Sondheim. By high school, his love for music expanded to an interest in acting.

After high school, Larson went to Adelphi University on a four-year acting scholarship. It was there he began to compose music, for Adelphi’s musical productions. Following his graduation, he worked as a piano player at the Barn Theatre in Michigan, where he eventually was able to gain membership in the Actors’ Equity Association.

Following his time in Michigan, Larson moved to Lower Manhattan, where he rented a loft, living with various roommates, including Greg Beals, a journalist for Newsweek and the basis for Roger. Larson went on to spend the next 10 years composing music during the week and working at the Moondance Diner as a waiter on weekends. One of his coworkers there was Jesse L. Martin, who went on to play Tom Collins in the original production of Rent.

Larson actually wrote several other theatrical pieces before Rent, including Sacrimmoralinority, his first musical; the Brechtian Saved!; Superbia, originally intended to be based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; and the rock musical 30/90, which later became tick, tick… BOOM! About this same time, Larson was also writing music for a number of other projects including, most notably, Sesame Street.

It was in 1989 that Larson began to collaborate with playwright Billy Aronson, who wanted to write a contemporary musical based upon the Puccini opera La bohème. Larson drew upon his own environment and experiences in New York for the work. Larson himself lived with no money or heat and used a wood-burning stove to keep warm. Larson also was dating a dancer for four years who ultimately left him for a woman. In 1993, Larson began staged readings of Rent at the New York Theatre Workshop. It would be another three years before the show would finally get its premiere Off Broadway.

Tragically, Larson died of an undiagnosed aortic dissection the day that Rent was to begin previews Off Broadway, on January 25, 1996. Following an extension of the Off Broadway production, Rent finally got its Broadway premiere at the Nederlander Theatre on April 29, 1996. It went on to play for over 12 years, finally closing on September 7, 2008 as the ninth-longest running show ever on Broadway. Rent has also toured internationally and a film adaptation was released in 2005. On August 11, 2011, an Off-Broadway revival of Rent opened at New World Stages, directed by Michael Greif, director of the original Off-Broadway and Broadway productions. Larson posthumously won a Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Rent.