Jonathan Larson (February 4, 1960 – January 25, 1996) was an American composer who lived in New York City and authored musicals, including Rent and Tick, Tick... BOOM!. These musicals seriously tackle issues such as multiculturalism, addiction, sexual orientation and HIV, although he was himself HIV negative. His artistic vision and goal was to fuse Generation X and the MTV Generation with the world of musical theatre in his work. This mission was clearly accomplished by his magnum opus, Rent, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won four Tony Awards; the scores of his shows reveal that he was an apt composer and lyricist.
Jonathan Larson was born in White Plains, New York in Westchester County to a Jewish family. He was exposed to the performing arts, especially music and theatre, from an early age, as he played the trumpet and tuba in his high school band, was involved in his school's choir, and took formal piano lessons. His early musical influences were rock musicians such as Elton John 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.
Larson attended Adelphi University at Garden City in Long Island with a four-year scholarship as an acting major. In addition to performing in numerous plays and musicals during his college years, he began 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 functioned as Larson's mentor during his college education. After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, he participated in a summer stock theatre program in Augusta, Michigan as a piano player, the result of which was the earning of 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. For about ten years he worked as a waiter at the Moondance Diner during weekends, and worked on composing and writing musicals during the weekdays. At the diner Larson later 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. Larson and his roommates lived in harsh conditions with little money or property.
Among his early creative works are Sacrimoralimmorality with David Armstrong (retitled Saved for the one-week run on 42nd Street), the music for J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation, numerous individual numbers, music for Sesame Street, music for the children's book cassettes of An American Tail and Land Before Time, music for Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner, early post-graduation works entitled Billy Bishop Goes to War, Mowgli, and four songs for the children's video Away We Go! (which he also conceived and directed). 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.
Larson came into contact with his strongest musical theatre influence, Stephen Sondheim, to whom he occasionally submitted his work for review. One tick, tick...BOOM! song called "Sunday" is a homage to Stephen 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 would often write letters of recommendation for Larson to various producers. Larson later won the Stephen Sondheim Award.
Between 1983 and 1990, Larson wrote Superbia, originally intended as a futuristic rock retelling of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, though the Orwell estate denied him permission to adapt the novel itself. Superbia won the Richard Rodgers Production Award and the Richard Rodgers Development Grant. However, despite a few concert performances, Superbia was not truly produced, leading to disappointment for Larson.
His next work, completed in 1991, was a "rock monologue" entitled Boho Days, which was later expanded and renamed Tick, Tick... BOOM!. This piece, written for only Larson with a piano and rock band, was intended to be a response to his feelings of rejection caused by the failure of Superbia. The producer Jeffrey Seller saw the production of Boho Days and offered to produce Larson's musicals.
Larson died unexpectedly of an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by Marfan syndrome, in the early morning on January 25, 1996. It was ten days before his 36th birthday, only hours after the final dress rehearsal of Rent and the day of its off-Broadway opening at the New York Theatre Workshop. He had been suffering chest pains and nausea for several days prior, but doctors could not find signs of a heart attack and so misdiagnosed it either as flu or stress. The show premiered that night, on schedule. Larson's parents (who were flying in for the show anyway) gave their blessing to open the show. The cast had agreed before hand that in light of the tragedy they would just sing through the show that night sitting at 3 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.
After his death, Larson's family and friends started the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation.
Playwright Billy Aronson  came up with the original idea to write a musical update of La Bohème in 1988. He wanted to create "a musical based on 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".
In 1989, Larson got together with Aronson to swap ideas. Larson came up with the title and suggested moving the setting from the Upper West Side to downtown, where Larson himself lived. Larson and his roommates lived in a run-down apartment. For a while, he and his roommates kept an illegal, wood-burning stove. He also dated a dancer for four years who sometimes left him for other men and eventually left him for another woman. Larson wanted to write about his own experience, and in 1991, he asked Billy if he could use the original concept they collaborated on and make Rent his own. They made an agreement that if the show went to Broadway that Aronson would share in the proceeds.
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. The version now known worldwide opened Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop on January 26, 1996, the day after Jonathan Larson died, and opened on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre on April 29, 1996.
For his work on Rent, Larson was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Score of a Musical, the Drama Desks for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Lyrics the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical in the Off-Broadway category, and three Obie Awards for Outstanding Book, Outstanding Lyrics and Outstanding Music.
Tick, Tick... BOOM! has played off-Broadway at the Charles Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, as well as at the Village Gate in the Upper West Side.
Superbia has played at Playwrights Horizons, and as a rock concert at the Village Gate in November of 1991.
J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation was an En Garde Arts Company production.
Sacrimoralimmorality was Larson's first musical, co-written with David Armstrong, and originally staged at his alma mater - Adelphi University - sometime in the 1980s. Retitled Saved it played an unacclaimed one-week run in a 42nd Street theatre.