In February of 1996, the musical Rent, created by Jonathan Larson (1961-1996) and billed as "The Rock Opera of the Nineties, " opened in New York City. The show moved to Broadway on April 29, and later that year it would win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as two Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Awards. But Larson would not be there to accept his awards: on January 25, 1996, the young playwright and composer died of an aortic aneurysm.
Evelyn McDonnell and Katherine Silberger, authors of the text that accompanied the libretto of Rent in a 1997 book published by Morrow, summed up this ironic alignment of events by noting that "it's hard not to think of this story, ultimately, as a tragedy." Yet Larson, who had supported himself as a waiter for the ten years prior to Rent's first production, left an enormous legacy. John Lahr in the New Yorker, while noting that Larson was far from the first composer to attempt the marriage of rock and the Broadway musical, noted that he may have been the first to succeed. Larson's "gift for direct, compelling, colloquial lyrical statement, " Lahr wrote, "seems to prove that the show tune can once again become pertinent and popular."
Singing in His Diapers
Larson was raised in White Plains, New York, and enjoyed what Entertainment Weekly called an "idyllic Jewish middle-class childhood." Music was important to him from the beginning, according to his father. The latter told McDonnell and Silberger: "I was changing his diaper, so he had to be pretty young, and he started singing 'Yellow Bird.' In tune."
In an interview with John Istel for American Theatre shortly before his death, Larson named several musical figures who had been important influences on him. Later in life, he had come to appreciate Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, he said, along with fellow "alternative" musician Liz Phair. As a teen, his influences had included the Police and the artist who at that time went by the name of Prince. Still earlier, he had enjoyed the Beatles and the Who's Pete Townsend, the latter known for his rock opera Tommy that would have an impact on Larson's later work.
But Larson also appreciated composers Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, whose work would not normally be found among the typical American teenager's favorites. Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for Bernstein's West Side Story (1957) and composed the musicals including A Little Night Music (1973) and the Pulitzer Prizewinning Sunday in the Park with George (1984), would eventually become Larson's mentor. Still another influence lay even further in the musical past. When Larson was a child, he was taken to see a children's version of La Boheme, Giacomo Puccini's opera about a group of struggling young artists, or "Bohemians." From that seed, the idea that would become Rent slowly germinated over the next two decades.
Acting Student Turned Composer
After high school, Larson attended Adelphi University in Garden City, New York on an acting scholarship. Recalling his college experience in his American Theatre interview, Larson said, "Adelphi was a lousy place to go to school in the sense that it's in suburbia and that's where I grew up." But, he went on to say, he was fortunate to study under Jacques Burdick, who had been strongly influenced by theatre critic Robert Brustein. Burdick had established what Larson described as an undergraduate version of the prestigious drama school program at Yale University.
Under Burdick's direction, Larson studied works by a wide range of playwrights. Even more important, he had his first opportunity to write plays. Four times a year, the university theatre program put on "cabarets, " and they were always in need of writers. Thus, Larson said, by the time he finished school he had written "eight or ten" shows.
Following graduation in 1982, Larson moved to New York City. Because he had performed in summer stock productions, he was able to obtain his Actor's Equity card, and started going to auditions. He also had an opportunity to meet his hero, Stephen Sondheim, and this coincided with a change in his career plans. Larson's father Al later explained to People magazine: "Sondheim told him there were a lot more starving actors out there than starving composers."
The Struggling Artist
Larson already had some experience writing musicals. Late in his time at Adelphi, he had written a show based on George Orwell's novel about a nightmare police state of the future, 1984. The musical attracted attention, he told Istel, primarily because it was 1982, and the year 1984 was fast approaching. It was almost produced, but in the end nothing happened with the musical, which Larson said "was a good thing … because it was not a very good show. But it was my first attempt to write a big show."
Sondheim encouraged him to become involved with the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Larson described ASCAP as "a sort of 12-step meeting for people who write musicals" but, he told American Theatre, his experience with other composers he met through the organization gave him greater confidence in his work. By the time he had written some 100 songs, he said, he knew when to accept and when to reject the comments of a would-be critic-even Sondheim.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, Larson stayed very busy. In 1985 or 1986, he began working as a waiter in a restaurant called Moondance, located in New York City's fashionable SoHo district. The job gave him a reliable income, and he would support himself this way for the next decade, up until the eve of Rent's first stage production. He also earned money through freelance work, composing songs for the children's show Sesame Street. Larson created a thirty-minute children's video called Away We Go, produced with the financial backing of a restaurant patron who had learned of his composing talents from an article in New York magazine.
Larson continued to work on other projects, which satisfied his creative urge even if they did not "pay the rent." Among these were the musicals J. P. Morgan Saves the Nation and Superbia, as well as a rock monologue called Tick, Tick … Boom!, which Larson performed himself. He obtained a number of grants for his productions, including a Richard Rodgers Development Grant and a Stephen Sondheim Award, both for Superbia. He also became involved with the New York Theatre Workshop, the company that would eventually produce Rent.
The Road to Rent
Through a mutual friend in the theatre, Larson met writer Billy Aronson, who he described in his American Theatre interview as "a sort of Woody Allen type." Aronson had an idea for an updated version of La Boheme as a comedy set on New York's Upper West Side with yuppie characters, and he wanted Larson to write the music. Larson, in turn, said he liked the basic concept, having been influenced by Puccini's opera as well; however, he envisioned the musical as a serious one. On Aronson's urging, Larson wrote three songs for the proposed musical: "Santa Fe, " "I Should Tell You, " and what would become the title composition, "Rent."
The two men made a demo tape and shared it with people they knew. The music received a positive response, but the libretto did not. Therefore, Larson said, "we just put it on hold. I loved the concept, but I didn't have a burning reason to go back to it. And then I did."
In the early 1990s, several of Larson's friends discovered they had the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) linked with AIDS. Devastated, he began to re-conceive the La Boheme story as one involving characters with AIDS. He went to Aronson and asked the latter to let him proceed with resurrecting the defunct musical on his own. Aronson agreed. In 1992 Larson and James Nicola of the New York Theatre Workshop began working together on the production, and two years later, they obtained a $50, 000 Richard Rodgers award. By early 1996 Rent and its author were on the verge of success.
Triumph and Tragedy
The plot of Rent is, by many accounts, a complex one, a set of eight stories revolving around a rent strike in a New York apartment building. Among the characters are Roger, a punk rocker and former heroin addict whose former lover committed suicide when she discovered she had AIDS; his roommate Mark, a filmmaker; Maureen, a performance artist and Mark's girlfriend-until she leaves him for a lesbian affair with Joanne, described in Maclean's as "a lawyer slumming as a stage manager in the Village." Tom Collins is a gay African American assaulted on the street and helped by a transvestite named Angel. Both are HIV-positive, and they fall in love. Roger, too, falls in love, with a character named Mimi (one of the central characters of the original La Boheme also had this name), who is dying of AIDS.
John Bemrose of Maclean's described Rent's plot as "a hodgepodge of lover's quarrels, with the unusual twist (at least for a mainstream musical) that several of the lovers are of the same sex." The stage design, too, was unusual: as the show begins, "the uncurtained stage gives the impression that the show is far from ready…. there is no scenery in sight: a catwalk crosses in front of a brick wall, while a few red folding chairs are scattered around a long metal table. Nearby looms an enormous abstract sculpture containing, among other things, pieces of a shopping cart and several bicycles. It looks like a windmill rearranged by a hurricane."
What made Rent a success, according to Bemrose and other critics, were songs such as "Without You, " a ballad; and "Out Tonight, " which Bemrose described as a "raunchy" number. Lahr wrote that three songs from the show were "as passionate, unpretentious, and powerful as anything I've heard in the musical theatre for more than a decade." Jack Kroll of Newsweek praised Rent as a "rousing, moving, scathingly funny show" which "has brought a shocking jolt of creative juice to Broadway."
Larson would never read these accolades. Late in 1995, he left his job to work full-time on Rent; but in January of 1996, three weeks before Rent opened at New York's Nederlander Theatre, he began experiencing chest pains. He went to the emergency room of one hospital, where he was treated for food poisoning. When this did not help, he went to another emergency room, and there was diagnosed with a viral infection. On January 25, the day of the last dress rehearsal, Larson died from a foot-long tear in his aorta. New York State would ultimately fine both hospitals for their negligence, and according to Time magazine, Larson's family planned to sue the institutions for $250 million.
Though nothing would bring Larson back to life, death could not silence the effect of his work. Later in 1996, his sister accepted the Pulitzer Prize on his behalf. Rent became a Broadway sensation, and attracted fans around the United States and the world. As for Larson's ultimate musical legacy, it seems clear that he made great strides toward his goal of redefining the American musical, but fans can only wonder what he might have done if he had lived longer. Sondheim told Entertainment Weekly that when he last spoke with Larson about a month before his death, "He was learning to swallow his pride….He felt pleased with himself for growing up."
Contemporary Authors, Volume 156, Gale, 1997.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 99, Gale, 1998.
Larson, Jonathan, Rent, with interviews and text by Evelyn McDonnell with Kathy Silberger, Morrow, 1997.
American Theatre, July/August 1996, pp. 13-16.
Entertainment Weekly, May 30, 1997, pp. 64-65.
Maclean's, December 15, 1997, p. 60.
Newsweek, May 13, 1996, pp. 54-59.
New Yorker, February 19, 1996, pp. 94-96.
People, April 22, 1996, p. 59.
Time, December 23, 1996, p. 20.
Village Voice, December 3, 1996, p. 48.
(b. 4 February 1960 in Mount Vernon, New York; d. 25 January 1996 in New York City), composer, lyricist, and librettist of music for television, modern dance, and musical theater, best known as the author of the Pulitzer Prize—winning Broadway musical Rent (1996).
The son of Allan S. Larson, a direct-marketing executive, and Nanette Notarius, a homemaker, Larson grew up in suburban White Plains, New York, and learned to play the piano at an early age. While at White Plains High School, he took music theory and composition classes and played the tuba in the marching band. Meanwhile, he was involved in school and community theater. In the fall of 1978 he entered the acting conservatory at Adelphi University on a full-tuition scholarship, receiving a B.F.A. degree with honors in 1982. While planning to become an actor, he was equally interested in composing music; at Adelphi he collaborated on nine musicals, favoring the political cabaret. While still a senior, he sent a letter to the famed composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim in praise of his work. Sondheim responded, inviting Larson over for a drink; thus commenced their friendship and Sondheim’s mentoring, which lasted until Larson’s death.
After graduation, Larson moved to Manhattan and began his life as a struggling artist. He pursued an acting career at first but soon turned his attention exclusively to composing music, moonlighting as a waiter to pay the bills. As his style and artistic vision evolved, Larson worked on diverse projects spanning the gamut of musical genres: children’s film and television, modern dance, promotional video, musical theater, and book tapes. During these years he also formed lasting friendships, mostly with other artists living between privilege and poverty. People were drawn to Larson, a natural leader who was known for his lanky and graceful awkwardness, his dark curly hair, and his soulful eyes. He liked getting around New York City by bicycle, as a way of staying in touch with the urban pulse. On holidays, especially Thanksgiving, he hosted festive dinner parties at his loft, inviting new friends and old. While he loved tradition, Larson also kept up with current events, mostly by reading the newspaper. A devoted urbanite, Larson also loved the ocean and went there whenever he could.
The rock opera, however, was Larson’s passion. He aspired to revive the tradition established in the 1960s with Tommy, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar, all of which hybridized musical form while also commenting on society’s ills. Not limiting his inspiration to rock music, Larson cast his creative net widely for sources of material. His music, therefore, was eclectic; it drew not only from rock and roll but also from popular forms like show tunes, rap, jazz, salsa, and reggae, and classical forms like opera and the avant-garde.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Larson’s creative output was prodigious. His productions included Superbia (1985–1991), a futuristic and dystopian musical based on George Orwell’s 1984 that was developed and performed at Playwrights Horizons with a Richard Rodgers grant; Tick, Tick … Boom! (1991), an autobiographical rock monologue he performed at the New York Theater Workshop; J. P. Morgan Saves the Nation (1995), an ironic event commissioned by the En Garde Arts Festival and set on the steps of the Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street; and Rent (1996), directed by Michael Greif and assisted by a Richard Rodgers production grant. During this time Larson earned various honors including a Stephen Sondheim Award (1989) presented at the American Musical Theater Festival and the Stanley Drama Award (1994) from Wagner College, Staten Island, New York.
According to Sondheim, Larson’s greatest talent was “his sense of what is theatrical, of how you use music to tell a story, as opposed to writing a song.” A keen observer of the world, Larson was good at establishing character through his lyrics (perhaps owing to his talent as an actor), and he used his songs to portray the existential adversity that individuals experience in their daily lives. Sometimes, he modeled his characters on historical figures (J. P. Morgan) or artistic prototypes (Mimi in La Bohème), but he often fashioned them on himself or people he knew like lovers, friends, or the denizens of Manhattan’s subcultures and streets.
Rent was perhaps the clearest example of Larson’s sensitivity, observational acumen, artistic eclecticism, and commitment to social commentary. Based loosely on La Bohème (1896) by Giacomo Puccini, it borrowed the opera’s themes of bohemianism, plague, and doomed love. Yet Larson transported Puccini’s story from the tuberculosis-ridden Left Bank in late nineteenth-century Paris to the AIDS-plagued East Village in late twentieth-century Manhattan to depict the paradoxes of capitalism. As he explained, “I analyzed [Puccini’s] libretto, broke it down beat by beat,” all the while thinking, “Who would these characters be in my world?” In fact, Larson based the characters in the musical on some of his many friends and its squalid setting on his own loft in lower Manhattan.
Rent evoked the hodgepodge of New York City’s bohemian scene. As Margo Jefferson, theater critic for the New York Times, put it, it was a “montage of performance artists, abandoned buildings, upwardly mobile landlords, film makers and rock and roll bands; homeless people, policemen, drug dealers and drug addicts; free-thinking, free-form multiculturalism; homo-, hetero-and bisexuality, life-support groups and safe sex; privilege side by side with poverty and open-hearted exhilaration in the face of death and HIV.” Unfortunately, Larson did not live to see the show open. Racked with abdominal and chest pain during dress rehearsals, he sought emergency treatment at two local hospitals. Each incorrectly diagnosed him as having the flu or food poisoning, respectively, gave him medicine to relieve the pain, and told him to rest. After the show’s final dress rehearsal, Larson returned home, where he died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. In December 1996 a New York State-directed inquiry found both hospitals negligent and were fined and publicly criticized for the poor quality of Larson’s care. Larson was cremated and his ashes scattered at several of his favorite places.
Within weeks, the show became a hit—due in part to its soulful and driving soundtrack, its striking vision of young life on the edge, and its sense of the cultural moment. However, despite all that the show had to recommend it, the media focused most on the tragic irony of Larson’s untimely death, making an unfortunate accident into a case of the uncanny. Within two months of opening, with a cast of virtual unknowns and advance ticket sales topping $6 million, Rent moved from the New York Theater Workshop off off Broadway to Broadway’s prestigious Nederlander Theater. In 1996 the production won a host of honors, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama; Tony awards for best musical, musical score, book, and supporting actor; the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical; Drama Desk awards for best musical, music, lyrics, book, featured actor in a musical, and arrangement; the Drama League Award for best musical; and Obie awards for outstanding book, lyrics, music, direction, and ensemble performance.
Meanwhile, commotion surrounded the production. Movie producers clamored for film rights to Larson’s life story and libretto. Cast members signed recording and film contracts and appeared on national television. Lynn Thompson, Larson’s dramaturg, filed a lawsuit demanding that she be recognized as coauthor (she eventually lost her case). Bloomingdale’s, an upscale department store, opened a Rent-inspired clothing boutique. And the show began touring, playing to audiences on five continents by 2000.
The irony of Rent’s rags-to-riches story did not go unnoticed by critics like Ward Morehouse III of the New York Post, who wondered if “’Rent’ [would] lose heart as it won success?” Others, like Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, charged that Rent was little more than a “new brand of tourism that offered bourgeois audiences a voyeuristic peep at an alien subculture and let them go home feeling smug and with it.”
Yet its critics’ cynicism never eclipsed Rent’s powerful and enduring portrayal of despair and hope embodied by its characters, nor did it succeed in trivializing Larson’s vision of social trouble amidst a culture of growing prosperity.
The Larson family maintains an archive of materials such as manuscripts, correspondence, and demo recordings. Rent by Jonathan Larson (1997), with text and interviews by Evelyn McDonnell with Katherine Silberger, documents Larson’s life and work. For an account of Larson’s early career, see Barry Singer’s profile in New York magazine (21 June 1993) and John Istel, “Rescuing the Musical,” Village Voice (4 July 1995). Articles published in 1996, the year of Larson’s death, include Anthony Tommasini, “A Composer’s Death Echoes in His Musical,” New York Times (11 Feb. 1996); Michael Feingold, “Long Term Lease,” Village Voice (20 Feb. 1996); Margo Jefferson, “’Rent’ Is Brilliant and Messy All at Once,” New York Times (25 Feb. 1996); Jack Kroll, “A Downtown ‘La Bohème,’” Newsweek (26 Feb. 1996); Ward Morehouse III, “’Rent’ Losing Heart as It Wins Success?” New York Post (22 Mar. 1996); Jack Kroll, “Love Among the Ruins,” Newsweek (13 May 1996); Gregory Beals and Yahlin Chang, “The World of‘Rent,’” Newsweek (13 May 1996); David Lipsky, profile of Larson, US magazine (Nov. 1996); and Elizabeth Rosenthal, “2 Hospitals Fined in Wake of Death of ’Rent’ Creator,” New York Times (13 Dec. 1996). An obituary of Larson is in the New York Times (26 Jan. 1996).
Rebekah J. Kowal
Genre: Musical Theater
Best-selling album since 1990: Rent: Original Broadway Cast Record (1996)
Although his reputation rests solely on one work—the groundbreaking 1996 musical Rent —Jonathan Larson is widely credited with revitalizing Broadway, infusing the commercial theater with an immediacy and freshness that drew in a new generation of young fans. What made Rent different was its musical and social relevance. In the 1990s, the majority of Broadway musicals were either "revivals"—remounted versions of classic shows from the past—or new, "family-friendly" shows designed to capitalize on mainstream films such as Beauty and the Beast and Footloose. With its flashy, rock-based sound and exploration of contemporary issues such as AIDS, drug addiction, and the struggle for artistic integrity, Rent captured the uncertainty, confusion, and optimism of audiences in their twenties and thirties. Tragically, Larson—who labored long and hard on Rent for seven years—died the night prior to the show's first performance.
Larson grew up in the New York City suburb of White Plains, where he was active in his high school's music and drama departments. Attending Adelphi University on Long Island, he helped write nine musical theater shows while pursuing his love of acting. He moved to New York after graduation, setting his sights upon a professional theatrical career. During the next fourteen years Larson supported himself by working as a waiter and taking on occasional writing assignments for children's television shows such as Sesame Street. In the late 1980s and early 1990s he developed small-scale, or " workshop," productions of his musicals Superbia, J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation, and tick, tick . . . BOOM! During this period, Larson earned the support of legendary musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim, who offered the young artist valuable feedback and guidance.
In 1994 Rent had its first workshop production at New York Theatre Workshop, a noted off-Broadway theater company. Based loosely on the classic Puccini opera La Bohème, the musical tells the story of a band of struggling artists living in the East Village section of Manhattan. The characters, including Roger, an HIV-positive musician, Daphne, a drug addict, and Angel, a drag queen, represent a cross-section of young people who are set apart from mainstream society. In songs such as "Seasons of Love," which effectively combines rock rhythms with the emotiveness of gospel music, Larson comments on the insecurity of human existence: "How do you measure the life / Of a woman or a man? / In truths that she learned / Or in times that he cried?" Writing in the New York Times, drama critic Frank Rich praised the show's boldness: "[Larson] takes the very people whom politicians now turn into scapegoats for our woes—the multi-cultural, the multi-sexual, the homeless, the sick . . . and lets them revel in their joy, their capacity for love and, most important, their tenacity, all in a ceaseless outpouring of melody."
On January 25, 1996, the night before Rent 's scheduled opening at New York Theatre Workshop (the success of the workshop two years prior had encouraged the company to mount a full-scale production), Larson died in his apartment of an aortic aneurysm. Lacking health insurance or the money to visit a private doctor, he had complained of chest pains and fever during the previous week, but was sent home by emergency rooms at two different hospitals. Within a month of his death, Rent became a national sensation, transferring to a larger theater on Broadway and earning coverage in magazines such as Time and Newsweek. In 2001, Larson's earlier musical, tick, tick . . . BOOM!, opened in a new production off-Broadway.
Ultimately, Rent did not transform Broadway to the extent that many critics and fans had hoped. By the early 2000s, the Broadway scene was still dominated by revivals and Hollywood adaptations, with little attention given to the cultivation of new, exciting theatrical voices. Nonetheless, Larson breathed life into what many considered a threatened art form—the musical—and helped spur Broadway to a period of economic growth in the late 1990s.
Rent: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Dream Works, 1996).