Composer Jonathan Larson, is Born, 1960
Updated: Feb 6
On This Day in Jewish History: February 4, 1960
Jonathan Larson was born on February 4, 1960, in White Plains, New York. Growing up in a Jewish middle-class neighborhood, Larson had a natural love and talent for acting and singing. Larson first began writing musicals at Adelphi University, where he graduated with honors in 1982. It was there that Larson first contacted his inspiration, the legendary composer Stephen Sondheim. This correspondence with Sondheim soon blossomed into a mentor and friendship. After graduation, Larson had hopes of becoming an actor and moved to Manhattan.
Sondheim advised Larson to change his career plans and work to become a composer. Shortly thereafter, Larson created his first professional musical, an adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984. Larson, unable to obtain the rights, created his own version of a dystopian future and called the project Superbia. Although the show never got funding or was produced, it was Larson’s first step towards changing the Broadway stage. Larson would routinely send Sondheim drafts of his work, including those from Superbia.
Larson next started working on a semi-autobiographical musical, Tick, Tick… BOOM! which he performed as a one-man show in the early 90s. This musical was recently made into a film, with Jewish actor Andrew Garfield portraying Larson. Larson supported his dreams by waiting tables at the Moondance diner for 10 years. He also was a freelance composer, writing songs for Sesame Street.
In the late 80s, Larson was introduced to the writer Billy Aronson, who had the idea for creating an updated version of the classic Puccini opera La Boheme, this time as a comedy set on New York’s Upper West Side. Larson, who was also influenced by the opera, agreed and wrote 3 songs for the proposed musical. While the music got a positive response, the libretto did not and the two decided to put it on hold.
That is, until a few years later when several of Larson’s friends found out they were HIV positive. Larson started reworking the musical to involve characters with AIDS and in 1992, Larson started working with the New York Theatre Workshop. Two years later, they received a $50,000 Richard Rodgers Award and by 1996, the musical, Rent, was on the verge of massive success. The musical was bound to change Broadway forever with its celebration of life and love.
Three weeks before Rent opened off-Broadway, Larson began experiencing chest pains. He went to two different emergency rooms where they misdiagnosed him, one with food poisoning and the other with a viral infection. On January 25, the day before the off-Broadway premier, Larson died from a tear in his aorta. Despite this, the show went on and a few months later transferred to Broadway, where it opened on April 29, 1996. It ended up winning six Drama Desk Awards and four Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. It later went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Though Larson was never able to see his own success come to fruition, his legacy lives on through his work. May his memory always be a blessing.
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