Jonathan Larson

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Jonathan Larson
Jonathan Larson.jpg
BornJonathan David Larson
(1960-02-04)February 4, 1960
White Plains, New York, U.S.
DiedJanuary 25, 1996(1996-01-25) (aged 35)
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
  • Playwright
  • composer
Alma materAdelphi University
Notable works
Notable awards

Jonathan David Larson (February 4, 1960 – January 25, 1996) was an American composer and playwright noted for exploring 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.

Early years[edit]

Larson was born to Nanette (née Notarius; 1927–2018) and Allan Larson in White Plains, New York, on February 4, 1960. His family was Jewish.[1][2][3] He 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 formal 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.[4] 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 various roommates, among them Greg Beals, a journalist for Newsweek magazine and the brother of actress Jennifer Beals, and James Clunie, now a creative director at advertising agency BBDO. 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. Larson and his roommates lived in harsh conditions with little money or property.


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 was co-written with David Glenn Armstrong and originally staged at his alma mater, Adelphi University, in the winter of 1981. Following Larson and Armstrong's graduation in 1982, the Brechtian-themed musical cabaret, retitled Saved! - An Immoral Musical on the Moral Majority, played a four-week showcase run at Rusty's Storefront Blitz, a small theatre on 42nd Street in Manhattan, and won both authors a writing award from ASCAP.

Between 1983 and 1990, Larson wrote Superbia, originally intended as a futuristic rock retelling of George Orwell's book 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.[4] 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.

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, was intended to be a response to his feelings of rejection caused by the disappointment of Superbia. The show was performed off-Broadway at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, as well as at the Second Stage Theater, then 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 also been produced on the West End.

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.[5]

While in college, 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 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.

In addition to his three larger theatrical pieces written before Rent, Larson also wrote music for J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation;[6] 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.[7]


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".[8]

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.[9] 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.[8] 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 a three-year-long collaborative and editing process 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."[10]

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.[11] 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,[7] 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;[12] 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 unexpectedly the morning of Rent's first preview performance Off-Broadway. He suffered an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, in the early morning on January 25, 1996.[13][14] He had been suffering severe chest pains, dizziness, and shortness of breath for several days prior to his death, but doctors at Cabrini Medical Center and St. Vincent's Hospital could not find signs of an aortic aneurysm even after conducting a chest X-ray and electrocardiogram, so they misdiagnosed it either as flu or stress.[13] New York State medical investigators concluded that if the aortic dissection had been properly diagnosed and treated with surgical repair, Larson would have lived.[15]


Rent played on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre from its debut in April 1996 until September 7, 2008.[16] It is the 11th longest running show in Broadway history.[17] 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.[18]

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.[19][20]

Jonathan Larson Grants[edit]

In memory of Larson, in 1996,[21] the Larson family along with the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation put together an award honoring emerging musical theater writers and composers.[22] 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.[18]

Previous winners include:[23]

Year Selection panelists Winning writers and teams
2019 Annastasia Victory, Alia Jones-Harvey, Jason Michael Webb Andy Roninson
Emily Gardner Xu Hall
Julia Gytri & Avi Amon
Ben Wexler
2018[24] Patti Lupone, Kristen Marting, Scott Sanders Jay Adana
Andrew R. Butler & Andrew Farmer
Emily Kaczmarek & Zoe Sarnak
Mark Sonnenblick
2017[25] Jason Eagan, Jill Furman, Jason Michael Webb, David Zippel Ben Bonnema
Maggie-Kate Coleman & Erato A. Kremmyda
Ty Defoe & Tidtaya Sinutoke
Michael R. Jackson
2016[26] Dave Malloy, Kristin Caskey, Kristin Marting César Alvarez
Nikko Benson
Carson Kreitzer
Sam Salmond
2015[27] Amanda Green, Steven Lutvak, Ted Chaplin Tim Rosser and Charlie Sohne
Sam Willmott
Max Vernon
2014[28] Nell Benjamin, Maria Goyanes, Peter Schnieder Sara Cooper and Zach Redler
Shaina Taub
2013[29] Bernard Telsey, Michael Korie, Matthew Sklar Kamala Sankaram
Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham
2012[30] Mark Hollmann, Robert Lopez Julianne Wick Davis and Dan Collins
2011[31] Maria Goyanes, Amanda Green, David Yazbek Joshua Cohen and Marisa Michelson
Michele Elliot and Danny Larsen
Jack Lechner, Andy Monroe and Michael Zam
2010[32] Robyn Goodman, Tom Kitt, Kathleen Marshall, Stephen Schwartz Peter Lerman
Daniel Maté
Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond
2009[33] Mark Hollmann, Kevin McCollum, John Rando, Tim Weil Mark Allen
Dave Malloy
Thomas Mizer and Curtis Moore
Ryan Scott Oliver
2008[21] Joe Calarco, Michael John LaChiusa, David Loud, Stephen Schwartz Gaby Alter
Susan DiLallo
Joel New
Jason Rhyne
Jeff Thomson and Jordan Mann
City Theatre
2007[34] Tina Landau, David Loud, Stephen Schwartz, Tim Weil Matt Gould
Melissa Li and Abe Rybeck
Robert Maddock
J. Oconer Navarro
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Mike Pettry
St. Ann's Warehouse
2006[35] Jim Calarco, Barry Ryan, Stephen Schwartz, Tim Weil Andrew Gerle and Eddie Sugarman
Lance Horne
Joe Iconis
Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk
Alison Loeb
Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda
New York Shakespeare Festival
2005[36] Kirsten Childs, David Loud, Joe Mantello, Stephen Schwartz Neil Bartram
Nathan Christensen and Scott Murphy
Michael Cooper and Hyeyoung Kim
Steven Lutvak
Glenn Slater and Stephen Weiner
Lark Play Development Center
2004[37] Stephen Schwartz, Barbara Pasternack, Barry Singer, Tim Weil Jim Bauer and Ruth Bauer
Mark Campbell
Amanda Green
Cynthia Hopkins
Gihieh Lee
Raw Impressions Theatre
Village Theatre
2003 N/A Nell Benjamin
John Didrichsen
Jeffrey Stock
Nathan Tysen and Chris Miller
New Georges Theatre
Vineyard Theatre
2002[38] Nancy Diekmann, Kevin McCollum, Jesse L. Martin Debra Barsha
Peter Jones
Julia Jordan
Michael Korie
Peter Mills
Lark Theatre Company
P73 Productions
Signature Theatre Company
2001[39] Mary Rodgers Guettel, Joe Mantello, Stephen Schwartz, Barry Singer John Bucchino
Mindi Dickstein and Daniel Messe
Laurence O’Keefe
Robert and Willie Reale
Scott Davenport Richards
Amanda Yesnowitz
Children's Theatre Company
2000[40] N/A Beth Blatt and Jenny Giering
Chad Beguelin and Matt Sklar
Scott Burkell and Paul Loesel
David Kirshenbaum
David Simpatico
John Mercurio
Adobe Theatre Company
American Music Center
O’Neill Musical Theatre Conference
Musical Theatre Works
1999 N/A Kirsten Childs
Sam Davis
Peter Foley
Ricky Ian Gordon
Steven Lutvak
San Diego Repertory Theatre
Musical Theatre Works
Seattle Children's Theatre
West Coast Ensemble Theatre
1998 N/A Paul Scott Goodman
Jeffrey Lunden and Arthur Perlman
Adirondack Theatre Festival
Vineyard Theatre
1997 N/A 52nd Street Project Theatre

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Award Category Work Result
1996 Pulitzer Prize Drama Rent Won
Tony Award Best Book of a Musical Won
Best Musical Won
Best Original Score Won
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Book of a Musical Won
Outstanding Music Won
Outstanding Lyrics Won
New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Musical Won
2002 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Book of a Musical Tick, Tick... Boom! Nominated
Outstanding Music Nominated
Outstanding Lyrics Nominated


  1. ^ Automatisering, Roffel. "Jonathan Larson: Biography - Classic Cat". Classic Cat. Archived from the original on March 6, 2019. Retrieved March 4, 2019.
  2. ^ "Jonathan Larson Biography". Film Reference. 2008. Retrieved November 25, 2008.
  3. ^ "Nanette T. Larson Obituary (1927 - 2019) the Journal News".
  4. ^ a b Mel Gussow (January 26, 1996). "Jonathan Larson, 35, Composer of Rock Opera and Musicals". The New York Times. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
  5. ^ Collis, Jonathon (March 4, 2013). "How the Feverish Imaginations of Jonathan Larson, Rusty Magee and Friends Birthed the Musical 'Sacred Cows'". Playbill. Retrieved July 4, 2014.
  6. ^ "Last Chance". The New York Times. July 7, 1995. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
  7. ^ a b Pacheco, Patrick (April 14, 1996). "Life, Death and 'Rent'". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on October 22, 2020. Retrieved March 28, 2021.
  8. ^ a b Tommasini, Anthony (March 17, 1996). "Theater; The Seven-Year Odyssey that Led to 'Rent'". The New York Times. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
  9. ^ "Jonathan Larson". Broadway: The American Musical. PBS. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
  10. ^ Rapp, Anthony (October 31, 2006). Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent. Simon and Schuster.
  11. ^ Winer, Laurie (April 30, 1996). "'Rent' Goes Up -- to Broadway". The Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on August 3, 2020. Retrieved March 28, 2021.
  12. ^ Phil Roura, Patricia O'Haire and Michael Riedel (June 3, 1996). "Tony Hearts are 'Rent' in Two: Sister Recalls Late Composer Jonathan Larson's Dreams as She Accepts Award". New York Daily News. Retrieved July 17, 2008.[permanent dead link]
  13. ^ a b Van Gelder, Lawrence (December 13, 1996). "On the Eve of a New Life, an Untimely Death". The New York Times. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
  14. ^ Kirk, Fiona J. (July 26, 2011). "Syndrome survival: New drugs offer promise for often-fatal Marfan tissue disorder". The Daily. Retrieved November 24, 2011.
  15. ^ Nicholson, Joe; Kornblut, Anne (December 13, 1996). "State Faults Hosps for 'Rent' Tragedy". New York Daily News. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
  16. ^ Kenneth Jones (March 26, 2008). "Rent Extension: Hit Show Will Close Sept. 7". Playbill. Archived from the original on May 31, 2008. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
  17. ^ Viagas, Robert (November 10, 2015). "Long Runs on Broadway". Playbill.
  18. ^ a b Bloom, Julie (September 16, 2008). "Footnotes". New York Times. Retrieved May 7, 2010.
  19. ^ "The Jonathan Larson Project". 54 Below. Retrieved April 8, 2019.
  20. ^ Peikert, Mark (January 28, 2019). "The Jonathan Larson Project Album Sets April Release Date". Playbill. Retrieved April 8, 2019.
  21. ^ a b Gans, Andrew (February 14, 2008). "Jonathan Larson Award Winners Announced; Rapp, Testa and Harris to Perform at Ceremony". Playbill.
  22. ^ Lipton, Brian Scott (February 14, 2008). "Jonathan Larson Foundation Award Winners Are Announced | TheaterMania". TheaterMania.
  23. ^ "Jonathan Larson Grants". The American Theatre Wing.
  24. ^ "2018 Jonathan Larson Grant Recipients Announced". The American Theatre Wing. February 15, 2018.
  25. ^ "2017 Jonathan Larson® Grants Recipients Announced". The American Theatre Wing. February 7, 2017.
  26. ^ Viagas, Robert (March 4, 2016). "2016 Jonathan Larson Grant Recipients Announced". Playbill.
  27. ^ "American Theatre Wing's 2015 Jonathan Larson Grants Awarded This Evening". BroadwayWorld. March 23, 2015.
  28. ^ Hetrick, Adam (March 14, 2014). "Sara Cooper, Zach Redler and Shaina Taub Are 2014 Jonathan Larson Grant Recipients". Playbill.
  29. ^ Lehman, Daniel (February 14, 2013). "American Theatre Wing Announces 2013 Jonathan Larson Grant Recipients". Backstage.
  30. ^ Snyder, Andy (March 9, 2012). "American Theatre Wing's 2012 Jonathan Larson Grant to be presented to writers of 'Southern Comfort'". DKC/O&M.
  31. ^ Cocovinis, Jason (March 28, 2011). "American Theatre Wing's 2011 Jonathan Larson® Grant Will Be Presented to Writing Teams Behind CLOAKED, TAMAR AND THE RIVER, & THE KID - March 29th". Music Theatre International.
  32. ^ "American Theatre Wing Names 2010 Jonathan Larson Award Winners". BroadwayWorld. February 1, 2010.
  33. ^ "2009 Jonathan Larson Grant Winners Announced". BroadwayWorld. February 12, 2009.
  34. ^ Pincus-Roth, Zachary (February 16, 2007). "Jonathan Larson Award Winners Announced". Playbill.
  35. ^ Jones, Kenneth (February 16, 2006). "Striking 12 Writers Among Winners of 2006 Larson Awards for New Musical Writing". Playbill.
  36. ^ Simonson, Robert (February 10, 2005). "Winners of Jonathan Larson Foundation Awards Announced". Playbill.
  37. ^ Filichia, Peter (February 8, 2004). "Larson's Legacy". TheaterMania.
  38. ^ Jacobs, Leonard (February 25, 2002). "Larson Foundation Grants Announced". Backstage.
  39. ^ Salinas, Mike (February 20, 2001). "2001 Larson Awards Announced". Backstage. Archived from the original on March 6, 2018.
  40. ^ Jones, Kenneth (March 13, 2000). "Larson Awards Given to Musical Theatre Writers and Organizations". Playbill.

External links[edit]