To a Broadway fanatic, the name Jonathan Larson carries with it a note of excitement and pain. Much like a punch in the stomach, Larson’s initial impact seemed it would not leave much of a meaningful and lasting trace in the theatrical world of the nineties. He would of course go on to write the music to the tony award winning musical Rent, and win other prestigious awards such as the Pulitzer Prize, awarded posthumously. But to understand why I deem his input on the stage to be the most creatively important one of our times, you need to understand where he came from.
Interpreting Csikszentmihalyi’s reading, Larson had all the ingredients to become a great. Early on in his childhood, his parents encouraged him to take on music and acting. He was involved in every school play, musical, and band performance. He was awarded a full scholarship to Adelphi University and composed his first pieces while in undergrad. As a senior he even wrote a letter to Steven Sondheim, his idol. Sondheim actually responded and would become a mentor to him later on in his life, writing him letters of recommendation. After gliding through college, he moved to New York City to make it as a composer.
There, however, Larson faced unimaginable hurdles. This man spent every waking moment creating music that was not getting produced, and that people did not seem ready for. He waited tables on the side just to make enough money to get by. And when I say get by, I mean he was dirt poor. He even had to borrow money from his parents to pay the bills (not including heat, since he his loft had none). One of his earlier pieces was a futuristic musical rendition of Orwell’s 1989. After ten years perfecting it, he was refused the rights to produce it. He felt utterly rejected. At a time when Broadway featured more of the same classics (a.k.a. Cats, Phantom of the Opera…), Larson stood out like a purple bruise on pasty skin.
However, there was no denying his talent. He won every award out there: ASCAP, the Richard Rogers Production Award, the Stephen Sondheim Award and many more would come. In 1989 Larson was approached to write the music to a remake of Puccini’s La Bohème. At first what was a collaborative effort, resulted in Larson taking control of the project. He locked himself up in his loft and wrote the hours, days, months and years away. He told his sister, with whom he was very close, that if he was going to write the music, it would have to be on his own terms. He wanted this new musical to be the Hair of the 90’s. And it became so much more than that. Rent is the rock anthem of a generation. A musical that includes, the gritty reality of poverty and love in an HIV-infested nation. Its songs seem to come from at least 10 different artists, as he wrote ballads, pop songs, rock and roll pieces, gospel hymns, salsa dances, and blues that would resonate in every young person across the planet. Larson literally wrote hundreds of songs for Rent, of which only 30 or so were included in the final Broadway version.
Larson did what no other person had accomplished before, and it all came out of a tinny-sounding old keyboard he kept in his loft. He pushed all notions of Broadway Theater down a cliff and replaced it with reality rather than exaggeration. He included drug addiction, homophobia, AIDS, gentrification and much more in the musical, while he himself was surrounded by all these problems. For him, Rent was to become an epitaph to the lifestyle he shared with so many people in New York.
The perverse irony is that Johnathan Larson would die January 25th, 1996, the night before the first off-Broadway production of Rent. He would not witness the enormous success his music would have. The actors decided they would just sing through the lyrics, sitting on the stage for the entirety of the show, but by the end of the first Act, they could not stop themselves from getting up and playing their characters. It was a testament to how much they believed in what they were singing about. After the standing ovation at the end of the show, a complete silence emanated throughout the theater, until an audience member shouted out “Thank you, Jonathan Larson!”
Truly, thank you, Jonathan Larson.