Jonathan Larson

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Jonathan Larson was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on February 4, 1960, to Allan and Nanette Larson. His family loved the arts, and Larson received much support and encouragement from them. The house was often filled with music, including his piano playing, which he was able to pick up by ear. In high school, Larson was called the "piano man" by his fellow students. While attending White Plains High School, Larson was very active in the music and drama departments. He became friends with a fellow student named Matt O'Grady, who would later be the inspiration for many of his characters as well as for the writing of Rent, Larson's most notable and only published work. In 1978, Larson attended the acting conservatory at Adelphi University on Long Island, New York, on a four-year, full-tuition merit scholarship. At Adelphi, he wrote his first musical, Sacrimoralimmortality, an unpublished work that attacked the hypocrisy of the Christian Right. He also began a relationship with Victoria Leacock, a woman who later worked on the production of two of his (unpublished) plays, tick … tick … BOOM! (an adaptation of his one-man show, 30/90) and Superbia.

After receiving a BFA with honors from Adelphi, Larson moved to New York City under the advisement of his mentor, the composer Stephen Sondheim, who told Larson that there are more starving actors than starving composers in the world. Larson lived a bohemian lifestyle in New York, where he took jobs waiting tables and gathered material for his works. He had a series of roommates, more than thirty different people, to help him pay the rent. He later incorporated these roommates into his works as characters. Paula Span, in her biographical notes on Larson for the Washington Post, notes that Larson "harbored a serious, soaring ambition." James Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, where Larson developed and staged Rent, called this the need "to somehow reunite popular music and theater, which divorced somewhere back in the '40s." As Nicola put it, "This might be the guy who could do it."

In 1989, Larson was approached by the playwright Billy Aronson, who asked him to collaborate on a new version of Giacomo Puccini's La bohème, an opera depicting the lives of struggling artists trying to cope with poverty and disease. The collaboration did not last long, however, and the two men parted ways. In 1991, after Larson had seen many of his friends diagnosed as HIV-positive, he decided to take up the project again, this time on his own. He named the new version of the play Rent.

Larson died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm on January 25, 1996, the night before Rent was to premiere. Rent became a huge success, posthumously winning Larson the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four Tony Awards. His other works have earned him six Drama Desk Awards and three Obies.

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