Son, brother, friend, writer, musician, Tony winner, Pulitzer Prize winner are just a few titles Jonathan Larson holds. Tragically, the last two only came to him after his passing. On January 25th, 1996, the day Rent started previews on Broadway, Larson came home from rehearsal and died his kitchen, just a little over a week before his 36th birthday. Though he may not be physically here, the legacy he left will never leave.
Rent is Jonathan’s most well-known project but works like Tick Tick…Boom! are what really give us a hint at what his life was like. The autobiographical show originally written as a one-man show, helped him channel his emotions about rejection and feeling like he was running out of time to get what he wanted to do. The lyrics to 30/90 read as eerily prophetic of his fate, describing his hate of growing older. His papers, which are located at the Library of Congress, show that he only got a fraction of the projects he wanted to do finished. One left unproduced and widely unheard of, was a Polar Express musical.
Soon after Tick Tick Boom and a number of other small shows, came the birth of Rent. Writing a musical based on the opera La Boheme was originally Billy Aronson’s idea; Billy soon linked up with Jonathan through a friend. In 1991, Jonathan received permission from Billy to make Rent his own project, with an agreement that Aronson would share the profits if it went to Broadway. Neither of them had a clue what the future would hold for their little project.
La Boheme tells the story of love during the tuberculosis epidemic, while Rent uses a different epidemic. New York in the 1980s and 90’s was a hot spot for AIDS and HIV and Larson was heavily influenced by his best friend being diagnosed with HIV. Multiple friends of Larson’s would be diagnosed and pass on before Rent went to Broadway, along with thousands of other people. He worked on the show for years, and according to his friends, would have continued to make changes if he was still alive.
Jonathan Larson tragically died in the early morning hours of January 25th, after returning home from the final Rent rehearsal before previews from an aortic dissection. The dissection is believed to have been triggered by undiagnosed Marfan’s Syndrome. Had he been diagnosed, and his symptoms not be brushed off by doctors as the flu or stress, many say he would have lived.
But as they say in theater, the show must go on. The cast still had their first preview that night, but more privately. What started as a sit-down show with the cast sitting around tables turned into a real performance during the song “La Vie Boheme’ as cast members couldn’t fight the urge to stand up and perform any longer. When the final song was sung, a somber quiet fell over the theater. The quiet was broken by a single voice saying “Thank You, Jonathan Larson,” and there was one final burst of applause before people began to file out.
Thank you, Jonathan Larson. Thank you for bringing the AIDS epidemic into the spotlight, both literally and figuratively. Thank you for working until the very end of your life to make a show that saved lives. Thank You.