Blessed with perfect pitch as a child Jonathan Larson grew up with a love of both musical theatre and rock music and took piano lessons, played the tuba and the trumpet in the school band, sang in the school choir and received plaudits for his starring roles as an actor in his high school's productions. With a full four-year scholarship to New York's Adelphi University he majored in Acting and was heavily involved in student dramas and music productions as well as scoring his first musical -Libro de Buen Amore (Book Of Good Love). Graduating with honours in Fine Arts in 1982 he worked as a theatre piano player and restaged several shows he had written at University including Sacrimoralimmorality which he reworked as Saved! - An Immoral Musical on the Moral Majority and when presented at a 42nd Street theatre in 1982 saw both him and co-writer David Glenn Armstrong rewarded with an ASCAP award. The following year, having won a Richard Rodgers Production Award he began working on his first rock musical based on the novel 1984 although failure to get permission from George Orwell's estate resulted in him rewriting the show which he renamed Superbia. While it never made it to the stage as a musical he did perform it as
a rock concert at the Greenwich Village club The Village Gate in 1989.
Despite originally having designs on an acting career his mentor, the legendary Stephen Sondheim (who he had encountered while studying at Adelphi University) believed he had the makings of a great composer and encouraged him to concentrate on composition. Over the following years Larson lived sparsely, waiting tables in a SoHo diner and accepting small writing commissions (such as music for Sesame Street and children's video books) while working on his next project. Tick, Tick...BOOM! was conceived and performed off-off-Broadway by Larson as a somewhat autobiographical rock monologue and following his untimely death producer Victoria Leacock and writer David Auburn reworked it into a musical for three, rather than one, actors. The new version premiered off-Broadway in 2001 and over subsequent years toured throughout the USA, Canada and continental Europe as well as playing in London's West End. Other projects Larson worked on in this period included composing the score for the Jeffrey M. Jones musical J.P. Morgan Saves The Nation and a return to acting in the John MacLachlan Gray musical Billy Bishop Goes To War while the whole time he was also writing songs for what would become his most important and famous work. Playwright Billy Aronson and Larson worked on the concept of a musical based on Puccini's La Bohemè (which in turn was based on Scenes de la Vie de Bohemè by Henri Murger.) Set in New York in the city's East Village, an area he knew well, the show Rent featured many moments drawn from his and his close circle of friend's lives and experiences and referenced contemporary issues such as the spread of HIV. The show was initially performed as a staged reading and a three week studio run in 1993 and over the next few years was developed and revised several times before finally being cast, rehearsed and booked to open off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop on January 25th 1996. On the morning of the show's first preview Larson was at home when he collapsed and died from an aortic aneurysm aged just thirty-five. The composer had previously felt unwell, suffering chest pains and nausea the week prior to his death and thinking he was having a heart attack had already attended Cabrini Medical Hospital but was diagnosed as having food poisoning and told to go home and rest.
With the permission of his parents the show went ahead as planned although the first preview was performed without costumes. Rent became a huge success, selling-out throughout its run and in April of 1996 transferred to the Nederlander Theatre on West 21st Street - a Broadway Theatre where it ran for twelve years until September 2008. Not only was the show a commercial success but the critics acclaimed it too and it received a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score, Drama Desk Awards for Best Book of a Musical, Original Music and Outstanding Lyrics and three Obie Awards for Outstanding Book, Outstanding Lyrics and Outstanding Music. Immensely popular the show subsequently toured the World including Canada, Mexico, Europe, Australia, Japan, China and Singapore while a 2005 movie version, directed by Chris Columbus featured Rosario Dawson plus six of the original Broadway cast: Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp. The resulting RENT (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) was both critically acclaimed and a commercial success.
Eleven years after his death the Library of Congress/PS Classics released Jonathan Sings Larson an album of demos including songs from Rent, Tick, Tick... Boom!, Superbia and others, all sung by their composer. Although very much being demo recordings they are more than just voice and piano, Larson choosing to utilise broader instrumentation even on what were obviously works-in-progress. Despite leaving such a small catalogue it's clear that Larson's tragically early death robbed Broadway, musical theatre and music itself of a potential giant whose avowed ambition was to make Broadway more accessible and relevant to younger audiences.
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