Meet Jonathan Larson, The New York Playwright Who Wrote ‘Rent’

Playwright Jonathan Larson died of undiagnosed Marfan syndrome on January 25, 1996 – the same day that Lease was to premiere off-Broadway.

Death of Jonathan Larson

Adelphi UniversityJonathan Larson was 35 years old.

Jonathan Larson always wanted to be a performer. He played multiple instruments from an early age, sang in choir and landed lead roles in ambitious school productions. Heralded a musical prodigy as a result of writing Leasehe never got to cherish his success – and died the day the musical opened on Broadway.


The New York native was found dead on his kitchen floor by his roommate Brian Carmody on January 25, 1996 at 3 a.m. An autopsy determined Jonathan Larson died of Marfan syndrome, an inherited condition that affects the heart, blood vessels and bones. and is usually treated with beta-blockers or blood thinners.

Jonathan Larson’s death was made all the more tragic as he suffered from severe chest pain and dizziness and struggled to breathe for several days prior. While he had seen a doctor at St. Vincent Hospital and Cabrini Medical Center, doctors attributed his symptoms to stress, according to the Washington Post.

But although his life was tragically cut short, Larson’s work has stood the test of time – and even proven to be prophetic.

His 1983 musical Superb envisioned a world where people were obsessed with celebrities and relentlessly glued to their portable devices. In Tick, tick… Boom!meanwhile, its autobiographical protagonist was convinced he heard a ticking noise and was about to fatally explode – perhaps foreshadowing his own untimely death.

Jonathan Larson’s life in New York

Jonathan David Larson was born on February 4, 1960 in White Plains, New York. Raised by Allan Larson and Nanette Notarius, he and his older sister Julie had an idyllic suburban childhood. Most of his friends happily spent their days outdoors, while Larson started gravitating around the music even before being clean.

Jonathan Larson Family

Lance Johnson/FlickrLarson’s sister, grandmother and father.

“I was changing his diaper, so he must have been quite young, and he started singing ‘Yellow Bird’,” his father recalled. “Granted.”

He was still a child when he saw a children’s adaptation by Giacomo Puccini Bohemian. Centered on a troupe of struggling artists, the production would inspire him to create his own similar story – especially after moving to New York and experiencing the hardships of professional life and fighting for purpose himself.

After graduating from White Plains High School in 1978, Larson attended Adelphi University on Long Island. He enrolled as an acting major on a four-year scholarship, but began focusing on musical compositions before earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1982. Larson moved to New York City the Next year.

Fascinated by George Orwell 1984Larson began adapting the novel into a musical named Superb. Set in the year 2064, it followed an inventor named Josh Out who lived in OUTLAND – a town where emotions are erased from citizens at birth. Out retained his feelings, however, and found purpose in helping others find theirs.

Meanwhile, the INCITY neighborhood is inhabited by the rich and famous whose lives have been spent staging their scripted lives for the entertainment of the poor. Larson’s character begins to achieve his goal after finding a music box that can free his emotionless brothers from their fate. The piece was never produced.

Larson later said it was “a good thing…because it wasn’t a very good show. But it was my first attempt to write a great show. However, he soon came into contact with his hero Stephen Sondheim and established a reputation in New York playwright circles. For the next 12 years he worked as a waiter, but never stopped writing.

Larson on the edge of starhood

Larson began serving tables at the Moondance restaurant in Manhattan in 1985. He now had a reliable income and continued to audition for roles while obsessively writing songs. Larson even wrote music for sesame streetsold a 30-minute children’s video titled We leaveand found regular freelance work.

Original Broadway Rental Cast

Wikimedia CommonsThe original Broadway cast of Lease in 1996.

When Sondheim urged him to join the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), Larson gained extreme confidence in his abilities. After writing over 100 songs and being interviewed for publications like New York magazineHe started making Tick, tick… Boom!completed in 1991.

Now a feature film by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tick, tick… Boom! was an autobiographical musical heavily influenced by contemporary music. Reflecting Larson’s life as a struggling artist in New York, the songs were inspired by the works of artists from Kurt Cobain and De La Soul to Tom Waits.

However, after meeting writer Billy Aronson through a friend at the New York Theater Workshop, Larson became obsessed with another idea. Both loved Bohemian and came up with a modern version rooted in New York’s yuppie culture. When people started dying of HIV, however, Larson started adapting it to the crisis.

Larson wrote three songs for the play: “Santa Fe”, “I Should Tell You”, and “Rent”. While industry peers responded enthusiastically to the demo tape, Larson’s accompanying booklet fell flat. He explained, “We just put it on hold. I loved the concept, but I had no burning reason to go back to it. And then I did.

In 1992, Larson left Aronson behind to produce the play with colleague James Nicola. The duo received a $50,000 Richard Rodgers Prize in 1994. At the end of 1995, Larson quit his job to complete Lease. He was on the right path until health problems took him to hospital in January 1996. He died before the end of the month.

Three weeks before LeaseIn his off-Broadway debut at the Nederlander Theater, Jonathan Larson suffered severe chest pain and went to the emergency room at Cabrini Medical Center where he was misdiagnosed with food poisoning. Still ill after being treated, he went to St. Vincent’s Hospital where doctors said he had a virus.

The young playwright was found dead on his kitchen floor by his roommate on January 25, 1996 at 3 a.m. Doctors’ inability to locate the playwright’s aortic dissection – even after performing EKGs and X-rays – led to a posthumous malpractice lawsuit. New York State investigators have concluded that Larson would have survived — had doctors done their due diligence.

Jonathan Larson’s death occurred without him ever seeing his magnum opus produced. However, Lease would go on to want him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize and half a million dollars a week gross. It would open in cinemas worldwide and be adapted into a major film, with Larson’s Life itself adapted by Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2022.

After Jonathan Larson’s death, his family established the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation to reward promising musical theater artists with grants in 1996. Inspired by Larson and the urgency his hero had so clearly depicted in his work, Miranda himself applied in 2004 – and would go on to produce his own acclaimed musicals.

“I’m proud to apply for the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Award, not least because of Jonathan Larson’s profound influence on the path my life has taken,” he said. wrote. “I saw Lease on my 16th birthday, and it just changed everything…I had never seen a show that spoke to me so directly.

After learning of the death of Jonathan Larson, learn about the tragic death of singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley in the Mississippi River. Next, learn about programming pioneer Grace Hopper.

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Meet Jonathan Larson, The New York Playwright Who Wrote ‘Rent’