Home PRESS ROOM SEASON ARCHIVES RENT DRAMATURG'S NOTES
by Karen Azenberg
Jonathan Larson rode a bicycle, wore Converse sneakers, made his own Christmas cards, wrote amazing songs, and was my friend.
In 1993, I was asked to help develop a series of musicals for young audiences. Each piece was to be written with a specific age group in mind and the composer of the piece for middle school students was an extremely talented young man who had just won the Richard Rodgers Award. That composer was Jonathan. We hit it off immediately; maybe it was our theatre geekiness, or that we had similar backgrounds, our appreciation of dance, or simply that we were both at that time and place in our Bohemian Artist’s lives where the future holds endless possibilities. Jonathan shared with me a script for a new musical he was working on; they were going to do a reading, would I come? I think it was pretty clear even in an unfinished state that Rent was something special. The audience at that early reading was enthralled; they had never heard anything like it. A real rock score for a book musical! This had never been successfully accomplished…until now.
The excitement about Rent within the New York theatre community grew over the next couple of years and word spread as the full production at New York Theatre Workshop went into rehearsal. Jonathan was proud, excited, but focused, ignoring the hype and concentrating on the job at hand, rewriting and reshaping the script. I called my friend the morning of the first performance to wish him luck and to let him know I was attending a performance the following week. A roommate answered the phone, harshly quizzing me on who I was and why I was calling before abruptly telling me, “Jonathan is dead,” and hanging up.
I sobbed at the performance of Rent I attended the following week, and then again when the show opened barely five months later on Broadway, and again 14 years later on its closing night. I cheered when Rent won the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize but my heart ached thinking that Jonathan knew none of the success that was to come when he died. How unfair that someone so gifted, so positive, so deserving should be taken so young. How ironic that the show he had written spoke so eloquently of living for today and not counting on the future.
This is the first time I have had the opportunity to direct Rent. I cannot deny that it is terribly exciting to direct this “groundbreaking” piece of theatre, but for me it is also bittersweet. I am honored to help share Jonathan’s work with a new generation of theatre-goers, I am thrilled to again hear his message of acceptance, love, and understanding, and to be able to see how musical theatre itself has changed because of Rent. But I would also love to still get that handmade and handwritten Christmas card every year and see my friend, Jonathan, flying around the East Village on his bicycle.
It’s not how many years you live, but how you fulfill the time you spend here.
Jonathan Larson was born in White Plains, New York. He played the trumpet and tuba in his high school band, was involved in his school’s choir and took formal piano lessons. His early musical influences were rock musicians such as Elton John and Billy Joel, as well as the classic composers of musical theater, especially Stephen Sondheim and the musical Jesus Christ Superstar.
Larson went to Adelphi University in Garden City, Long Island, with a four-year scholarship as an acting major. In addition to performing in numerous plays and musicals during college, he began composing music. After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, he participated in a summer stock theater program in Augusta, Michigan, as a piano player, the result of which was the earning of an Equity Card for membership in the Actors’ Equity Association.
Larson moved to a loft with no heat on the fifth floor of a building at the corner of Greenwich Street and Spring Street in Lower Manhattan. His own friends, who lived in harsh situations too, always described his apartment as the worst of them all.
He worked as a waiter at the Moondance Diner during weekends and worked on composing and writing musicals during the weekdays. At the diner Larson later met Jesse L. Martin, who was his waiting trainee and later would perform the role of Tom Collins in the original cast of Larson’s Rent.
One of Jonathan Larson’s earliest musicals is Tick, Tick...BOOM!, where Larson writes about a waiter wanting to be a composer, but is unable to achieve success. During the performances of this musical, he met Stephen Sondheim, who later would help him produce Rent.
On the night of the final rehearsal, one night before Rent’s premiere Jonathan Larson suddenly died of an aneurysm from Marfan Syndrome. It was ten days before his 36th birthday.
Jonathan Larson never got to see his masterpiece on Broadway for which he won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Compiled by Kirsten Park. Source: IMDB.com, IBDB.com