Born February 4, 1960 in White Plains, New York; died of an aortic aneurysm, January 25, 1996, at his home in Manhattan. Larson lived in poverty, waited tables, and worked seven years to bring his rock opera “Rent” to the stage — only to collapse and die the night before previews were to open at the Off-Broadway New York Theater Workshop. The show’s initial five-week run sold out within 24 hours of opening night, and the play became an enormous critical and popular success. In addition, “Rent” achieved Larson’s ambition of updating musical theater and making it socially and personally relevant to a younger audience. NEWSDAY’s Linda Winer called it “the first original breakthrough rock musical since ‘Hair.'” The fresh, provocative, and exuberant show — and Larson’s heartbreaking story — quickly became Broadway legend. “The show features, among forty well-sung numbers, three songs that are as passionate, unpretentious and powerful as anything I’ve heard in musical theatre for more than a decade,” John Lahr wrote in THE NEW YORKER. “His songs have urgency — a sense of mourning and mystery which insists on seizing the moment. … Larson’s … talent and his big heart are impossible to miss. His songs spill over with feeling and ideas; his work is both juicy and haunting.”
Larson lived his childhood amidst drama clubs and music lessons. He played the tuba in high school and attended Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. Although he graduated with dreams of becoming an actor, Stephen Sondheim encouraged him to focus on composing. Larson was a Sondheim disciple and his early work suggested his future success. He won the Richard Rodgers Studio Production Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for a workshop version of “Rent,” and a Rodgers Development Grant for a futuristic rock musical called “Suburbia.” He also earned a Stephen Sondheim Award from the American Music Theater Festival; composed the eclectic rock-to-ragtime score for a musical called “J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation”; and performed a rock monologue called “Tick, Tick, Boom” at the New York Theater Workshop and other stages.
“Rent” is based on the classic Puccini opera “La Bohème.” The musical is set in a dingy, dishevelled loft apartment in New York’s East Village and depicts “young … artists struggling to celebrate life in the shadow of drugs, poverty and AIDS,” Jonathan Wiederhorn wrote in ROLLING STONE. Larson’s score blends pop, dance, dance, salsa, rhythm and blues, gospel, and rock music, while his characters update those of Puccini: Rodolfo, the lovelorn poet, is resurrected in punk-rocker Roger; Marcello the painter becomes Mark the videographer; Mimi trades tuberculosis for HIV. “In both productions,” Wiederhorn noted, “the main characters are threatened with eviction and burn their written work to stay warm.” Larson, however, leavens the lost dreams and lives with his show’s “emphasis on love, friendship, and survival.”
As the debut of “Rent” approached, Larson lived in poverty similar to that endured by his characters. He stopped working in a SoHo diner only two months before the play opened and dreamed of earning enough money to afford cable TV. Ten days before he died, Larson sold some of his books to get money for a movie ticket. “It’s both tragic and ironic that Larson … never saw ticket holders enjoy his show,” Wiederhorn wrote. “Even more uncanny are the parallels between Larson’s life and his characters’ — many of whom cling to life knowing that it could end at any moment.”
- Stephen Sondheim
Source: Excerpted from NEWSMAKERS 1997, ISSUE 4, Gale Research, © 1997 Gale Research. Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.
Photo credits: Photofest and the New York Public Library