Jonathan Larson: A Life Unfinished
The new musical Tick,Tick…Boom! has gained recent popularity after its release in November 2021. It is a memoir in musical format of one of American theater’s greatest legends, Jonathan Larson and a tribute to one of his musicals with the same name. The movie follows Larson struggling with his decision of striving for a career in the arts and the tragedies along with the joys that befall him. It was directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Broadway hit Hamilton, and a long-time fan of Jonathan Larson. Miranda even credits Jonathan for his passion in composing and writing musicals saying seeing Jonathan’s musical Rent was a life changing moment for him as an artist, and later when seeing Tik,Tik…Boom! “grabbed the 21-year old me and refused to let go”. Art this transformative indicates that its artist cannot be any less spectacular and indeed, Jonathan was a musical genius.
He was born Jonathan David Larson on February 4, 1960 in White Plains, New York. His childhood was spent being a part of drama clubs, piano lessons, band and choir, a beloved “theatre kid”. He attended Adelphi University to study acting and later focused on composing. Larson moved to New York City in order to chase his Broadway dreams and fulfill his desire of changing the face of American musical theatre. Yet, life was not all too kind to this aspiring artist determined to conquer the world. He lived in poverty for the vast majority of his life, risking the comfort of a college degree and a middle-class job to pursue his art. He worked as a waiter at the Moondance Diner in Manhattan and completed paid gigs sporadically, earning barely enough while straining to find time to compose and write as well. Jonathan started writing Tik, Tik…Boom! in 1989, after failing to land producers for his bizarre space-age musical Superbia. The inspiration for Tik, Tik…Boom! struck Jonathan after his friend Matt O’ Grady tested positive for HIV. Succeeding the loss of the majority of his friends to the AIDS epidemic, Larson became extremely aware of his mortality. He was pushing his 30s, knowing all too well that if he didn’t make a career out of his work soon, he’d have to call defeat and find a stable job. Due to this fear of losing time, Jonathan channeled his grief and apprehension into a one-man show, consisting of a rock monologue about the “ticking clock of his potential and the life of his friend”.
The show received modest success and caught the eye of theatre producer Jeffrey Seller who recalled, “Here was a man telling his life story that I felt was my life story, and telling it in a musical vernacular that was giving me goosebumps”. This “musical vernacular” that Seller refers to is Jonathan’s palpable influence and mastery of rock’n’roll in his work. This rock’n’roll influence highly contrasted the grand, popomous, sound of broadway at the time, which included works like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. Broadway’s musical vernacular was quite distant from the modern music that most Americans in the 80s were listening to like “Your Love” or “Losing My Religion”. Seller was certain that Jonathan was the man who could find a place for Broadway in the contemporary world especially with Larson stating his goal was to “bring rock ’n’ roll back to Broadway”.
Jonathan accomplished his goal with his next work Rent: a rock opera-style reimagining of Puccini’s La Boheme set in New York City about struggling artists, much like Larson and his friends. After New York Theater Workshop decided to produce the musical and Jonathan was able to quit his job as a waiter, Rent became an instant hit after its premiere on Broadway in 1996. It earned three Tonys, a Pulitzer, and perennially changed the defining sound of Broadway, making American musical theatre finally embrace rock and the contemporary setting. It was truly an era-defining work of art.
Yet, Jonathan never got to see it. He was unable to see the success of his work and its impact on the world. Preceding the premiere of the show, Larson had chest pains and nausea, even collapsing at a tech rehearsal. The emergency room visit proved futile as doctors found nothing wrong with him. Jonathan, determined as ever, did not stop, and attended Rent’s final dress rehearsal which was performed in front of a live audience. After he got home from this rehearsal, he died from an aortic aneurysm ( “ballooning” in the wall of an artery) at 12:30 am. It was the morning of the first Off-Broadway preview of Rent. He died at 35, only a few weeks shy of his 36th birthday.
There is a sad irony in the story of Jonathan Larson. He wrote about characters who cling to life knowing that it could end any second, and he himself died unexpectedly and tragically. He worked so hard, steadily growing and right at the verge of becoming an established, successful artist, he was gone, unable to see his influence on not just theatre but the world in general. As Miranda wrote in his 2014 Times piece: “Jonathan if you can hear me, you fulfilled every promise and then some. We continue to perform your work, and when we do, someone else’s life is changed. Someone else has permission to tell their story because you told yours.” I hope that people are able to learn from him and take inspiration from his perseverance and strength. I hope Jonathan’s story encourages you to never give up on your dreams becoming a reality. He would have wanted it that way.