The Tragic Life of Jonathan Larson



The Tragic Life of Jonathan Larson

VOICE OVER: Emily Brayton WRITTEN BY: Taryn Crankshaw
Jonathan Larson's life was full of inspiration and tragedy. For this list, we'll be looking at Larson's origins and the events leading up to him creating one of the longest running and celebrated Broadway musicals of all time. Our countdown includes early life "Tick, Tick...Boom," "Rent," and more!

The Tragic Life of Jonathan Larson

Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re discussing the artist who forever changed the trajectory of musical theatre: Jonathan Larson.

For this list, we’ll be looking at Larson’s origins and the events leading up to him creating one of the longest running and celebrated Broadway musicals of all time, “Rent.”

Before we get started, let us know in the comments what your favorite Larson song is.

Early Life

Jonathan David Larson was welcomed into the world on February 4th, 1960 in New York state. From a young age, Larson felt a gravitational pull towards the arts, especially music. Playing everything from the tuba to the trumpet, he quickly became a jack of all musical trades. Also a participant in his school’s choir, he took piano lessons and became enthralled by singer-songwriters such as Elton John, Billy Joel and composers like Stephen Sondheim. Just when it seemed like Jonathan’s extracurricular plate was already full, he took up acting, appearing in several productions throughout his high school career.

College Years

After graduating from high school, Larson continued to pursue his love of the performing arts by enrolling in Adelphi University. Located in Garden City, Long Island, the school awarded him an acting scholarship. It was at this time that Jonathan began to dabble in composition. He mounted a handful of student cabarets to experiment and showcase his newfound passion. Eventually, the budding skill allowed him to compose the score of his first full musical written by his college mentor and department head, Jacques Burdick. Upon earning his BFA and graduating, Jonathan quickly earned his Equity status by providing his piano playing services in summer stock theatre. Shortly after, he packed his bags and dreams and headed to the beating heart of musical theatre: New York City.

Struggling Artist

Adapting to the hustle and bustle of city living, Larson met many challenges during his move to Manhattan. The aspiring composer made many sacrifices to keep his dreams afloat, from surviving without heat to living in cramped quarters. By day, he worked as a server at New York’s famous Moondance diner, where he served tables for almost a decade. During this time, he met waiter and aspiring actor Jesse L. Martin, who would star in the original company of “Rent.” When he wasn’t serving, Larson focused on his craft, which kept him motivated despite his impoverished living conditions.

Early Works

Like many artists, Jonathan Larson faced ups and downs. He was awarded praise for, "Sacrimmoralinority" later named "Saved! - An Immortal Musical on the Moral Majority". Enjoying a successful mount at his alma mater, Larson and his collaborator, David Glenn Armstrong, were overjoyed when the show received a residency at a little theatre. Afterwards, Larson created a musical adaptation of George Orwell's famous novel, "Ninety-Eighty-Four,” but renamed and rejigged the project into what’s now known as "Superbia" because the author’s family didn’t authorize it. Receiving notable buzz, the show earned some Richard Rodgers accolades and grants. Despite the excitement, Jonathan's dreams of a full production were dashed, and he was forced to move on. Luckily, he accepted his broken heart, using it to inspire his next creation.

“Tick, Tick...Boom!”

Originally called “30/90”, “Tick...Tick...Boom!” was written as a direct response to Larson’s pain over the inactive state of“Superbia.” Putting himself in the spotlight, Jonathan performed the show off-Broadway, and it began to attract a lot of attention from audiences and producers. It ended up travelling across the Off-Broadway circuit. The success of “Boom” gave Jonathan the push to continue working on other projects, and he began to make a name for himself in the New York theatre scene. And then, like lightning itself, an idea came into contact with Jonathan that would change not only his career but also his life.


Decades before Jonathan Larson was born, another composer was working away on his own composition. The year was 1896, and Italian composer Giacomo Puccini had just premiered his piece de resistance, “La Boheme.” Chronicling the lives of impoverished artists, the four-act Opera would become one of the most commonly produced shows ever. The work inspired playwright Billy Aronson, who wanted to transform “La Boheme” into a modern musical. Seeking a musical collaborator, Aronson was put in touch with Jonathan. Feeling a deep connection to it, especially the theme of poverty, Billy allowed Jonathan to take over. After writing, editing and workshopping, “Rent” received a public staging in the early ‘90s. As the world was about to discover Larson’s genius and his dreams were coming to fruition however, tragedy struck.

His Death

Days prior to "Rent"’s off-Broadway debut, Jonathan began to experience chest pains and other concerning symptoms. Seeking medical attention, Larson was told he had the flu. However, it was later discovered that he had received a misdiagnosis. On January 25th, 1996, the same day Rent was set to preview off-Broadway, the world of theatre was forever changed. Suffering from an aortic dissection that could have been treated if properly diagnosed, Larson passed away at 35 years old. With his family's permission, the company of "Rent" opened the show by deciding to sing through Larson's score rather than performing the entire musical.

The Aftermath

Following its successful off-Broadway run, “Rent” moved to Broadway a few months later, taking up residency at the Nederlander Theatre where it would remain from 1996-2008. The rock musical blew away both audiences and critics, not only for Larson’s groundbreaking score but also for themes including poverty, gentrification, queer rights, addiction and the AIDS crisis. Larson went on to posthumously earn a handful of Tony Awards, including Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. “Rent” went on to tour across the country with productions popping up worldwide and is one of the longest-running musicals in the history of the Great White Way.

His Legacy

Twenty-five years after his death, Jonathan Larson’s genius is as impactful as ever. Aside from its success on Broadway, “Rent” received a big-screen adaptation by Chris Columbus in 2005. In 2021, another one of Larson’s pieces, “Tick, Tick... Boom!” made its big-screen debut, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and with Andrew Garfield playing Larson’s counterpart. It goes without saying that his work paved the way for pretty much every contemporary musical since. However, perhaps the most significant part of his legacy resides in the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation. Set up by his family and friends, the initiative provides grants and funding to help writers and composers bring new stories and music to the stage and keep Jonathan’s passion for theatre burning bright.