Growing up in New York City music and theater were always part of Jon's life. It was a short drive to the theater district, and one of his family's favorite activities was going there to see shows. As a child, he loved listening to classics like The Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof, but he was also a fan of songwriters like Elton John and Billy Joel. In third grade, Jon wrote and performed in his own play, and in middle school he starred in a production of West Side Story. Soon, his talent was so recognized in the community that his high school, which had no musical theater program, created one to support the development of his abilities. It was clear that Jon knew exactly what he wanted to do, and it seemed that the universe wanted to help him get there.
Jon attended college on a full scholarship for acting. He learned to write musicals, and many of his professors called him the best student songwriter they ever worked with. During his senior year Jon wrote a letter to one of his idols in the theater world hoping to establish a connection and get some advice. Surprisingly, part of the advice was to focus on writing and composing rather than acting, with the man telling Jon, “there are a lot more starving actors than there are starving composers.”
After graduating Jon moved to New York City’s West Village but found the real world was less accommodating to him pursuing his goals than the academic one had been. The fifth floor loft he shared had a bathtub in the kitchen and no heat. At one point Jon and his roommates illegally used a wood burning stove to keep warm.
While working as a waiter, a common profession for aspiring artists, Jon wrote constantly. He completed several shows that weren’t taken on by theater companies, but he kept writing. He was intent on changing the world of musical theater. To Jon the sound of musicals had hardly progressed since the forties, and he felt that the music and energy of his generation hadn’t been represented on stage… yet.
Jon and a friend came up with the idea to update a century-old opera about the fragility of life. But each wanted to base the characters on his own group of friends. Finally, after more conversations, Jon asked to write it himself. His friend agreed, and Jon took on the project whole-heartedly. He reduced his restaurant shifts and gave himself more time to write. He’d cook a huge pot of pasta every Sunday night and eat it for dinner all week. He infused his words and lyrics with a love for life in New York City, and wrote music that expressed its reckless energy. The resulting work, despite being rough in its first draft, was so captivating that the New York Theater Workshop decided to put $250,000 into producing it, more than twice any amount they’d ever spent to mount a single show.
Jonathan Larson spent years working on Rent, a play that celebrated life in the face of mortality. After opening at the New York Theatre Workshop, Rent won a Pulitzer Prize and moved to Broadway later that year. It gained further acclaim and won a Tony Award for Best Musical, grossing over $280 million during its twelve-year run of over five thousand performances. However, Jon never experienced any of Rent’s success. On the morning of the show’s opening night Jon died of a fluke heart condition that had gone undiagnosed. He was thirty-five years old and otherwise healthy. The fact that his own life ended before he could see his dream realized only makes his work more meaningful.
Jon couldn’t have known how short his time would be, but he lived his dream with dedication, working fervently and without hesitation no matter how long it took or what else he had to do along the way. Rent is one of my favorite Broadway musicals, and I’ve seen the show over a dozen times. I really enjoy the soundtrack, especially the lyrics to one of my favorite songs, No Day but Today. I hope this week’s story inspires you to embrace the mindset, The Time Is Now. In the play called “Living Your Dreams,” the curtains are up and the show must go on… are you ready to take on the leading role?
Until next week...
Live Your Dreams