”I’m happy to say that other commissions are coming up,” said Jonathan Larson in his first interview with The New York Times. ”I think I may have a life as a composer.” Two hours later, he would be dead.
Slightly built, with an unruly shock of black hair, Larson was a compulsive, high-energy creator whose love for theater had first emerged at New York’s suburban White Plains High School. At Adelphi University, on Long Island, where he majored in drama, he collaborated on nine shows and heard more than 100 of his songs performed — all while still pursuing his interest in acting.
Over the 14 years between college and his death, Larson picked up whatever odd songwriting jobs he could (including scoring home movies for publisher Jann Wenner and composing songs for children’s book cassette adaptations of An American Tail and The Land Before Time), while he pursued major personal projects: a futuristic rock musical, Superbia; an early address of struggling-artist themes, tick, tick…BOOM!; and a ragtime-to-rock satire, J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation (all three produced in New York workshops). He was rewarded with some significant honors, including a Stephen Sondheim award from the American Music Theater Festival and a Richard Rodgers development award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
All along, though, up until October 1995, Larson continued to work as a waiter at SoHo’s Moondance Diner in order ”to keep food in his mouth,” according to his father, Al Larson, a retired marketing executive who lives in New Mexico with Jonathan’s mother, Nan. ”He was proud when he was finally able to quit the diner, to devote himself full-time to being a playwright and songwriter. He said, ‘There’s no turning back now.”’
In the four days preceding Larson’s death, Rent director Michael Greif states, the composer went to the emergency rooms at two New York City hospitals, complaining of fever and chest pains. He was told there wasn’t anything seriously wrong, perhaps food poisoning. ”It sucks,” says Greif of Larson’s death. ”He felt sick but couldn’t go to a private doctor. He had no health insurance.”
”He went to emergency rooms and they blew it,” Larson’s father reflects with resignation. ”My advice is, Stay out of emergency rooms.”