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Larson, Jonathan (1960-1996)    
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This new attitude altered the tone of his next show, Rent.

The idea for the musical that would eventually become Rent originated with the playwright Billy Aronson in 1988. Aronson, an opera buff, wanted to create a contemporary American version of his favorite Puccini opera La Bohème, set in New York's Upper West Side.

Larson recognized parallels between Puccini's bohemians and his own circle of friends, young artists with raw talent who work low-wage jobs in order to support their art, and who live in an urban environment unsettled by drugs, poverty, and disease.

He jumped at the chance to collaborate with Aronson. Larson came up with the show's title, and suggested setting it in the East Village, which at the time was much grungier than the Upper West Side. The two men worked together on the show for several years, but by 1991 Aronson had lost interest in the collaboration, and Larson asked if he could take over the material himself.

The parting was friendly. Larson wrote a formal letter to Aronson stating that "if any such miracle as a production ever happens," he would give Aronson credit and compensation for the idea. When Rent was eventually produced, Aronson was credited for "original concept/additional lyrics."

Larson's book and lyrics, as Charles Isherwood noted, "are steeped in references to the physical and psychological struggles faced by people with AIDS in the 1980s and '90s, before the drug cocktails that have made the disease more manageable. Four of the play's main characters--the heroin-addicted Mimi; her ex-heroin-addict boyfriend Roger; the black activist Tom Collins; and his lover, Angell--are HIV-positive."

Rent was given its first staged reading at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1993. It received a second staged reading in 1994, where it won a Richard Rogers Studio Production Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Larson's mentor, Stephen Sondheim, who had earlier seen a workshop production of Superbia and admired it, was the jury chairman. "[Sondheim] has been a huge supporter of my work," Larson later remarked in an interview. "Whenever I have a problem, he is always there."

On January 26, 1996, a full production of the show opened at the New York Theatre Workshop for an initial six-week run. The show was directed by Michael Greif, and starred a cast of mostly unknown actors.

The Off-Broadway show received largely ecstatic reviews and Rent was quickly moved to Broadway, with the entire cast intact.

Ben Brantley, writing in the New York Times, called the show "one of the most genuinely dramatic--and cathartic--nights at the theater I've ever spent." He also noted that what makes Rent so "wonderful," is its "extraordinary spirit of hopeful defiance and humanity," and observed that Larson had "conceived the show's surrogate family of fringe artists, drag queens and HIV-infected drug users with such rich affection and compassion that it is impossible not to care about them."

Jeremy Gerard, writing in the trade publication Variety, called Rent "the best show in years, if not decades," and enthused that the show "makes the musical theater joyously important again."

The many awards Larson received posthumously for Rent include the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, four Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Musical, and Outstanding Music, Lyrics, and Book of a Musical, and three Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Book, and Best Original Score.

Rent remains one of the longest-running and highest-grossing shows in American musical theater history, with multiple touring companies performing around the world.

Sadly for Larson, however, he was never able to enjoy the accolades he and his show received.

In the final weeks of rehearsals leading up to the show's first public performances, Larson was twice rushed to emergency rooms, both times complaining of severe chest pains. At the first hospital, he was diagnosed with a case of food poisoning and sent home. Two days later, he was again rushed to an emergency room where doctors told him he had a virus and released him.

On January 25, 1996, just hours before his show's first performance in previews, Larson was found dead on his kitchen floor at the age of 35.

An autopsy revealed that he had died of an aortic aneurysm, a more than foot-long tear inside his aorta, the main artery carrying blood from the heart to all the other organs, which was caused by a congenital weakness in the blood vessel.

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