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Larson, Jonathan (1960-1996)    
 
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Although apparently heterosexual, Jonathan Larson, the theater composer, librettist, and playwright, wrote sympathetically and persuasively about a diverse community of artists, many of whom identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or .

Almost twenty years after his death, Larson's sexuality remains, if not exactly contentious, at least ambiguous. Although he is sometimes described as gay, others contend that he was heterosexual. It is also alleged that a plot incident in one of his plays, in which a woman leaves a man for another woman, is autobiographically inspired, i.e., a girlfriend of his left him for a woman.

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As the theater critic Charles Isherwood noted in the New York Times, Larson "lived among and loved the people he [wrote] about, ached for their losses, expressed their fears, dreams and everyday indignities in sharp lyrics and evocative melodies." From that perspective, the question of his own sexuality is less important than his ability to identify with a particular milieu in which glbtq values prevail. Moreover, Larson's deepest emotional relationships seem to have been with men.

Larson is best known as the composer and writer of the critically and commercially successful "rock opera," Rent, an innovative reimagining of Giacomo Puccini's opera La Bohème, with Puccini's struggling artists transported from 1830s Paris to New York's East Village in the 1990s.

The show, first produced in 1996, was inspired, in part, by Larson's need to respond in some way to his friends who were coping with the onslaught of AIDS, and to celebrate the lives of those who had died so young and so tragically.

Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times, observed that Larson "takes the very people whom politicians now turn into scapegoats for our woes--the multicultural, the multisexual, the homeless, the sick--and, without sentimentalizing them or turning them into ideological symbols or victims, let them revel in their joy, their capacity for love, and most important in their tenacity, all in a ceaseless outpouring of melody."

Tragically, in the early morning hours of January 25, 1996, just after the last dress rehearsal for Rent, and before the show's first scheduled public performance, Larson was found dead of an aortic aneurysm.

A few hours before his death, Larson gave his first and only interview, to Anthony Tommasini, the chief music critic for the New York Times. In that interview, Larson discussed something he had learned from a friend with AIDS: "It's not how many years you live, but how you fulfill the time you spend here. That's sort of the point of [Rent]."

Larson was awarded posthumously the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Rent, as well as three Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Book, and Best Original Score.

Jonathan Larson was born on February 4, 1960 in White Plains, New York, to Allan and Nanette Larson.

He was actively involved in the arts throughout his childhood, taking piano lessons from an early age, playing the tuba in his high school's marching band, and singing in the school's choir. He also loved the theater, and was cast in several high school plays, including being awarded the lead role of Tevye in his school's production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Larson attended Adelphi University on Long Island, New York, with a full, four-year academic scholarship. While at university, he concentrated on acting rather than on music, but in his spare time wrote songs for several of the school's cabaret revues, as well as the score to the musical Libro de Buen Amor, with book and lyrics by the head of the theater department, Jacques Burdick, who became Larson's mentor during his college years.

Another early mentor and champion of his work was the American musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim. Larson first came into contact with Sondheim while still a student, and later occasionally submitted his work for Sondheim's assessment. In fact, Larson often credited Sondheim for encouraging him to concentrate on his work as a composer rather than pursue a career in acting.

After Larson's death, Sondheim revealed how he "welled up" when he first heard a tape recording of some of Larson's work, in part because, as Sondheim noted, it was "generous music," merging the musical theater traditions of past generations with more contemporary-sounding rock.

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