Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Who Killed Jonathan Larson?: A Grudge of Three Years and Counting

There was once a young man who had a passion for acting. He followed his passion wherever it led him, even to SeaWorld, where he did a comedy act as an opener for Shamu. He settled down for a time at a university in the southern United States to pursue a graduate degree in his field.

He had a number of adventures during his time there. He connected with other aspiring thespians, lent his talent to the university's theatrical productions, and even taught undergraduate theatre classes.

One such class was called Introduction to Theatre, and its aim was to inform students about the history, culture, and diverse genres of theatre. Most of his students were not theatre majors; they were there to earn their required fine arts credit. But this didn't faze the young teacher. He put long hours into preparing lectures and compiling video clips to give his students the best possible understanding of the field he loved so much. He varied his teaching methods to engage the class, and he usually succeeded in capturing their attention. Some days he even inspired lively debates.

The young teacher was undoubtedly the person with the most theatre knowledge in the room at any given time. While some of his students certainly had a deep appreciation for the craft, he was the one pursuing theatre at the graduate level. No one had a reason to question his knowledge or life experience. What he proclaimed from the front of the classroom was gospel.

He referenced many shows throughout the semester. One of them was Rent, the rock opera telling the story of starving musicians living and dying in New York under the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. The young teacher showed the class a video of the song "La Vie Bohème," a sort of anthem of the starving artists, to give them a taste for the musical's spirit and the way it tackled taboo and unpopular topics. He made sure to tell the tragic story of how the show's creator, Jonathan Larson, died of AIDS just before the show opened, never to see the success of his creation.

There was once a pair of girls taking an eighth grade Civics and Economics class. They were required by their teacher to enter a history contest with the theme "Triumph and Tragedy in History,"  and they were encouraged to do so by creating a short documentary in their school's video editing lab.

Since the girls shared an interest in musical theatre, one girl proposed making a documentary about the creator of one of her new favorite musicals- Rent. His story included both triumph and tragedy in spades, and the visual and musical aspects would shine brighter in a documentary than in any other medium.

The other girl knew nothing about Rent or its creator, but she agreed to team up for the project. She spent the next few months educating herself and quickly fell in love with the musical and the story of its creation. She listened to the original Broadway cast soundtrack constantly and watched whatever video clips she could find online. She found the creator's other musical, tick, tick... BOOM! and analyzed its similarities to Rent. She read the officially-published libretto with its wealth of behind-the-scenes notes, the autobiography of one of the original cast members, and several fan sites full of information and opinions. She watched the recently-released film adaptation, although she concluded it was far inferior to the stage version, and she poked around to see what the arts foundation formed in the creator's name was doing at the time.

The team cobbled together a decent almost-ten-minute documentary using iMovie. It earned them a good grade in their Civics class, performed well in their school's local level of the contest, and moved on to the next level, where it earned third place in their division but did not score highly enough to move forward.

Soon afterwards, the friends parted ways. The girl who had originally known nothing about Jonathan Larson or his popular work moved to the southern United States, bringing her wealth of new knowledge with her. She fell in love with many other musicals over the years, but Rent remained one of her sentimental favorites even as she started her undergraduate studies.

In the last semester of her senior year, the girl found herself in a very enjoyable Introduction to Theatre class. She enjoyed the teacher's personality and his efforts to make the class interesting, and she loved all the musical video clips that he shared with them. She nearly exploded in excitement when the teacher brought up the topic of Rent one day.

The teacher introduced the video he was about to play as "la VEE bo-HEM," which made the girl cringe. She tried to forgive his poor pronunciation and reminded herself that not everyone was minoring in French like she was. But her irritation mounted as the video concluded and the teacher continued to mispronounce the song title, despite having just heard the performers singing the correct pronunciation ("la VEE bo-EMM") over and over again. She tried to ignore it and simply enjoy the conversation.

Then the young teacher proceeded to tell the tragic story of how the show's creator, Jonathan Larson, worked hard to write a musical that would show the victims of AIDS in a sympathetic light and challenge the perceptions people had of them at the time, but he died of AIDS before the show could even open.

The passing of all those turbulent teenage years could not erase long hours of impassioned research from the girl's mind. She knew Larson had gone door-to-door as a child to see which of his neighbors weren't home so he could swim in their pool. She knew Larson made a giant pot of spaghetti and portioned it out as his supper each night of the week while he was writing music. And she knew Jonathan Larson never had AIDS- he had died of complications of his Marfan syndrome.

She sat at her flimsy desk, her burning rage and indignation manifesting in a frown that she directed right at the teacher, almost daring him to see her expression and ask what was wrong. Her hand twitched, desperate to shoot up into the air and silence the teacher mid-sentence, but she bit her tongue. "Don't be that person," she repeated to herself like a mantra. The teacher was doing his best and didn't deserve to be called out by one of his students in front of the entire class. Don't be that person.

She managed to stay quiet throughout the class, and she resisted the urge to approach the teacher after class, but the frustration burned within her. She overthought and overanalyzed- where had the teacher gotten his information? A simple Google search would have told him the true story. Had he heard about Larson's untimely death and just assumed that, since so many of his characters had AIDS, he had to have had it, too? If so, it was a lazy excuse for proper research, and Jonathan Larson deserved to have his story told correctly.

The girl complained to her friends about the blatant misinformation the teacher had fed her class, and she seethed about the incident whenever she thought about it, but she resisted the urge to confront the teacher during his office hours or send him a snotty email informing him of his mistake. Don't be that person. Don't be that person.

She held her tongue until the end of the semester, when teacher evaluation forms opened up online. She rated the class fairly, discussing how it was usually informative and entertaining. She praised the teacher's efforts. But she could not resist a parting shot in the comments box, informing the teacher as politely as she could that he was wrong.

Obviously, that girl was me, and I'm still a little irritated. I'm aware that I'm a snob and a know-it-all and I need to let it go. I know that interrupting the class to correct the teacher wouldn't have helped anyone and would've cost me my classmates' good opinion. And in the teacher's defense, it was a fairly reasonable assumption to make. He was doing his best to make the lesson interesting, and he had provoked a genuine emotional response in my classmates. It wasn't his fault he had a fanatical Larson subject matter expert in his class.

But he did. And the discomfort of hearing someone present incorrect information about a topic I know and love well was real. And to this day, I still don't know how I stopped myself from being a terrible human being and blurting out the "Well, ACTUALLY" in my head.

1 comment:

  1. So you avoided this, except substitute "in class" for "on the Interent": https://www.xkcd.com/386/