Article by Patrick Martin
"Measure your life in love...."
Most people who have heard about Rent have likewise heard vaguely of a man named Jonathan Larson, the show's sole creator. In fact, more often than not, an article or feature regarding Rent makes more than a passing mention of the librettist/songwriter/lyricist, who passed away the night before his masterpiece had its first public previews in its final form. The heartwarming story of Rent's success is simultaneously the tragic story of Jonathan Larson's death and the emotional story of Jonathan Larson's life.
Jonathan Larson was first and foremost an actor. Growing up in White Plains, New York in the 1960s and 70s, he and his friends often staged mini-plays in the backyard. When he got to grade school he excelled in the choir, the band, and the school plays. He starred in West Side Story in middle school and Gypsy in high. The theater was not just an extracurricular activity for Larson; it was a passion. He grew up listening to his parents' LPs of Broadway classics like The Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof. A favorite Larson family pastime was a trip to nearby Manhattan for shows.
Larson came of age at the same time that Broadway was doing the same. As a teen, Larson's favorite shows were both rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, and Tommy as well as the works of Sondheim. He taught himself to play the piano by listening to Elton John, Billy Joel, and Sweeney Todd. He dragged his best friend Matt O'Grady to Pippin instead of the Peter Frampton concert they had originally planned to see.
When Larson graduated from White Plains High School in 1978, he headed to Adelphi University to study acting thanks to a four-year scholarship, the Barnes. While he was there, he picked up songwriting and, inevitably with it, composing for the university's student-produced cabarets. He also starred in Adelphi's musical productions: Jesus in Godspell, for instance. By the time he had finished his degree in 1982, he had written eight original shows. Following the advice of his mentor Stephen Sondheim (whom he had met in 1981), he decided to focus on composing for a career.
Larson was, like some of the characters in Rent, an idealist and a revolutionary. Like Roger, he wanted to write "one great song": not for personal glory, however, but to save the Broadway he loved from withering away. Like Maureen and Collins, he wanted to change the world and make a difference by creating a modern show that would take American theater by storm, a "Hair for the '80s," as he repeatedly told his friends. He was also, like Angel, a hopeless romantic with a passion for life and love. By channeling this passion into his work, he was one of the most dedicated people American theater has probably ever seen. "Art is about love&endash;the love you never got as a child&endash;the love you can't give as an adult&endash;the love you can only give your work," he wrote in 1992.
Armed with a background in theater music, a dedication to his art, and boundless energy, Larson went to work. His first projects were restagings and reworkings of shows first produced at Adelphi, shows like Sacrimoralimmorality, a harshly satirical criticism of what Larson perceived to be the false morals of the Christian Right. It was renamed Saved and staged in a small theater on 42nd in New York. Later Larson branched out and started writing new material. In 1982 he attempted to convert George Orwell's 1984 into rock musical, but to no avail. By the time he received a letter from Orwell's estate refusing him the rights, it was 1985.
Larson's next project was an adaptation of the material he had for 1984 into his own anti-utopian fantasy, Superbia. The show was a mix of rock music, pop culture, nonconformity, and Larson's own philosophy regarding art and life. Larson finally had a chance to see it staged in 1988 in a small Greenwich Village theater, but without the rock band, professional actors, or publicity he had wanted. The production was attended by Sondheim, who left during intermission after congratulating Larson on his effort.
Crushed and frustrated, Larson began his next show. In the meantime he was working at the Moondance Diner in SoHo and writing incidental music for Sesame Street. The emotions of his life as he neared turning thirty, as his best friend O'Grady revealed he was HIV+, as his friends all began to settle down into financially steady careers, and as his attempts to revitalize the theater were flops&endash;all were poured into this project, Tick...tick...BOOM!, a rock monologue featuring one character&endash;named Jonathan Larson&endash;at a piano, trying to figure out who he was and what he was doing. The show went through various stagings from 1989 to 1993. During this period he began to write songs without assigning them to a particular project, songs that expressed confusion and conflict in modern society. They would later become the title song and romantic theme of Rent.
Billy Aronson, a Yale-educated playwright, had toyed with the idea of updating Puccini's opera La Bohème to modern New York City since 1987. A friend from a local performing group recommended Larson to him, suggesting that they collaborate on the project. However, Aronson envisioned setting it among the yuppie artists on the academic Upper West Side while Larson believed that the grit of East Village life would suit the idea better. Neither was decided on until 1991, when Larson phoned Aronson with a question. Along with O'Grady, Larson had three other friends&endash;Gordon Rogers, Ali Gertz, and Pam Shaw&endash;who were diagnosed with AIDS and felt he needed to do the project alone, to tell their stories as well as his own. Aronson granted him permission and Larson began writing.
Larson set out with what Aronson had done on the project: lyrics for the two songs Larson had previously written, "Rent" and "I Should Tell You"; a new song they had written together, "Santa Fe"; an update of the characters from Rodolfo, Marcello, Mimi, Musetta, Schaunard, Colline, Alcindoro, and Benoit to Roger, Mark, Mimi, Maureen, Angel, Collins, Joanne, and Benny; and the substitution of AIDS for tuberculosis. Larson further deviated, making Angel a transvestite and Collins his gay lover, Maureen bisexual and Joanne her lesbian lover, and giving Roger, Mimi, Angel, and Collins HIV. And he refused adamantly to let Mimi die. Performance art, street drumming, computer hacking, punk music, S&M, heroin, and indie film were all worked into the script. By 1993 Larson had an assortment of songs and lyrics but no plot structure.
In 1992 Larson discovered the New York Theater Workshop while riding his bike around the East Village. He dropped off a tape with Rent as it was for Jim Nicola, the artistic director of the NYTW. Nicola immediately notified Larson that he was interested in turning Rent into a full-blown project. He started by lining up a director to assist Larson by providing constructive criticism and feedback. Michael Greif helped Larson prepare a workshop production that took place in 1994 with a full cast. Attending the workshop were theater producers Jeffrey Seller, Allan Gordon, and Kevin McCollum, who liked what they saw and asked to sponsor the show. Together with Grief, they hired Lynn Thomson, a dramaturg, to assist Larson in writing the script.
Through a number of writing exercises, Thomson was able to aid Larson in bringing out fuller characters, clarifying the storyline, and writing lyrics that moved the plot along. Songs like "You'll See," "Life Support," "On the Street," "Happy New Year," "Tango: Maureen," "Halloween," "What You Own," and "Your Eyes" appeared at this time. When the plot got too complicated, Thomson instructed Larson to boil it down so that he could express it in one sentence. She also asked him to try to use his own life experiences to make the story more real for the audience. In response, he wrote "Will I...?" based on an HIV/AIDS support meeting he had attended with O'Grady.
Rent was planned to open late in 1995 but was pushed back to January of 1996. Larson by this time had devoted five years of his life to Rent, and still it wasn't ready. As the deadline for performance loomed and the producers began to get edgy, he felt weary. In October of 1995, there was another reading of the script in which Larson had radically altered the show. The first act was cleaned up, but the second act was, by most accounts, a mess. Casting for the final form of the show had begun, rehearsals were due to begin in December. Larson kicked into high gear after talking to family, friends, and Sondheim, and threw himself into the project.
His life reflected both the bohemian lifestyle he was writing about and the frenzied devotion he was using to write it. He was dirt poor, living on his wages from the Moondance. Sunday nights he would come home and fix a huge tub of spaghetti that would last the whole week for dinner. Breakfast was one and a half bricks of shredded wheat. Snacks were carrots and celery. He pawned some books to afford going to Dead Man Walking, through which he was zoned out, anyway. At rehearsals he let Greif and the creative team take over with the cast.
The Maureen/Mark/Joanne love triangle was his final problem. Initially, Larson had wanted Mark to win Maureen back from Joanne, an ending that not only met with criticism from Greif, Thomson, and the producers, but also his lesbian friend Lisa Hubbard. In the restructuring, Larson realized that a song to express the lesbian's relationship would be necessary (in the workshop, Maureen and Joanne sang "Without You" to one another; the final script had given that song to Mimi and Roger). His best attempts pleased nobody, though, and his final effort was to sit with the actresses portraying the lovers for an hour as they improvised a fight and a make-up scene. By the next morning he had written "Take Me or Leave Me," most likely his last piece ever.
Rent opened at the NYTW on January 26, 1996, one day after Larson died of an aortic aneurysm. The first public preview was not a straight run of the show; it began as a memorial sing-through without costumes, dancing, scenery, lighting, or sound cues. It was performed for Larson's family and friends by a cast that had witnessed Larson's creation of Rent since rehearsals had begun in December of 1995; some cast members had worked with him in the 1994 workshop and were even more aware of the struggles Larson overcame to write Rent. With this emotional scene, the sing-through began.
The cast was seated at a table on stage and sang from their seats. However, by the middle of the first act, the actress playing Mimi climbed up onto the table to perform "Out Tonight," a loud, visceral solo number. Others followed suit and began to act along with the plot. By the time "La Vie Boheme" came around, the cast was dancing on the tables as choreographed. The light boards and sound boards were turned on during intermission. By the time the ensemble had reached the final chorus--"There's only now, there's only here, give into love or live in fear/ No other path, no other way, no day but today"--the show was running full blown.
Before his death, Larson had presented Nicola with a slip of paper. One sentence was written on it, the sentence Thomson had urged him to write. "Rent is about a community celebrating life in the face of death and AIDS at the turn of the century."
From Jonathan Larson's notes for Rent from 1993:
Love = art = disease = pain = life
In our desensitized society,
the artists, the bohemians,
poor, discarded, "others", recovering
addicts-- all are more
in touch with their
human-ness then the
so called mainstream.
despite everything-- humanness,