In February of 1996, the musical Rent, created by Jonathan Larson (1961-1996) and billed as "The Rock Opera of the Nineties, " opened in New York City. The show moved to Broadway on April 29, and later that year it would win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as two Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Awards. But Larson would not be there to accept his awards: on January 25, 1996, the young playwright and composer died of an aortic aneurysm.
Evelyn McDonnell and Katherine Silberger, authors of the text that accompanied the libretto of Rent in a 1997 book published by Morrow, summed up this ironic alignment of events by noting that "it's hard not to think of this story, ultimately, as a tragedy." Yet Larson, who had supported himself as a waiter for the ten years prior to Rent's first production, left an enormous legacy. John Lahr in the New Yorker, while noting that Larson was far from the first composer to attempt the marriage of rock and the Broadway musical, noted that he may have been the first to succeed. Larson's "gift for direct, compelling, colloquial lyrical statement, " Lahr wrote, "seems to prove that the show tune can once again become pertinent and popular."
Singing in His Diapers
Larson was raised in White Plains, New York, and enjoyed what Entertainment Weekly called an "idyllic Jewish middle-class childhood." Music was important to him from the beginning, according to his father. The latter told McDonnell and Silberger: "I was changing his diaper, so he had to be pretty young, and he started singing 'Yellow Bird.' In tune."
In an interview with John Istel for American Theatre shortly before his death, Larson named several musical figures who had been important influences on him. Later in life, he had come to appreciate Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, he said, along with fellow "alternative" musician Liz Phair. As a teen, his influences had included the Police and the artist who at that time went by the name of Prince. Still earlier, he had enjoyed the Beatles and the Who's Pete Townsend, the latter known for his rock opera Tommy that would have an impact on Larson's later work.
But Larson also appreciated composers Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, whose work would not normally be found among the typical American teenager's favorites. Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for Bernstein's West Side Story (1957) and composed the musicals including A Little Night Music (1973) and the Pulitzer Prizewinning Sunday in the Park with George (1984), would eventually become Larson's mentor. Still another influence lay even further in the musical past. When Larson was a child, he was taken to see a children's version of La Boheme, Giacomo Puccini's opera about a group of struggling young artists, or "Bohemians." From that seed, the idea that would become Rent slowly germinated over the next two decades.
Acting Student Turned Composer
After high school, Larson attended Adelphi University in Garden City, New York on an acting scholarship. Recalling his college experience in his American Theatre interview, Larson said, "Adelphi was a lousy place to go to school in the sense that it's in suburbia and that's where I grew up." But, he went on to say, he was fortunate to study under Jacques Burdick, who had been strongly influenced by theatre critic Robert Brustein. Burdick had established what Larson described as an undergraduate version of the prestigious drama school program at Yale University.
Under Burdick's direction, Larson studied works by a wide range of playwrights. Even more important, he had his first opportunity to write plays. Four times a year, the university theatre program put on "cabarets, " and they were always in need of writers. Thus, Larson said, by the time he finished school he had written "eight or ten" shows.
Following graduation in 1982, Larson moved to New York City. Because he had performed in summer stock productions, he was able to obtain his Actor's Equity card, and started going to auditions. He also had an opportunity to meet his hero, Stephen Sondheim, and this coincided with a change in his career plans. Larson's father Al later explained to People magazine: "Sondheim told him there were a lot more starving actors out there than starving composers."
The Struggling Artist
Larson already had some experience writing musicals. Late in his time at Adelphi, he had written a show based on George Orwell's novel about a nightmare police state of the future, 1984. The musical attracted attention, he told Istel, primarily because it was 1982, and the year 1984 was fast approaching. It was almost produced, but in the end nothing happened with the musical, which Larson said "was a good thing … because it was not a very good show. But it was my first attempt to write a big show."
Sondheim encouraged him to become involved with the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Larson described ASCAP as "a sort of 12-step meeting for people who write musicals" but, he told American Theatre, his experience with other composers he met through the organization gave him greater confidence in his work. By the time he had written some 100 songs, he said, he knew when to accept and when to reject the comments of a would-be critic-even Sondheim.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, Larson stayed very busy. In 1985 or 1986, he began working as a waiter in a restaurant called Moondance, located in New York City's fashionable SoHo district. The job gave him a reliable income, and he would support himself this way for the next decade, up until the eve of Rent's first stage production. He also earned money through freelance work, composing songs for the children's show Sesame Street. Larson created a thirty-minute children's video called Away We Go, produced with the financial backing of a restaurant patron who had learned of his composing talents from an article in New York magazine.
Larson continued to work on other projects, which satisfied his creative urge even if they did not "pay the rent." Among these were the musicals J. P. Morgan Saves the Nation and Superbia, as well as a rock monologue called Tick, Tick … Boom!, which Larson performed himself. He obtained a number of grants for his productions, including a Richard Rodgers Development Grant and a Stephen Sondheim Award, both for Superbia. He also became involved with the New York Theatre Workshop, the company that would eventually produce Rent.
The Road to Rent
Through a mutual friend in the theatre, Larson met writer Billy Aronson, who he described in his American Theatre interview as "a sort of Woody Allen type." Aronson had an idea for an updated version of La Boheme as a comedy set on New York's Upper West Side with yuppie characters, and he wanted Larson to write the music. Larson, in turn, said he liked the basic concept, having been influenced by Puccini's opera as well; however, he envisioned the musical as a serious one. On Aronson's urging, Larson wrote three songs for the proposed musical: "Santa Fe, " "I Should Tell You, " and what would become the title composition, "Rent."
The two men made a demo tape and shared it with people they knew. The music received a positive response, but the libretto did not. Therefore, Larson said, "we just put it on hold. I loved the concept, but I didn't have a burning reason to go back to it. And then I did."
In the early 1990s, several of Larson's friends discovered they had the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) linked with AIDS. Devastated, he began to re-conceive the La Boheme story as one involving characters with AIDS. He went to Aronson and asked the latter to let him proceed with resurrecting the defunct musical on his own. Aronson agreed. In 1992 Larson and James Nicola of the New York Theatre Workshop began working together on the production, and two years later, they obtained a $50, 000 Richard Rodgers award. By early 1996 Rent and its author were on the verge of success.
Triumph and Tragedy
The plot of Rent is, by many accounts, a complex one, a set of eight stories revolving around a rent strike in a New York apartment building. Among the characters are Roger, a punk rocker and former heroin addict whose former lover committed suicide when she discovered she had AIDS; his roommate Mark, a filmmaker; Maureen, a performance artist and Mark's girlfriend-until she leaves him for a lesbian affair with Joanne, described in Maclean's as "a lawyer slumming as a stage manager in the Village." Tom Collins is a gay African American assaulted on the street and helped by a transvestite named Angel. Both are HIV-positive, and they fall in love. Roger, too, falls in love, with a character named Mimi (one of the central characters of the original La Boheme also had this name), who is dying of AIDS.
John Bemrose of Maclean's described Rent's plot as "a hodgepodge of lover's quarrels, with the unusual twist (at least for a mainstream musical) that several of the lovers are of the same sex." The stage design, too, was unusual: as the show begins, "the uncurtained stage gives the impression that the show is far from ready…. there is no scenery in sight: a catwalk crosses in front of a brick wall, while a few red folding chairs are scattered around a long metal table. Nearby looms an enormous abstract sculpture containing, among other things, pieces of a shopping cart and several bicycles. It looks like a windmill rearranged by a hurricane."
What made Rent a success, according to Bemrose and other critics, were songs such as "Without You, " a ballad; and "Out Tonight, " which Bemrose described as a "raunchy" number. Lahr wrote that three songs from the show were "as passionate, unpretentious, and powerful as anything I've heard in the musical theatre for more than a decade." Jack Kroll of Newsweek praised Rent as a "rousing, moving, scathingly funny show" which "has brought a shocking jolt of creative juice to Broadway."
Larson would never read these accolades. Late in 1995, he left his job to work full-time on Rent; but in January of 1996, three weeks before Rent opened at New York's Nederlander Theatre, he began experiencing chest pains. He went to the emergency room of one hospital, where he was treated for food poisoning. When this did not help, he went to another emergency room, and there was diagnosed with a viral infection. On January 25, the day of the last dress rehearsal, Larson died from a foot-long tear in his aorta. New York State would ultimately fine both hospitals for their negligence, and according to Time magazine, Larson's family planned to sue the institutions for $250 million.
Though nothing would bring Larson back to life, death could not silence the effect of his work. Later in 1996, his sister accepted the Pulitzer Prize on his behalf. Rent became a Broadway sensation, and attracted fans around the United States and the world. As for Larson's ultimate musical legacy, it seems clear that he made great strides toward his goal of redefining the American musical, but fans can only wonder what he might have done if he had lived longer. Sondheim told Entertainment Weekly that when he last spoke with Larson about a month before his death, "He was learning to swallow his pride….He felt pleased with himself for growing up."
Further Reading on Jonathan Larson
Contemporary Authors, Volume 156, Gale, 1997.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 99, Gale, 1998.
Larson, Jonathan, Rent, with interviews and text by Evelyn McDonnell with Kathy Silberger, Morrow, 1997.
American Theatre, July/August 1996, pp. 13-16.
Entertainment Weekly, May 30, 1997, pp. 64-65.
Maclean's, December 15, 1997, p. 60.
Newsweek, May 13, 1996, pp. 54-59.
New Yorker, February 19, 1996, pp. 94-96.
People, April 22, 1996, p. 59.
Time, December 23, 1996, p. 20.
Village Voice, December 3, 1996, p. 48.