“Rent” runs Feb. 20-28 at the Fox Theatre. Tickets HERE or at 855.285.8499.


Jonathan Larson (1960-1996).

IT HAS BEEN 23 YEARS, and five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, since Jonathan Larson gifted the world with Rent and left an indelible mark on American musical theater.

The convention-busting musical opened on Broadway on April 29, 1996, and ran for more than 12 years. But its roots go back to 1993 and the New York Theatre Workshop, where the show was nurtured, had its off-Broadway home and suffered an unbelievable loss.

Larson died suddenly of an aortic dissection, likely caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, on Jan. 25, 1996, the night before the show’s off-Broadway opening. He was 35. The bohemians, the friends with whom he created Rent, were left to share it with the world.

You might know their names: Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin, Anthony Rapp, Daphne Rubin-Vega. Eight actors in the 15-member cast were making their Broadway debuts. Larson’s baby went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four 1996 Tony awards, including best musical. Two went to Larson, posthumously, for his book and score. Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel) won the fourth. Rent won six Drama Desk and two Theatre World awards.

American musical theater wasn’t quite sure what had happened to it, but it was exciting, and the rules were changing. Larson’s Rent became a watershed moment, like Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in 1943, Stephen Sondheim’s work in the 1970s and, of course, Hamilton.

Hamilton auteur Lin-Manuel Miranda saw Rent when he was 17, later recalling:

Mimi, Roger and Co. “Rent rocked my perception of what a musical theater could be,” says Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton). Photo: Carol Rosegg

Rent rocked my perception of what musical theater could be. It was the first musical I had ever seen with a cast as diverse as the subway riders I saw on the way to school. It was the first musical I had ever seen that took place in the present day and sounded like the present day. The characters were worried about the things I worried about.”

Larson had dreamed of being an actor after graduating from Adelphi University, but Stephen Sondheim pushed him toward composing. In short order, Larson won a Richard Rodgers Studio Production Award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Rodgers Development Grant and a Stephen Sondheim Award from the American Musical Theater Festival.

He lived much like his Rent characters — on love, friendship and survival. “Our apartment is what you see in Rent,” Larson roommate Jonathan Burkhart told Playbill in 2016. “We literally had one extension cord that snaked all the way through the apartment. There was no heat except from the oven, and the shower was in the kitchen.”

Despite his lack of funds, Larson quit his job at a SoHo diner two months before Rent made its off-Broadway debut. He dreamed of earning enough money to afford cable TV. Ten days before he died, he sold books to get money for a movie ticket.

His musical drama, loosely based on Puccini ‘s La bohème, depicts an unforgettable year in the lives of seven artists — a filmmaker, a musician, a performance artist and a drag queen among them — struggling to celebrate life in the shadow of drugs, poverty and AIDS. The characters in Rent’s AIDS support group (the number “Life Support”) are named for real-life friends of his who died. Larson’s score uses pop, dance, salsa, R&B, gospel, Broadway and rock music.

Angel and Tom Collins. Writing in The New Yorker, critic John Lahr said Larson’s “songs have urgency — a sense of mourning and mystery which insists on seizing the moment.” Photo: Carol Rosegg

In The New Yorker, John Lahr wrote: “The show features, among 40 well-sung numbers, songs that are as passionate, unpretentious and powerful as anything I’ve heard in musical theater for more than a decade. His songs have urgency — a sense of mourning and mystery which insists on seizing the moment.”

Like many creative people, Larson has been called contradictory. He was shaken by his lack of professional success but confident of his talent. (He once broke up with a woman because she said he couldn’t write an authentic gospel song.) He came from a comfortable suburban home but seemed to relish his ragtag lifestyle. He expected musical theater to be literate, bracing and up to date. To Larson, a friend recalled at his memorial, “Stephen Sondheim was God; Jerry Herman was the devil.”

The idea for Rent was suggested to Larson by a young playwright named Billy Aronson, who is still credited with the lyrics to “Santa Fe,” “La Vie Boheme” and “I Should Tell You.” Aronson wearied of the project, but Larson carried on — for seven years. He envisioned a Hair for the 1990s.

Rent’s six-week off-Broadway run at the 150-seat New York Theatre Workshop sold out. It was extended and sold out again. A bidding war began for the right to produce the $240,000 show on Broadway. It reopened April 29 at the Nederlander Theatre with a budget of more than $2 million. Tony Award nominations seemed inevitable. Record deals were being discussed.

Larson, of course, wasn’t there to see it. But his friends were.

“Every night we got up on the stage, and we had one responsibility,” Idina Menzel recalls on Live: Barefoot at the Symphony, her 2012 CD. “That was to communicate Jonathan’s music, his work and his story. He taught us to try to live in the moment.”

No day but today.

About Kathy Janich

Kathy Janich is a longtime arts journalist who has been seeing, working in or writing about the performing arts for most of her life. She's a member of the Theatre Communications Group, the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, Americans for the Arts and the National Arts Marketing Project. Full disclosure: She’s also an artistic associate at Synchronicity Theatre.

View all posts by Kathy Janich