On Sunday, musical fans around the world will gather in front of their television screens in celebration of Rent: Live on FOX. While they're measuring their lives in love, Fox will be tackling the late Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning '90s musical about artists struggling to survive in New York's Alphabet City during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Rent became an overnight cultural sensation that ran for 12 years on Broadway and enjoyed 5,123 performances, making it the eleventh-longest running Broadway show. It was also adapted for the screen in 2005, reuniting most of the original cast members.
But what happened behind-the-scenes of the original Off-Broadway production of Rent was just as intriguing as the show itself. Jonathan Larson, the composer and playwright of the musical, sadly passed away following an aortic dissection in the early morning on January 25, 1996—the very day Rent was set to open in previews Off-Broadway. Larson was set to be a superstar in the musical world, on the level of Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The show, however, went on: The cast read and sang through the show that evening, and staged a full production of the musical's second act. The official first preview then debuted on January 26, 1996 at the New York Theater Workshop and later opened on Broadway when it moved to the Nederlander Theatre on April 29, 1996 after the show's five-week run sold out within 24 hours and became a critical darling. The show, and Larson posthumously, went on to win three Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of A Musical, and Best Original Score.
As PBS put it, "Rent achieved Larson’s ambition of updating musical theater and making it socially and personally relevant to a younger audience."
Larson dedicated pretty much his entire life to the stage and to creating theatre. He lived in poverty while working for seven years to bring his rock opera to the stage, and his works typically touched on multiculturalism, love, survival, support, addiction, and homophobia. Rent itself is an adaptation of Puccini's opera La bohème, but Larson also wrote tick, tick... BOOM!, an autobiographical musical that a little performer you may have heard of named Lin-Manuel Miranda is bringing to the big screen. Larson wrote nearly 200 songs over 18 years, starting from when he was in college at Adelphi University, for unproduced musicals, workshops, and songs cut from Rent and tick, tick...BOOM. Rent didn't just happen overnight.
The movie version of Rent ends with "Thank you, Jonathan Larson" on screen, in an homage to the preview performance the cast put on the evening Larson passed away. That night, the performance ended, and the audience sat in what felt like a long, extended silence, until a young male voice yelled the same line from the back of the house.
Gilles Chiasson, who portrayed Steven and other characters in the musical as well as understudied for the characters of Roger and Mark, had this to share with Playbill about Larson's legacy:
"I remember standing at a urinal in the bathroom at the New York Theatre Workshop. Jonathan was at the urinal next to mine. Yes, we were peeing. "Jonathan," I said, "I think you're going to change the face of musical theatre." And he said, "I know." I loved him in that moment: so confident. I admired his confidence."
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Amanda Mitchell is a writer and podcaster with bylines at Marie Claire, OprahMag, Allure, Byrdie, Stylecaster, Bon Appetit, and more. Her work exists at the apex of beauty, pop culture, and absurdity. A human Funfetti cake, she watches too much television, and her favorite season is awards season. You can read more of her work at amandaelizabethmitchell.com or follow her on Instagram and Twitter @lochnessmanda.
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