It took seven years to take Rent from its idea to its
previews, and the thing to know about Jonathan Larson is that the week
before the first preview at New York Theatre Workshop, when Jon felt
the first thump of the aortic aneurysm that would carry him away, he
was laughing. Silently. He was laughing on the inside. Director
Michael Greif and the cast were rehearsing the song "What You Own" (the
lyrics are about dying at the end of the millennium) when Jon collapsed
at the back of the theatre and asked for an ambulance. Fearfully, he
told his friends later that he couldn't believe that the last song he
would hear was his own song about dying. The ambulance took him to the
nearest hospital. He had eaten a turkey burger for lunch, and the
doctors diagnosed food poisoning and pumped his stomach. Then he went
home. A few days later, after another incident, doctors at a second
hospital said Jon had the flu.
The night before Rent's first preview, January 25, 1996, Jon
went to a dress rehearsal at New York Theater Workshop, where a crowd
of friends and supporters was whooping and stamping their feet. He was
interviewed by a reporter from The New York Times, who told him
off the record that he thought the play a marvelous achievement. Then
he went home, put on some water for tea, and died. His roommate found
him on the floor of the kitchen, beside his coat. Jon was 35 years
Jon told an interviewer once that, "in the theater, the old thing
about how you can make a killing but you can't make a living is
absolutely true. I'm living proof of that."
You know what happened to the play next - you're part of it. The
show has become one of the biggest things ever on Broadway. It's become
the sort of thing a playwright dreams about in the middle of the night,
and in the morning is embarrassed at how wild his fantasies have run.
Rent - Jon's first produced show - is like an athlete that has
won the Rookie of the year award, a gold medal, the World Series, and
the Most Valuable Player, all in the same season. It collected the New
York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, The Obie Award,
the Tony Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. Rent was on the cover of
Newsweek. Time called it a "breakthrough," The New
York Times, "an exhilarating landmark." At the 1996 Democratic
National Convention, the cast of Rent sang "Seasons of Love."
Movie and television stars have sat in the seats you've been sitting
in, and afterwards, at the Nederlander Theater, they've gone backstage
to sign a long brick wall, a kind of Broadway Wailing Wall - Spike Lee,
and Billy Joel and Jodie Foster - forwarding their best wishes and
congratulations to Jonathan and the cast. People in the cast like
Daphne Rubin-Vega - she plays Mimi - say they recognize the same
audience members coming back to the Nederlander ten, fifteen times. If
a young playwright told you this was a fantasy of theirs, you'd smile
at their ambitions, and they'd walk away embarrassed. But here it is
Rent is where Jonathan's friends feel closest to him. They
say it's like getting to spend three more hours with the playwright.
When the actors sing, they are somehow reassembling the personality of
Jonathan. And then there's the play's message about living each day as
if it is your last. Everyone wonders how a man who didn't know he was
about to die could write a play that seemed to take full account of his
own early death. There's so much of Jonathan there, but the fact
remains that it isn't only Jonathan. There are other voices here too,
other personalities that shaped Rent, who took an idea that had
been batting around at Jonathan for seven years, and gave it sets and
costumes and flesh and bones and lights and actors and life. It took
many other people to allow Jon's voice the clearest opportunity to sing
its own song. Here is how it happened:
Jon's early life isn't exactly what you expect. Nor is it what you
might have read about. Journalism has made his posthumous success seem
like a wild, out-of-nowhere surprise, but Jon was trained for it,
prepared for it. The surprise in Jon's life was the 14 years of rough-
going, not the success.
Jon was born on February 7, 1960, in White Plans, which is about
half an hour outside of New York City. His parents loved the theater,
and took Jon and his sister into town for shows a couple of times a
year. (They took him to see a puppet show of La Boheme when he
was about five years old, which probably helped him see that there was
a lot of flexibility in the old story.) By the time he was in
kindergarten, he was doing things like organizing friends into
productions of "Gilligan's Island" in their suburban backyards; by
third grade, he had written, directed and starred in a play of his own,
and been photographed for the White Plains newspaper. By high school,
he was so famous as an actor that the school, which had no musical
theater program, developed one to accommodate his talents. He won a
four-year, full-tuition acting scholarship to Adelphi University.
Adelphi's theater program was modeled on the prestigious Yale School of
Drama and Jon basically ran the place. For the first time he wrote
musicals of his own, and discovered he was quite good at it. His
professors there remembered him as the best songwriter they'd ever
seen. Senior year, he wrote a letter to Stephen Sondheim, his idol -
the kind of letter a young man writes when he is on the look-out for a
mentor. A few months before graduation, Sondheim invited Jon to his
house for some advice. Jon told the composer he had trained as an
actor but loved writing music. Sondheim advised him to dump
performing: "There are a lot more starving actors than there are
starving composers." So, college degree in hand, Jon came to New York -
the city where he'd always wanted to live - in the spring of 1982,
ready to succeed in real life as he had succeeded in academic life.
There are some things to know about Jonathan. He had a heightened
appreciation for the incidental pleasures of life. At Adelphi, theater
chairman Jaques Burdick drilled students in a Greek notion called
kefi (the word is pronounced keh-fee) and Jon treasured the
concept. If you had kefi, wherever you lived, whatever was
going on in your life, it would feel wonderful. It was an idea Jon was
going to find useful.
Jon lived a bohemian life in downtown New York. He rented a
scruffy loft that had a bathtub in the kitchen and a crumbling water
closet with a skylight above the toilet, and thick extension cords
running all along the baseboards to feed his computer, his synthesizer,
and his tape decks. For a while, he and his roommates kept an
illegal, wood-burning stove. He got a waiter's job at a SoHo
restaurant called the Moondance Diner. He dated a dancer for four
years who sometimes left him for other men and finally left him for
He wrote lots of music in the years between leaving college and
mounting Rent, including two shows that didn't get produced.
And here's another thing to know about Jonathan: He wanted to
transform the musical theater, to make it more modern. He didn't like
that show music hadn't changed since the late 1940s. That
Oklahoma sounded like Oklahoma in 1943 was fine; that a
lot of musicals still sounded like Oklahoma in 1996 was
depressing. All of his downtown friends liked music but none of them
liked musicals; he would explain to them, "That isn't our music uptown
on Broadway; those aren't our characters, these aren't our stories."
Jon had grown up listening to the Who and Billy Joel and Elton John,
along with Sondheim. He wanted to make them one and the same thing.
But after seven years of writing musicals in the city, he hadn't been
able to convince anyone lese that this was the right way to go. That
was when he hit on Rent.
So now here's Billy Aronson, who was a Yale trained playwright, who
loved opera, and who had this idea. Billy wanted to write a musical
updating La Boheme. He wanted it to be about people like himself
- struggling to make art under lousy conditions. Some theatrical
acquaintances suggested Jonathan. They met a few times in 1989, sitting
on Jonathan's roof and absorbing a little kefi. Jon came up with
the title. He didn't like Billy's proposed Upper West Side setting.
Billy wanted to make the show about his friends, and Jon wanted to make
it about his. Jon won. In 1991, he called Billy up and asked if he
could take Rent for his own. Billy said sure. Jon also liked one
more thing about Rent. In La Boheme, the Parisian
bohemians are afflicted with tuberculosis; the whole opera occurs under
its specter. The modern equivalent was AIDS. Jon knew all about AIDS.
He was healthy, but a lot of good friends had HIV, like Matt O'Grady,
his pal from back home. Writing Rent provided one way to make
sense of the experience.
Jon spent a year working on the themes in Rent. Though he
set the show in the East Village, he didn't really live there. Jon
felt out of place in the punky East Village; he was West Village
through and through. Jon didn't want to go alone on tours of the East
Village so he took along Eddie Rosenstein, a filmmaker and friend, who
scouted locations with him.
Back home, he wrote his musical. He whittled his Moondance job
down to three days a week, which left four days for writing. Sunday
nights, Jon would boil a big tub of pasta and a big pot of sauce and
mix them together; he'd eat that for dinner all week. He'd buy boxes
of Shredded Wheat, and break off exactly one and a half scrubby bricks
each morning. He wanted to fuel himself like a machine - without
having to think - so all his thoughts would be reserved for writing.
One day in the summer of 1992, after he'd finished the first draft
of Rent and recorded some of the songs, he hopped onto his bike.
"That now legendary bike ride," remembers Jim Nicola, artistic director
of New York Theater Workshop. The Workshop has just purchased a new
theater on East Fourth Street, "and that summer we were tearing it up
to try and make it more hospitable to the kind of work we wanted to do.
Jon took a ride through the East Village, sort of scouting out
theaters. The doors were open, he heard the construction, and he
wandered in. And he immediately fell in love with the space and
thought it would be perfect for Rent."
It was the right moment for Jon to bring a musical to New York
Theatre Workshop, which had been doing mostly new plays for nine years.
Nicola thought in was high time NYTW mounted a musical. He wanted a
show reflecting the world beyond Broadway, with music that sounded the
way music does today. Jim listened to Jon's tape the night he got it.
"'Light My Candle' was there, and the title song, and 'I Should Tell
You.' The story wasn't quite there yet - there didn't seem to
be a clear story - but the music was thrilling."
New York Theatre Workshop put on a reading of the musical in the
spring of 1993. Nicola was struck by the intensity of responses. Some
friends though it was simply ragged, but others were in love with the
material from the first, no matter its flaws. A young producer named
Jeffrey Seller, who had met Jonathan several years earlier, also felt
the time was right to produce a musical. He had stayed in touch with
Jon, because he, too, wanted to bring rock music to Broadway, and was
convinced that one day, "Jon was going to write a brilliant musical."
He came down to Fourth Street. Jeffrey felt the play was baggy, a
collage with no narrative shape. "There were great songs," Jeffery
remembers, "but there were endless songs." Some producer friends he had
brought with him left at intermission, assuring Jeffrey the work was
unsalvageable. Jeffrey was still interested, though - as long as Jon
found a story as good as the music.
Jon sent a letter to Stephen Sondheim, asking for advice and
assistance. The older composer responded by encouraging Jonathan to
apply for a Richard Rogers Foundation grant. Jonathan eventually won
$45,000 to support of workshop production of RENT.
What they needed now was a director. Jim immediately suggested
Michael Greif, a young New York director who had recently become
artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. He sent Greif
Jon's tape and script. Greif listened to the tape on a Walkman flying
from California to New York. The script seemed shaggy - "What impressed
me," he remembers, "was its youth and enthusiasm, and that it was a
musical about contemporary life. Jon was writing about some people I
felt I knew, that I sort of loved, or had loved in my life." What Jim
wanted in a director was a counterweight to Jon's kefi
philosophy, which had allowed him to treat dark subjects like AIDS,
homelessness, and drug addiction with optimism. Michael was hard-nosed
and cool-headed. He met with Jim and Jonathan in January of 1994, and
the three set to work on bringing the script to the level of the music.
"It was a very fragile material at the time," Jim recalls." And it was
so easy for it to become sentimental or hokey, or any number of things.
I felt Michael had the right sort of dryness and sharpness to balance
Jim saw his instincts had been right as soon as the three got down
to shaping the script in Jon's loft. They met for a week in the middle
of the spring, preparing for the workshop scheduled for November. They
went over the script scene by scene, moment by moment. Immediately, the
dynamic between Jonathan and Michael slipped into a productive yin and
yang. Michael was afraid there was something self-congratulatory about
the young bohemian heroes of the show; so Jon toned down the lyrics of
"La Vie Boheme." Michael fretted about the homeless characters - that
they not simply serve as East Village window dressing, as moral
scarecrows where Mark and Roger could drape their good social
conscience; so Jonathan wrote the new song, "On the Street," where a
homeless woman gives Mark a stern telling off. Most importantly,
Michael had reservations about the message of the show, the "No Day But
Today" cheerfulness of the Life Support meetings. Michael had friends
with HIV, just as Jon did, and they were not cheerful about it. Jon
added the new scene of Gordon questioning the Life Support credo. And
Jon himself kept Michael from becoming too hard-nosed and cool-headed.
"What Jon gave Michael was some of his hope and heart and generosity of
spirit. And what I think Michael gave Jon was some edge and realism and
complexity. It was a good marriage," remembers Anthony Rapp, who plays
The three met again that summer at Dartmouth College, where NYTW
ran a kind of working camp for its affiliated artists. Michael and Jon
talked plot. One large problem, they agreed, was the relationship
between Maureen and Mark; in these drafts, a major plot point was Mark
winning Maureen back. Michael didn't like it. "My position was, if
they're gonna be lesbians, let them be lesbians. Don't make them about
In October, back in the city, Michael worked out the "performance
vocabulary" of Rent. For budgetary reasons - and also because it
suited the nature of the characters - it was decided to have minimal
props. Michael suggested the three "Frankenstein" tables, which could
be made to serve so many functions in the show. Because it was rock,
Michael played around with microphones, with actors singing directly to
the seats: "We were very anxious to take advantage of the fact that it
would be as much a concert as it was a play."
For all its flaws, the November workshop was a tremendous success.
It ran two weeks with the audience growing larger and more enthusiastic
each night; by the last week it was sold out.
Anthony Rapp, a cast
member of the November workshop, remembers the excitement: "I kept
telling people it was going to be an event. We knew it needed work. But
people I trust and respect - friends and collaborators - would come
down and be knocked out by it."
Jim Nicola thought it needed work, too. But the responses he was
getting from his friends were just what Anthony was hearing. "There was
a lot of passion - again, the most striking thing was the intensity of
opinion about it. There was a large segment of people whose tastes I
trusted who just loved it, and didn't care what the problems were. I
felt even more convinced that there was really something strong here."
Jim found himself moving towards an exciting, scary, stirring decision.
"Rent was the kind of show to bet the company on."
A Year in the Life
The second week, Jeffrey Seller returned to East Fourth Street. He
brought his business partner, Kevin McCollum. Sitting down in the front
row, seeing the three tables, remembering the plotless show he'd seen a
year earlier, Jeffrey had time for a crisis of confidence. He turned to
Kevin before the show and warned him, "This is either gonna be
absolutely brilliant or it's going to be a piece of crap." At
intermission Kevin nudged Jeffrey and said, "I'm loving this. Get out
A couple of nights later, the two brought a business associate
named Allan Gordon to NYTW. The three had worked together previously
on the national tour of "The Real Live Brady Bunch." Allan was equally
enthusiastic - like Jeffrey and Kevin, he was overpowered by the music.
That night the three decided to work on the project together.
After the holidays, Jim, Michael and Jonathan sat down again in
Jim's office. Jim had thought it over, and talked to NYTW's board
members. The Workshop decide to stage a full production of Rent
the following year with the help of Seller, McCollum and Gordon, who
would get the commercial rights in return. The budget would be
$250,000 - twice the cost of anything NYTW had ever mounted.
After the holidays, Jim, Michael and Jonathan sat down again in
Jim's office. They spoke about what need fixing. The show had no single
story, no primary narrator - in the November workshop, all the
characters told the story; when they had something to say, they turned
around and said it right to the audience. And the characters
themselves, especially Maureen and Joanne, needed refinement. Jim gave
Jon a task: Could he boil the plot down to a single sentence? The
sentences Jon first turned in were impossibly long, crammed full of
clauses and parentheses and second thoughts. But as Jim anticipated, as
the sentence came into focus, so did the play.
Jim decided to hire a dramaturg to work with Jonathan. Dramaturgs
work with playwrights as shapers, advisers and editors. Jon did a lot
of interviews before meeting Lynn Thompson. They hit it off right away.
From the first, Lynn seemed to be on Jon's wave length. She was able to
speak in a voice that sparked Jon's enthusiasm. Jim put the two on a
schedule; Jon would deliver a revised draft by the summer's end.
Rent was to begin rehearsals in the fall.
Jon had found another strong collaborator. Lynn suggested he work
up biographies of the characters, that he write a version of
Rent told through each person's eyes. Her belief was that once
Jon understood the story completely, once he really had the characters
under his belt, the rewriting of the play would come in a simple burst.
They worked through the summer, discovering a structure for
By October they had a new draft. Jon was confident his six years of
work were over. Actors read the script aloud to everyone. Jim and
Michael were both struck by the changes, but they knew they weren't out
of the woods. The characters were sharper, but Jon had done some
structural fiddling, turning much of the show into flashback. The first
act began with Angel's funeral and Mark wondering, "How did we get
here?", with the rest of the story catching up from there. No one was
comfortable with this except the playwright. The Maureen-Joanne
relationship was finally working, but their second act duet was by all
accounts miserable. "One of the worst songs ever written," Michael
remembers with a laugh. "The songs was a straight out cat fight, the
lovers sniping at each other, Maureen telling Joanne, 'You're the
hepatitis in my clam.'"
Jeffrey was also concerned. The show was supposed to go into
rehearsals in six weeks and Rent didn't feel ready to him. "On
the one hand, the new script made a huge, wonderful leap from the
workshop - a gigantic creative stride - but it wasn't there yet. Now
it's late October and we're in casting. And the show starts rehearsing
in December." Jeffrey dashed off some quick, blunt notes on what he
felt need to be changed in Rent before the production could move
Jeffrey's notes were intended for Jim and Michael, but Jon got a
hold of them. What the notes called for was another rewrite. Jon didn't
want to do any more writing. "There was real terror the production
wouldn't happen," Michael remembers. "It was a tense few days. Jon was
very upset and very frustrated. But what it came down to was, we all
want this to be as strong as it can be. No one thinks this is finished,
so we should have another go at it." Jon turned to Sondheim one last
time, and Sondheim reminded him of a key proposition: theater was
collaborative. Part of Jon's job was to take into account what his
collaborators felt. So Jon signed on.
Michael wanted a simplified structure, with a clearer emotional
division between the two acts: "The first act should be much more the
celebration, and the second act should be a lot of the ramifications
and sorrows surrounding these lives." Jon finally quit his job at the
Moondance Diner. His friend Eddie Rosenstein remembers, "After he left
the diner, and he announced that he was a full-time professional
musical playwright, his spirits soared. That's all anybody wants to do
in life, isn't it? A chance to do what they do."
During Jon's rewrites the show moved in casting. Michael wanted a
youthful, sexy cast, and he and Jon leaned toward young performers who
seemed to have some connection with their characters, whose spirit
could add dimensions to the work. The cast seemed to invigorate Jon.
"He was really inspired by this company," Michael says. "We still
needed the Joanne-Maureen song. And Jon really wisely said, 'let me
just sit with these actors, and let me bring you something.' And then
what he brings me is 'Take Me Or Leave Me,' and I'm totally thrilled
out of my mind."
In December, with casting done and rehearsals about to begin, Jon
handed in the final version of Rent. Jon had worked a
succession of 20 hour days. "He had completely cleaned up the
narrative," Jeffrey says, remembering everyone's excitement with this
last creative step. "In December, when I saw the first sing-through
with the full cast, I knew we were in great shape. I gave Jon a hug
and told him, 'you done good.'"
One thing that struck Jim was how tired - even in his excitement -
Jon seemed after pulling off this final rewrite. "But I do think of
theatre as sort of an Olympic event. It's a rare moment in one's life
when you really push way beyond what you think your endurance is.
That's what Jon did." They had the draft of the show everyone had
wanted for three years. And Jon finally delivered to Jim his one
sentence summary of what story Rent told: "Rent is about
a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the
turn of the century."
From December on, it was a quick sprint to the show you've seen [or
at least know and love]. There were a lot of what Jon called
"programming changes": shifting songs from one position to another,
seeing where they fit best. In January, Jim watched a rehearsal with a
group of NYTW board members, and the emotional response to RENT
was extraordinary. "It continued to get even tighter and better through
rehearsals," Daphne Rubin-Vega remembers. Then The New York
Times got wind that a rock musical based on La Boheme was
going to premiere on the 100th anniversary of the original La
Boheme. No one had know this; it was a simple fluke. The night of
the final dress rehearsal, Jon was sick with a sore chest and a fever.
But he took a taxi to Fourth Street, watched the show, and sat for his
interview with the Times. The last thing Michael and Jim
remember saying to him was to take it easy and sleep well; they'd see
him and Lynn in the morning. Jon died an hour later.
After Jon's death, there were few revisions. Lynn, Jim, Michael and
music director/arranger Tim Weil (who would take charge of the show's
musical elements after Jonathan died) would meet and attempt, by
looking over the many drafts of Rent, to decide what changes
Jonathan would have approved. They would put their heads together and
out of their three component visions try to come up with a close
duplication of Jonathan's. When the show premiered, they knew they had
something special on their hands. Jon's death added an explosive,
powerful element to the cast's understanding of the play. "The company
had already come together so well, but that event of Jon dying just
brought us together that much more strongly," Daphne remembers. "It let
us remember that the bottom line is really about what you do with this
experience, because tomorrow isn't promised you. There was no more
powerful way of receiving that message than from someone who was
completely healthy and died. Someone whose life was just beginning."
Jon's friends had to go to his old loft to clean the place out.
His oldest, best loved girlfriend found a diary Jon had kept during his
last years of college. "When I die," he had written, "whenever and
wherever that may be, I wish to be cremated, and I want my ashes to be
thrown to the sunset with music and dancing and crying."
The day of Jon's death, no one at the Workshop was quite sure what
to do. The first performance was scheduled for that evening. Jim
Nicola's first inclination was to cancel, but he knew they needed to do
something for Jonathan's memory. Jim was uneasy. The first act, in
particular, involved a lot of tricky dancing and jumping on tables. It
hadn't been completely rehearsed, and he was afraid there would be
injuries. Eddie Rosenstein urged him to run the whole show full out. By
the evening, Jonathan's friends were streaming into the theatre, his
parents were there, New York Theatre workshop was filled to capacity
with people Jon loved - friends, family and colleagues. Jim decided on
a sing-through - no movement, just songs. Throughout the first act, the
cast was able to hold their seats. But very slowly, they began to rise.
They acted, they danced. "It was incredible and terrible," Anthony
remembers. "It was like we had to do it. We were all sobbing and
crying." The lighting people made their way to the lighting booth; the
sound manager began to pick up his cues. "They couldn't contain
themselves," Eddie remembers. "The audience was reaching out to the
cast. They were crying and cheering. By the second act, it was no
longer contained. It was the full show run full-out, with every line
hit for greater and greater meaning. If emotion could have become a
physical force, the roof would have blown off, the weather would have
changed." The second act ended. There was a huge ovation, the cast
slowly left the stage, and the audience stayed in the theater. No one
was sure what to do. The cast returned and sat down in the front row.
Finally, a single voice called from the audience, "Thank you, Jonathan
Larson," which brought the evening's loudest, final burst of applause.
By David Lipsky
For more information, we highly recommend that you buy the Rent Book (or, as we prefer to call it, the Rent Bible.) Click here to order to the book from Amazon.com, at a 30% discount off the regular price! (Good deal for a good book!)