His dying words have been heard around the world. Jonathan Larson’s rock-opera blockbuster, Rent — completed shortly before his senseless death, of an aortic aneurysm, on Jan. 25 — had the critics rhapsodizing, the crowds lining up, movie studios clamoring, and the theater world reeling. Inspired by Puccini’s La Boheme, Larson, who was 35 at the time of his death, recast the 19th-century tale of tormented outsiders with the 20th-century denizens of Manhattan’s East Village — disenfranchised artists and musicians grappling with homelessness and AIDS. In doing so, Larson brought Broadway up-to-date, boldly and deftly marrying the modern urban zeitgeist to the hopeful, life-affirming traditions of the American musical.
”It was always Jonathan’s dream to bring his voice to the theater,” says Julie Larson McCollum, his sister. ”Jonathan had very big dreams.”
But Larson’s legacy is less dream fulfillment than full-fledged phenomenon. The show was awarded both the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an achievement unmatched since A Chorus Line high-kicked its way onto the stage two decades ago. And not since Chorus Line has a cast of unknowns seemed so ripe for overnight stardom; Daphne Rubin-Vega, who plays the HIV-positive heroine, Mimi, has already signed with Mercury, and Idina Menzel, who plays spunky lesbian Maureen, has signed with Hollywood Records.
But Rent itself is the real star — inspiring a funky clothing line (sold at Bloomingdale’s) and being wooed by Hollywood. Before Larson’s estate decided to go with Robert De Niro and Miramax, a half dozen studios came courting for the film rights. (Dramaturge Lynn M. Thomson, who helped Larson shape the show, has filed a suit against the estate, seeking 16 percent of the estate’s share of the profits.)
An emigrant from White Plains, N.Y., to Manhattan, Larson waited tables during the seven years it took to bring Rent to life. ”He was lousy at sports,” jokes his sister. ”So there was nothing else for him to do…. Early on we were given a sense of social awareness and a love for theater. I think Jonathan tried to combine the two.” In January, before Rent opened and made him famous, Larson went to doctors for chest pains; two hospitals have since been fined for failing to diagnose the condition that killed him.
Rent’s detractors will tell you that the show owes its success to sentiment. ”That makes me crazy,” says Anthony Rapp, who stars as the work-obsessed Mark, a character Larson modeled on himself. ”The play is such a cathartic, healing experience.” In truth, Rent proves worthy of the hype, as demonstrated by its consistently sold-out performances and strong repeat business. And Larson earned his accolades. By bravely standing by a genre his generation had all but forgotten, Larson left behind a masterpiece. ”He was never afraid to say, ‘I’m going to change the face of musical theater,”’ says Rapp. ”That was something he took as a given.”