May 30, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT
We gave it an A

If that notion brings to mind candy red and clover green photos, brain-numbing text, and Shirley Jones in a gingham jumper, what a thrill awaits you when you open up Rent by Jonathan Larson, a smart, comprehensive account of the creation of the La Boheme-inspired rock opera. Rent itself, a musical about a microcosmic group of Manhattan’s East Village denizens dealing with AIDS and homelessness, sent a jolt of now through Broadway’s staid halls when it opened last year (it also picked up a Pulitzer Prize, numerous Tonys, head-spinning revenues, and a movie deal), so it’s not at all surprising that a book on this show would be so sharp. What is surprising is that the book often seems more compelling and moving than the musical itself.

Part of the story, of course, already has been enthusiastically chronicled by the media: On the eve of Rent‘s first Off Broadway performance in 1996, its 35-year-old composer, Jonathan Larson, unexpectedly died of an aortic aneurysm. Yet the book is not a syrupy tribute nor a grandiose thumb sucker about the greatness of his work; it is, rather, a beautifully designed portrait of a young man and his artistry. In the format of a scrapbook that begins with Larson’s idyllic Jewish middle-class childhood in White Plains, N.Y., writers Evelyn McDonnell and Katherine Silberger, along with art director Drew Hodges, tell the story through family snapshots, notes that Larson left behind, and reminiscences from his relatives, roommates, friends, and colleagues.

”I was changing his diaper,” recalls Larson’s father, ”so he had to be pretty young, and he started singing ‘Yellow Bird.’ In tune.” His sister remembers: ”He was not a saint. He could be annoying and frustrating and pigheaded.” These voices and others trace various bits of Larson’s journey: his early days struggling in Manhattan, dishing scrambled eggs at the Moondance Diner; his work with the AIDS charity Friends in Deed — an endeavor that deeply influenced his work; the day he quit his job to work on Rent full-time at the New York Theatre Workshop, the downtown venue where the show was rewritten and developed.

The comments and pictures reveal not only how Rent was born, but how its composer became a man. For Larson, that meant learning the difference between polemics and art and discovering for himself the value of compromise. ”The last time I spoke to him was in December [1995],” recalls his mentor, Stephen Sondheim, whom Larson called for advice during Rent‘s development. ”He was learning how to swallow his artistic pride and collaborate. He felt mixed about the show because of the compromises he’d made. He felt pleased with himself for growing up.”

Eventually, the chronicle makes its way to the stage, with Rent — Larson’s legacy — rendered in urgent photos in both color and black and white. Testaments to the Rent phenomenon follow: the Newsweek cover; Julie Larson McCollum accepting a posthumous Tony award for her brother; snapshots of cast members — former nobodies — hobnobbing with the likes of David Geffen, Barbara Walters, and Cher. While the writers state that ”it’s hard not to think of this story, ultimately, as a tragedy,” the book feels more like a triumph for both Larson and the reader. The voices of those who knew him eventually give way to the complete script and lyrics to Rent, with which the subject speaks eloquently for himself. A

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