How do you measure the life of a cultural phenomenon? When Rent opened on Broadway in 1996, the story of young artists dealing with poverty and AIDS in fin-de-20th-siècle New York City shook the blue-haired theater scene — and spawned a cult of obsessive repeat visitors known as Rentheads. But from the premature death of creator Jonathan Larson to the launching of its stars, the rock opera’s journey to the Great White Way was itself an unforgettable tale. In the final months of the Tony-winning show’s 12-year Broadway run, we asked Rent‘s original artistic team to look back at its extraordinary seasons of celebration, mourning, and — yes — love.
Larson was a struggling composer — and expert diner waiter — with a couple of shows under his belt when, in 1989, he began updating Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème. Replacing tuberculosis with AIDS, and setting the story in Manhattan’s still-seedy Alphabet City, Larson spent seven years shaping Rent.
Al Larson, Jonathan’s father: He told me he was going to do a modern-day version of La Bohème, and I told him, ”If you screw around with that music, I’ll kill ya.”
Jeffrey Seller, producer: I met Jonathan in 1990, when I saw the first incarnation of Boho Days, his warm-up act for Rent. It was his autobiographical story of what it’s like to be an artist in New York City, turning 30, unable to pay the bills, and asking, ”How in the world do I exist when all I want to do is write rock musicals that no one wants to produce?” And he was expressing it with these great pop songs that just totally got under your skin. It was visceral. And I just knew. This artist was speaking for me, even though I had never met him before. I wrote him a letter the next day saying, I want to produce your musicals.
Jim Nicola, artistic director, New York Theatre Workshop: We had just moved into this neighborhood [on 4th Street between Bowery and 2nd Avenue] in ’92. Jonathan decided it was the perfect space, so he sent Rent to us. The songs I heard on that first rough tape were so clearly superior to anything I had been hearing to that point from composers.
Seller: The first reading I saw in the spring of 1993 was pretty rocky. It wasn’t a play yet. It was a collage of songs about life in the East Village. It had a great opening song, ”Rent.” It had a couple other songs in there — ”Today for You,” ”Seasons of Love.” It had the fever, but it didn’t have the narrative. And then he invited me to the staged reading that Michael Greif directed, in November of ’94.
Michael Greif, director: When he was granted a Richard Rodgers Award and they were looking to put together a workshop production, I was asked if I would be interested in directing it. I responded really heartily to Jonathan’s story about these young people who were coping with HIV in a moment when I knew a lot of people who were also coping with HIV. I liked how queer-positive it was, as well.
Seller: Michael discovered that the way for him to stage it was through these metal tables and folding chairs. There was a band platform on the right side of the stage, and there were these tables and chairs on the left side. And I’m sure Anthony [Rapp, who played Mark] was wearing the same scarf. [’94] was the first time we saw ”Light My Candle.” I came with my business partner, Kevin, and we knew we were in the midst of something groundbreaking. It was Daphne Rubin-Vega singing ”Light My Candle” on that stage, and that was everything.