Before Hamilton became a Broadway smash and a pop-culture phenomenon, with fans passionately memorizing the score and praising its cultural significance, there was Rent — the 1996 hit musical about struggling artists in New York City’s East Village who taught us all to measure our lives in love.
One crucial, and bittersweet, difference between the two beloved productions is that while Lin-Manuel Miranda has become a household name and a bonafide star, Rent’s creator was not able to bask in his show’s success — Larson died suddenly on the very day his show was to begin previews for its Off-Broadway run at the New York Theater Workshop, when he was just 35 years old.
Larson’s death was a devastating blow to the show’s cast and crew, who then had to decide how to continue with that first performance.
“The day we heard that Jonathan Larson died was one of the darkest days that I can remember, ever — but also one of the most galvanizing things that could have happened to us as well,” Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who played Angel in the show’s original cast, recalled.
Heredia remembered being nervous after the cast’s last dress rehearsal, and still not thinking he was getting everything right — but Larson felt otherwise. “Jonathan said, ‘You got it. You finally got it,’ And he was happy. That’s the one thing that I remember: Jonathan was really happy, and he thought, ‘I really have something here,’ and we were all thrilled.”
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The next morning, however, the actor got a call from New York Theater Workshop artistic director Jim Nicola with the news that Larson had died. “I froze. I didn’t know what to say,” Heredia said.
Ultimately, the show did go on, but in a quieter, more private form — it was decided it would be staged as a reading in Larson’s honor. But as the show went on, its lively no-day-but-today spirit could not be contained, and it progressed into a full staging by the show’s second act.
Watch above to hear Heredia tell the story in his own words. Rent, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, is now making stops on a national tour.