*first published in November 2021
In late May 1996, I dragged my mother along to see a new Broadway production with me, which had premiered less than a month ago and was hailed as the biggest phenomenon of the year. Rent did not – at the time – have any famous actors or composers. But his energy to transform the opera La Bohème into a rock opera, current and in New York, was a huge hit. Behind this passion was a tragic story. Its author, Jonathan Larson, died on the opening night of a heart tumor. He was only 35 years old. He never knew the success he fought so hard to achieve. His story is finally being told in the Tick Tick Boom movie, with Andrew Garfield.
Jonathan devoted himself to art from an early age, participating in his school’s band and theater and going on to study Dramatic Arts in college. A talented composer, he was obsessed with creating musicals. After graduation, he moved to the bohemian part of New York, the Village shared an apartment with friends. Success, however, did not come quickly. For nearly 10 years, he worked as a waiter while still trying to get his chance as an author. It was at the Moondande Diner that he met some of the actors who later joined the cast of Rent, such as Jesse L. Martin. But before his greatest work, for which he was posthumously awarded both Tony and Pulitzer prizes, Jonathan wrote Tick Tick… Boom, is an autobiographical rock monologue that portrayed all the rejections he faced in his career and, in particular, his failure to produce the piece Superbia.
The success of Tick Tick Boom helped him land several works, but his life’s project had been in his head since 1988 when a friend suggested updating La Bohème. Jonathan suggested the name of the musical, Rent, and that it takes place precisely in the East Village, in the environment where he lived with his friends. The character of Idina Menzel (that’s right, I saw her debuting) was inspired by an ex-girlfriend of Jonathan’s. All the songs – as we can see later – have a lot of Jonathan’s life.
The first readings of Rent began in 1993 and took 3 years until the off-Broadway debut. Jonathan died the day before and the cast, scarred by the tragic death, made a pact to move forward in honor of the author. It was such an absolute success that in a few weeks the production was transferred to Broadway, where all the stars of the time went to check out the phenomenon.
Jonathan Larson died at home, in the early hours of January 25, 1996. For days he had been experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath, and nausea, but the tests did not detect anything wrong and the diagnosis was stress. Doctors now believe he suffered from Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disease that affects the heart, causing the aortitis to dilate. Had he been diagnosed, there was time for surgery and he might have survived.
The film, directed by Lin Manuel Miranda features Andrew Garfield dancing and singing, something he hasn’t done before. It won’t be about Rent, but about the period when Jonathan was looking for his voice.
Rent entered Broadway history as one of the greatest hits ever written for the stage. The play became a movie in 2011. With the prospect of a life running out of time, it is exciting that some of the songs speak precisely of urgency and immediacy. And as Jonathan told us, no day like today.