Twenty years ago, the theatre world lost one of its greatest writers, Jonathan Larson, whose career was just about to take off — as his groundbreaking musical Rent had just finished its dress rehearsal and would finally premiere to the public at New York Theatre Workshop Jan. 25, 1996.
That night, the show went on — although more privately than intended. The cast mourned the loss of Larson (who died that morning of an aortic dissection) and read and sang through the show, breaking out into full staging during the musical's second act. The official first preview then debuted on Jan. 26, 1996. Members from the cast now look back on their friend and collaborator.
Look for more Playbill coverage on Rent, as we celebrate the musical that changed the face of contemporary musical theatre all week.
Anthony Rapp, Mark Cohen
[Jonathan was a friend] just by virtue of the fact of him inviting us to his home and not in a formal way… It wasn't like showing up on your best behavior. It was, "Welcome to my house for a peasant's feast. Bring your food. We'll have drink and food and sit and commune and share. This is my home, and it's your home, and you are my friend." And, he gave a toast in which he said, "This is a show about my friends, about my life, and you are my friends." That alone… No writer has ever done that. I've had friendly relationships with different writers, different moments…but it's a different thing to literally welcome us collectively and intentionally make sure that we knew that we were a part of his life — that this wasn't just a job.
It was collaborative, too. When I was on the set of "Twister" in Oklahoma, he called me up and played, really excitedly as he did. I'd learned after the fact that he did that all the time with all of his friends. He had just written a version of "What You Own," and he played it for me over the phone, and it was really exciting to be included in that. We also talked about the fact like he had a crush on my friend that was an actress that I knew. And then he never really had the guts to tell her, and that was one of the last conversations he and I had… I talked about it in my book ["Without You"]. In the little foyer of the New York Theatre Workshop, he had his little coffee cup, and we were just sort of talking, and he was feeling shy about that. She was one of the people I called when he died because I didn't know who else might know that they knew each other.
Fredi Walker-Browne, Joanne Jefferson
I keep a picture of Jonathan — I have a classroom in one of the little schools I work in in New Jersey. One of my classes is in Matawan, NJ, and I'm on the shore, and I have my own studio in Neptune [NJ]. I teach master classes all over the country, and I carry and keep a picture of Jonathan everywhere I teach because I want him to see, and I want him to watch. I can only imagine what he'd be saying when the parents of people who were sleeping on the street bring me their kids to study. I'm like, "This is crazy." So I'm hoping that he's seeing all… That's why I put him there to make sure he sees it because I want him to see it: "Look what you did. Look what you gave us." All I can say is that I don't know what he would say, but I'm hoping that he loves it. I hope that he's seeing it all.
When the [original] sitzprobe happened, [I thought], "This is a hit! This really is a hit!" And then, when I got that terrible phone call [that Jonathan died], I was mad because I was like, "Dude! We didn't need that. We would have done this without that!" It may not have gone stratospheric, but we would have done it. I was so mad — just hurt, mad, sad, all of it. But the one thing I [thought] was like, "Damn." Because I knew what was going to happen after that. I'm no fool. Interviews. The Times. The subject matter of the show. Oh my God, I knew it. I said, "We're going to be the biggest hit ever."
Darius de Haas, understudy for Benjamin Coffin III, Angel Schunard, and Tom Collins
Unfortunately, I didn't get to work with Jonathan because when I was hired he had [already] passed away. (I officially came in toward the end of the Off-Broadway run, and I had been hired for the Broadway transfer.) I always felt his father, Al, ensured we all felt like we were part of the family, and through him I got the strongest sense of Jonathan. I love Al Larson. I admired the creative team's ability as a whole to persevere and uphold the integrity and heart of Rent, as in hindsight I realized they must have all been in shock at all the success it had and not having Jonathan there. It had to be very bittersweet, but I've never known a cast that worked harder to give everything they had every night. Daphne Rubin-Vega singing "Goodbye Love" killed me every night. Doing the show was like a prayer in a way.
Rodney Hicks, Paul and others
Every time Jesse Martin sang the lyrics, "Throw down the key," it always reminded me of one of my favorite Jon Larson memories of when I worked with him before Rent on his show Blocks in February of 1995, with Anthony Rapp and Yassmin Alers. I called from the pay phone across the street, and he opened his window and threw down the key. Life imitating art. Gets me every time, even to this day.
I will never forget how Jon sat during rehearsal in his chair. One leg over the other, and I remember taking notice how he watched and listened to everything. It was intense, yet so full of love.
Yassmin Alers, Swing
I auditioned for Jonathan when they were seeing people for the downtown run of Rent. Within minutes of singing, I was given a recording of "Out Tonight," and ten minutes to learn and perform it. During my callback, I completely forgot the melody of the song and went into "how do I save this audition" mode. I threw myself on the floor, tossed my hair back and forth and proceeded to gyrate all over the stage with reckless abandonment. It was a true out-of-body experience. I remember seeing the smile on Jonathan's face when I was done. I was given a callback for the following day and was unable to make it, due to my work schedule. Although at the time it was just a small, Off-Broadway show, I sensed that missing the audition was something I would regret.
Gwen Stewart, Mrs. Jefferson and others
I remember one day when Jonathan sat down to eat lunch with those of us who didn't go out for lunch. He had his Playbill from the opera La Bohème. He told us how the opera was an inspiration to write Rent, bringing the story into the current time and addressing current issues. He loved this opera and wanted to share it with us. I had never seen La Bohème, so I was excited to see it with Jonathan and the rest of the cast. We never got the chance to do that with him. A few years later La Bohème was on Broadway, and I made sure that I got a ticket before it ended its short run. I saw it and felt a connection to Jonathan, seeing what he saw that helped birth Rent.
Gilles Chiasson, Steven and others (understudy for Roger and Mark)
I remember standing at a urinal in the bathroom at the New York Theatre Workshop. Jonathan was at the urinal next to mine. Yes, we were peeing. "Jonathan," I said, "I think you're going to change the face of musical theatre." And he said, "I know." I loved him in that moment: so confident. I admired his confidence.