Twenty years have gone by since Jonathan Larson died and his musical, the groundbreaking rock opera Rent, lived on. The key players in the musical's creation remember the days leading up to Jan. 25, 1996, and how Rent paved way for a new era on Broadway.
"WE BEGIN ON CHRISTMAS EVE…"
"Our apartment is what you see in Rent," Jonathan Burkhart remembers. He takes his time to think back to the 80s, when he met his best friend (and future roommate) Jonathan Larson, an artist who yearned to change the landscape of Broadway.
"We literally had one extension cord that snaked all the way through the apartment," he continues. "There was no heat except from the oven, and the shower was in the kitchen, and the floors were all f*cked up. The toilet was in its own room, and the floorboards were so rotten that certain boards you stepped on, like pieces of wood, would come out. It was a mess, but you know what I remember — I think I paid $125 a month rent my first six months. This is 1984, and I think the rent went up to like $150 and [then] $200, and I think it was $200 for a long time. It was cheap — f*cking cheap — [even] back then! Mind you, it was a shithole."
Years later, the SoHo apartment Larson shared with Burkhart would come to life — complete with rock 'n' roll posters, folding chairs, metal tables, extension cord and all — at the New York Theatre Workshop. Its inhabitants were much like Burkhart and Larson: a cameraman who'd later "sell out" when cash trumped artistic creation and a musician attempting to finish "one great song" before he goes. (Mark Cohen lies somewhere between the lives of Larson's friends Burkhart, a cinematographer, and documentary filmmaker Eddie Rosenstein; and Larson achieved glory, if only for an instant, seeing his show in its final dress before he died 20 years ago and gifted the American theatre with Rent.)
But, it all began with a man named Billy Aronson, a behind-the-scenes figure in the musical's creation. Although detached from the project early on, it was he who brought the idea to Larson — to re-envision the classic opera La Bohème and set it in the streets of contemporary New York City.
Aronson came to New York in 1983 after studying drama at Yale University. He lived in Hell's Kitchen just up the street from Lincoln Center and would attend opera in his spare time, falling in love with Bohème in particular.
"I had this idea for a Bohème for now — for our generation that had sort of a 'noise' and [that] captured the un-Bohèmeness of it: not sweet and not luscious," says Aronson. "Since I don't write music, I went looking for a composer, and I was affiliated with Playwrights Horizons, so Ira Weitzman, the director of musical theatre there, recommended two composers, one of whom was Jonathan Larson."
Their first meeting was at Larson's apartment in the West Village. Aronson remembers that Larson took him up a fire escape on a hot day to flesh out the idea on the roof, where there was a beach chair and a crate ("I think he had meetings there before," he says).
"You could feel the desire," Aronson says of Larson. "He was kind of messy. His hair was all over the place, but [he was] very passionate. And we were both nervous, I would say. Artists, you know, want a certain… You're used to having total control, and collaboration was kind of scary for both of us, I think, but we went ahead with it."
They liked each other's ideas, and Larson was especially intrigued. "Right off the bat, he said, 'This could be our generation's Hair,' and I had not been thinking along those lines at all. I was thinking of a story [with] a few characters, like Bohème is. He said, 'No, this is Hair for our generation… I've been waiting for a chance to bring the MTV generation,' which he then was calling us, 'to the theatre. Nobody goes to the theatre who likes MTV or who likes rock music, and we have to change that, and this will do it.' It's sort of amazing, looking back how clear-sighted he was about it."
In the early stages of what now is Rent — Larson's passion-project of struggle, strife, life and love — Aronson and Larson worked together. According to Aronson, the song "Rent" was first, with "Santa Fe" (inspired by Aronson's group of friends who'd fantasize about skipping town for Santa Fe) and "I Should Tell You" shortly thereafter.
"I thought he was just really inspired. It was quite thrilling," recalls Aronson. "We put together our little bits of money to make a tape. He said, 'The next thing you do is make a tape.' And, that took longer than we thought — and more money. I think it ended up costing maybe $600 — maybe we each put $300 in — which for me, at that point, I thought, 'We might not make any money on this one, and I don't know this guy that well. Why do I keep writing checks? What a waste of money.'"
Though the cassette tape was completed, with Larson's friend Roger Bart singing on some early demos, Aronson had trouble committing without the promise of cash return. The duo put the project down for a year or two, but Larson was steadfast. He wanted to finish the piece…by himself.
On a cross-country road trip (well, with plans to end up in a small town in southern Texas), Larson told his best friend Burkart of his plans to expand the piece by himself, but the question was, "How do I do it? How do I get this away from Billy, where it's legal, it's proper and, if anything becomes of it, I can compensate Billy?"
Burkhart suggested, "You're going to write him a letter, and the letter is going to be very clear." Larson asked Aronson, "Can I start on my own — going ahead with it?," and Aronson gave the okay.
"I certainly didn't want to see those songs go to waste," Aronson explains, "and he got busy on it. We made an agreement. We had the foresight to put a letter of agreement together between us that if anything happened, I got credit and compensation because he still wanted to use the three songs, and then he went ahead on his own. He would send me tapes and scripts over the years, and it just got better and better. I mean, I was amazed. He was clearly inspired."
"Jonathan Larson was, in some ways, the greatest collaborator and, in many ways, the worst," Burkhart says of his friend. "For years, he was truly flat broke. He didn't have a f*cking penny. Couldn't rub two pennies together because all he did was conduct his life so that he could barely pay the rent and just write music, so he was not aggressive towards working to make money; he was aggressive in his composition and storytelling. And, he wasn't a great collaborator because when there was an opportunity to work with other people, it was either his way or the highway."
Larson was extremely confident in his abilities, oftentimes telling others he knew that he'd change the world with this piece and playing the music to just about anyone who'd listen.
"Jonathan. He was full of himself," says Burkhart. "He'd write a song, and he'd call, and if I wasn't home, he'd play the whole song on my answering machine. 'Dude, I wrote this new song. Check this out,' and he'd sing the whole thing."
However, with great power came great responsibility, and Larson (much like those he inspired, including Lin-Manuel Miranda) was writing like he was "running out of time" — a notion Miranda musicalizes in his hit Hamilton.
"Here we are in our mid-late 20s [in] New York City. We didn't have a lot of money, [but] we went out every weekend," says Burkhart. "We were constantly going to parties and gallery openings and theatre openings, and we partied all the time, except Jonathan would leave early. He had this thing where we'd go to a party — we'd get there around 9 or 10 o'clock — he'd be gone by 10:30-11. Gone. To go home to write music. Every f*cking night. Or he wouldn't go out at all and he'd say, 'Don't go out. Let's just sit and listen to music,' and really what that was was me listening to him play the piano! He lived at his keyboards, and all he did was compose and write. He was prolific." (It should be noted that Burkhart bought Larson a brand-new, state-of-the-art keyboard when he was flat broke.)
At the time his sister, Julie, lived on the west coast, so when the city slept, he had someone awake to call. "I'd pick up the phone, and he would just say, 'Listen,'" she recalls. "And, he would play me whatever it was he'd been working on…"
There was always a sense of urgency, and because Larson was fearless, passionate and confident, he landed himself and his show a spot at Off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop. All it took was for Larson to speak up… until the show could speak for itself.
As New York Theatre Workshop was making a transition from rental space in the West Village to a new company home in 1992 (its current space on 79. E. 4th Street), Larson rode his bike past the theatre as they were doing renovations and thought that it was the perfect location for Rent to come to life. It just so happened that James C. Nicola, the artistic director at NYTW, and his team were looking for a piece that spoke to the East Village in order to honor the existing community and welcome audiences to the new neighborhood.
"Well, it was fortuitous," Nicola says. "He popped his head in and saw his old friend George Xenos, who was our production manager at the time who was overseeing the renovation, and said, 'This is going to be a great space, and this would be great spot for my new musical. What do I do?' George told him to just drop it off at our offices on 42nd Street for me to look at, which he did. So it was a script and a cassette tape of Jonathan playing his electric piano and singing the score, and that was the first encounter. It was pretty clear from that first listen to the tape that this was exactly what we were looking for — a project about the East Village, about the young folks that were living here at the time and about so much more. And [it was written by] this incredibly talented young composer, lyricist and book writer."
From an initial staged reading in 1993 to a two-week workshop in 1994 and its fully staged production in 1996, it was the first musical that New York Theatre Workshop had ever produced.
Producer Jeffrey Seller (now the producing force behind Hamilton) saw that initial reading of Rent in 1993, but his partner Kevin McCollum (the producing force behind Something Rotten!) was unable to attend because he said things had to be taken care of at the office.
"Jeffrey was a friend of his," explains McCollum. "He came back [from the reading], and I said, 'How was it?' And he said, 'It's very messy. It was just long.' And I said, 'Okay,' but he said, 'He's really talented.'"
Another reading, starring Anthony Rapp and Daphne Rubin-Vega and directed by Michael Greif, went up in 1994, and McCollum was able to attend. "I was in the middle of a life transition," he says. "I was going through a separation and divorce, and I was a little shell-shocked for other reasons, and [Jeffrey] said, 'Come with me to this reading tonight. It's this thing I saw a year ago. I hear they've done some work,' so I went down there… I didn't really know what was going on for the first 20 minutes, but there was a lot of energy. About 25 minutes into the show, there's a knock knock knock, and we hear 'Light My Candle.' … That sequence of 8-11 minutes is exactly the version that ended up on Broadway. I turned to Jeffrey, we were in the third row, and I said, 'That's the best piece of musical story telling I've heard' because I knew exactly who those people were, and I was rooting for them. Immediately.
"And, after the first act, Jeffrey took me back and said, 'This is Jonathan.' … And I did one of those cliché things that's been written about. I said, 'I love this! I love this! I got my checkbook! What do you want to do?' And he's leaning against the wall. He goes, 'Do you want to see the second act?' And I said, 'Is it as good as the first? I mean, I don't know what's going on, but this has great energy, and we should really try to do something.' And he said, 'Yeah, I'd love to try to do a production here.' And I [said], 'Fantastic.' And I sat down, and Jeffrey's like, 'You're a nut.'"
Readings and workshops continued leading up to the 1996 production at New York Theatre Workshop, produced by Seller, McCollum and Allan S. Gordon. Throughout the three-year writing process, Larson spent his time at Friends In Deed, a non-profit organization founded by Cynthia O'Neal and Mike Nichols as a response to the AIDS crisis, that would function as the inspiration behind "Life Support."
"I'm very clear about Jonathan because he was so focused," says O'Neal. "He was really there and really listening to everything everybody said. He never spoke in the group, but I just noticed him because the energy coming off of him was so strong. And then one day he said to me, 'Hey, I'm writing this show about AIDS. I'd love for you to hear some of it, and I sent you a tape.' I did a lot of dumb things, but I never took a listen! I'm sure it was a lovely little show…
"Then, one day, just about exactly 20 years ago, I was at my office at Friends In Deed, and Jonathan called me. He said, 'We're rehearsing, and I would just love it if you would come over this afternoon and talk with my cast.' Now, it was freezing cold: sleet, ice, water [surrounding the] curbs [that went] up to your knees, and I thought, 'God, I don't want to do this.' I put it off… My husband, who was an actor, had died just a few months before. And, I remember, [trying] to get out of it. I felt like I heard Patrick. I felt like he said to me, 'Wait a minute. These are young actors, people excited about the theatre, and it's about AIDS. There's only one answer, and the answer is yes.' I made my way over to the New York Theatre Workshop, and I went to the rehearsal… I don't know how long I was there — an hour or maybe an hour and a half — and when I got back to the office, everybody said to me, 'How was it?' And I said, 'Thank God I went.' I didn't hear anybody sing a song, a note of music, but I got it. I got that there was something going on in that room that was extraordinary, and I was so glad I was asked to come, and now I couldn't wait to see the show. I got a sweet note from Jonathan saying, 'Can't wait for you to see it. Thank you so much for coming.'"
O'Neal wasn't the only one who initially shied away from Rent.
"I actually tried to pass on doing Rent," admits casting director Bernard Telsey. "Jim Nicola called me up [because] they were losing their in-house casting director… I had just worked on a musical called I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, a rock opera written by John Adams… That was why [he] called me." Nicola needed someone to cast Rent as well as Doug Wright's play Quills.
"I tried to listen to the demo tape of Rent," Telsey continues, "but I really wasn't interested in listening to the demo tape. I read Quills, and Quills was so good. Literally, I said to Jim, 'Is there any way I could just cast Quills?' That's why [you should] never say no unless you have a reason better than that. And, Jim said, 'Nope. You've got to do both.' I [have now] said, 'Thank you, Jim' for 20 years.
"Everybody knows what Rent is [now, but] back then, nobody knew what Rent was. Nobody wanted that job because [they would be] doing an Off-Broadway musical for under $300 by an unknown composer."
It was always an extensive search to cast Rent. When they were casting the 1994 workshop, director Greif said that they would put up posters at the Pyramid Club, looking for potential Angels and other cast members to fill out the Off-Broadway company of bohemians.
Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Fredi Walker-Browne — then relatively unknowns who have now skyrocketed to superstardom from Rent's success — were the core eight at the show's heart.
And, although there was work to still be done, Rent was almost ready to premiere to the public.
"Jonathan had been sick with what I assumed were flu-like symptoms throughout our tech process," explains director Greif. "There was a number of days that he couldn't be with us in tech because he was recovering… He came in the night of our final dress rehearsal. An interview with the New York Times was scheduled and happened. Jonathan saw the dress rehearsal, and my assumption was, 'Jonathan's getting a little better.'
"Jonathan and Jim and Lynn Thomson, our dramturg, and probably [musical director] Tim [Weil], who was always a part of this process — we all planned to have a morning meeting the following morning, the morning after your dress, to really strategize and talk about what our priorities would be in our first previews, and how we'd get from our first preview to our opening.
"We were having this meeting at the Time Café, and that's a place we often had an early morning meeting [to discuss] the next steps in the musical's development, and I remember first hearing from Lynn that Jonathan had died the previous evening. I can't remember if I actually got to the Time Café or if I heard that news on the way to the Time Café. It was pretty straightforward to know that what Jonathan would want would be for this show to go on. We all knew this show was unfinished. I feel like the show is still unfinished — the people who worked on it most closely know that most — and it certainly would have been different with Jonathan's continued participation."
Brian Carmody, Larson's roommate at the time, was the first to find him. Carmody came home from a night of drinking in the wee hours of the morning, and Burkhart was one of the first people he called.
"I was living, at the time, in the West Village about eight-nine blocks away, and I got dressed," remembers Burkhart. "It was freezing, and I ran down, and there he was dead on the floor. There was a cop standing over his body, and I remember pushing his body with my foot, and then I'd bend down, and I touched his head, and I was like, 'I can't believe he's dead.' Until you witness death — and I don't mean to sound even more morbid, but until you touch somebody who is actually dead, somebody who you know really, really well — you don't know what death is. Not that I know for sure, but it was a moment of sadness. Here's what I could tell you. I cried. I cried for probably six months straight.
"I waited in the apartment until the coroner came and took him away in a black body bag, and it was me and Brian. And, there was a series of phone calls. I was the second phone call. Brian had called Julie Larson, Jonathan's sister, first in Los Angeles, who then called her parents. And, the parents immediately found a flight and were flying themselves to New York. They had a connection in Chicago, and I remember… I'm in the apartment, it's like 9:30 in the morning or 10 o'clock in the morning. I had just gotten off the phone with Jim Nicola at the New York Theater Workshop. And, Jim said to me, 'What do we do? Tonight is the first performance.' And, when I say the show had not gelled, there was still a lot of work… But the show would have gone on had Jonathan not died, but he said, 'What do we do?' And, I said, 'I don't know. I have to talk to the parents, but it seems like the show should happen.'
"I hung up with Jim, and about five-ten minutes later, the phone rang, and it was the Larsons, who were changing planes in Chicago and wanted to know what was going on, and [Jonathan's father] Al said a couple things to me. He said, 'I need to know why my son died,' and I said, 'I'm with you, but there's no autopsy until there's an autopsy.' I said, 'I'm sorry, but Jonathan is still laying on the floor in the kitchen.' Mind you, I'm crying the entire time…"
Burkhart continues through tears, "I remember saying to him, 'I was [just] on the phone with Jim Nicola, and I asked him what do we do about the show,' and Al said very clearly, 'The show goes on tonight. We have to do this show. Do not let it stop.' And, I said, 'Fine. Absolutely.' And, I remember hanging up with Al, and I called Jim Nicola back, and I told him that I talked to Al, and that the show had to go on."
Everyone, including the show's producers, thought that Rent had to go on despite the tragedy.
McCollum recalls, "What Jeffrey and I did that day — I remember it vividly — we took a walk around Bryant Park, and we just said, 'Everybody has to see this show. We have to do this. We don't know why he's dead. We don't know anything. We can't let anyone forget who this guy is…'"
Director Michael Greif was behind the decision to have the show go on that night, but without any staging — an intimate reading and sing-through was held at the theatre on Jan. 25 in memory of Jonathan Larson. But, as it has been very famously reported, the cast broke out into choreography during the Act I finale, "La Vie Bohème," and completed its second act with a fully staged show.
"When we [approached] intermission, they just rebelled," says Nicola. Life was imitating art in more ways than one, and the group of angst-ridden bohemian rockers danced in celebration of Larson's life and work.
"Without consulting with anybody else," Nicola continues, "they just decided amongst themselves, 'We're just going to do it. Never mind just sitting there, we're going to do it,' and it was a room packed with people. It was touch and go whether or not Jonathan's parents — because they were in New Mexico, and they had to get on planes to be here for that — were going to make it, [but] they did, and that was very powerful. It was an incredibly emotional experience to sit through in that room that night."
Larson was gone, but the show had to live on. Nicola had to take the reins on moving forward.
Following the news, "I asked Michael Greif and Tim Weil, the musical director, and Lynn Thomson, who was the dramaturg, to come and sit in my office for a confidential and frank conversation about how we were going to proceed because there was still so much that was undone," Nicola explains. "I was at that point [of] two mind[sets]: feeling like maybe the best way to be honoring the artist that Jonathan was was not for any of us, who were not composers, lyricists or book writers, [to continue its development]. We were amateurs. We had other skills and involvement, but we were not writers. Maybe the path with the most integrity would be to actually bring in someone who was one of those who could help us finish.
"But in the conversation, that [notion] quickly went away because we just didn't see how that could work. We evolved a committee system. Everything that was going to happen from then on out had to be by consensus of the four people in the room. If we felt a bar of music had to be cut or if this piece of musical phrase had to continue twice more that was originally ended, that it would have to be a decision that we all agreed to — these four. We were going to be the ones that probably knew better than anyone else on the planet at the time what his intentions were, and that we would try to do our best to honor his intention."
In Playbill magazine's 1996 interview with Weil, he said, "We knew we could do a certain amount of editing without betraying Jonathan's conception. And we took a look at earlier drafts of Rent so that, if something had to be added, we could use his own material. None of our own writing was incorporated, by any stretch of the imagination."
"We did a real editing process after Jonathan died," Greif explains, "but I also have said… 'Take Me Or Leave Me' was the last song written for the show. It came in about two weeks before we previewed, like a week before some sort of tech process, and it's a great song, and it maybe is the best song in the show. It's just extraordinary to imagine what songs might have continued to come out of him during that preview process because he was fast. He would write a song very quickly, and there were a lot of songs percolating around his head. I had no doubt that there would be a lot of other great material in the Rent that people would know if Jonathan had lived to keep working on that show."
Greif says that Nicola and the New York Theatre Workshop creatives were very instrumental in developing the work. With trying to shape the piece for life beyond Off-Broadway, all were trying to respect Larson's desires. Little did they know that Rent would evolve into a hit and, eventually, a phenomenon… and that Broadway would be the only place for it to go.
"No one had ever seen that before ever in the history of theatre," says Burkhart, "so each day there was an awakening with a new audience, and word-of-mouth was just exploding out of that theatre, and each day the ticket sales were going faster and faster and faster."
The New York Times review by Ben Brantley hit papers Valentine's Day, and it was a signed and sealed love letter to theatre, calling Rent an "exhilarating, landmark rock opera."
"We had no choice," producer McCollum says about the transfer. "I always said, 'The problem is we couldn't keep the talent with Off-Broadway economics…' People kept saying, 'It's a downtown story,' and I kept reminding them, 'It's inspired by La Bohème. It's an epic tale of love conquering all. What are you talking about?' Jeffrey and I were fearless because it was more than a show. We walked around that park, and we said we're going to do everything we can to get as many people to see this show as possible. It was very clear… We're like, 'We have to put this on Broadway. We must.' And there was no theatre really available to us. The theatre we wanted had a show going in there. We tried to make a deal there but they weren't going to move the other show. And there were two theatres that were dark because the city said 'no, they're uninhabitable.' One being the Nederlander.
"Everybody had a higher purpose, and it was to get Jonathan's work heard and seen. And there was no looking back. It was an assault on the impossible. That's why it became possible."
Things moved quickly. Following its run at the Workshop, Rent moved into the Nederlander and previewed on Broadway April 16, 1996. It opened 13 days later on April 29.
"It felt like both whirlwind and slow motion for me," says Rapp, clearly scanning his memory. He had just reunited with many fellow cast members at his BroadwayCon convention and took time out of the workday to look back on Larson. "All of it is so vivid, partly because of trauma. When we [would] show up at the New York Theatre Workshop, and Vanity Fair is coming to do a photo shoot, it's this surreal thing happening at the center of what is also happening, which is this personal grief."
It was a flurry of emotions for all. The musical was getting national attention, with glowing reviews, magazine spreads, television appearances and even airtime on the radio with the iconic show tune "Seasons of Love" — an unprecedented feat, considering that show tunes rarely go mainstream. Before that, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)" from Hair was among the few musical numbers to do so.
"We all walked through the fire together," Rapp said in an interview before coming back to Broadway with Menzel and Greif in If/Then. "Sometimes, in crisis, people can really fall apart or it could really splinter people off... But it was like the opposite thing happened for all of us. It brought us even stronger together, so that foundation is always there."
Rubin-Vega described the gang as "an inseparable posse… Idina and Adam and Jesse and Anthony and Taye… We were all like, 'Go see Rent! Go see Rent!' We were like a graffiti bunch of kids in the Village just going, 'Hey everybody, go see Rent!' [We were] very young and silly and fun, and we had so much energy! I don't know where that energy f*cking came from, but we could hang out all night, get up the next day, do press, do this, do that, do the show, hang out all night, get up the next day, do this, do that all over again. It was fun!
"I remember Taye, when we were taking photographs in front of Chelsea Piers on opening night on Broadway… It was like the big flash pops of paparazzi, and Taye's face — this ear-to-ear grin like, 'Oh my God, guys! This is happening!' And, when I think of him then and I think of him now, that makes me f*cking laugh!"
But, laughter was often accompanied by tears.
"I never could celebrate it because of Jonathan's death," McCollum admits. "It'd always come at a great loss. I think it was wildly unfair that he was cut out of enjoying what he had created."
Along with sadness, most were also angry. "When I got that terrible phone call," says Walker-Browne, "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."
On opening night — much like at the first preview performance downtown at NYTW — the cast dedicated the show to its writer. Like at the top of every show the actors flooded the stage, but before Rapp began his opening monologue he said, "We dedicate this performance, and every performance of Rent, to our friend Jonathan Larson." It seemed strange to think of doing this nightly, Rapp explains, but fitting for the occasion.
Rapp recounts: "Because it was already such a celebrated success Off-Broadway, when it opened on Broadway, it was a pure celebration… Michael had pulled me aside, and he said, 'I would like to start the show with a dedication to Jonathan.' I might have brought it up to him if he hadn't brought it up to me, but we tended to be of like minds about these sort of things anyway. I was just really honored to do it. I felt it was really important and really appropriate, and so [the audience] had all stood when we walked out on stage, and then they stood again for a very long time, and then they sat, and we began. To not do it would seem strange, too. Everyone there knows that he wasn't there, but there is a way to do it that's right, and it was simply to say that we dedicate this performance to him forever. And, I said our friend. He's our friend."
Two days after Cy O'Neal, the founder of Friends In Deed, attended the Rent rehearsal Larson had invited her to, she went into work and found a note in her mailbox telling her that Jonathan Larson had died. She attended the sing-through Jan. 25.
"Boy, was it clear what a loving and loved man Jonathan Larson was," she says. "'How do you measure? Measure in love.' That was the first time I heard any of those lyrics. It totally blew me away. It was so thrilling… Jonathan didn't tell me that there was a support group in the show… I had no idea. It was just staggering. There were Friends In Deed phrases, things we'd say all the time: 'No day but today.'"
Larson had been absorbing stories at Friends In Deed. "One night when Jonathan was [at Friends In Deed]," says O'Neal, "a man raised his hand — a young man who I never saw before—and he said, 'I don't really have a problem about dying, but will I lose my dignity?' [Seeing that come to life on stage] was as powerful and moving a moment as I will ever have in my life."
Reflecting, his friend Burkhart says, "Literally, his heart ripped open. His aorta ripped, and he bled out into his chest, and when you hear the songs that he's written about giving to your art, and he actually has a line in there about your heart ripping or your heart breaking, it's very poetic; it's very painful."
Certain cast and creatives (and certainly critics) have always questioned whether or not the show would have been as successful had Larson not died so famously and tragically.
"One of the terrible things that got said in London, when we went there, by a couple critics who were a little grumpy about the show — and people could be grumpy about the show, and that's not the point — but they said the best career move Jonathan Larson ever made was to die, which is just offensive," says Rapp. "It's also wrong. It's just a lie. Yes, his death brought attention to the piece…but if the piece itself hadn't had what it had, then people would have just been like, 'Oh, that's sort of a bummer. This talented guy had a potential.' Clearly, Lin-Manuel is alive, and it is getting the same kind of attention for very similar reasons, so in another way that sort of helps [in] putting that terrible trope to bed, too.
"When we did the reunion panel [at BroadwayCon] and the signing afterwards, there was a 14-year-old kid who drew a graphic novel — really put together a heartfelt, passionate work that took her who-knows-how-many hours to put together. She wasn't alive when [Jonathan Larson's death] happened. Yes, I'm sure that's part of the story that she knows, and she hears the music, she does the research, and she learns that part of the story, and it can cause certain things in the show to resonate, of course, but it's absurd that people would ever attribute that to the reason why the show took off like a rocket ship."
See the cast's backstage pics from the original Broadway run of Rent:
Check Out These Amazing Rarely-Seen Backstage Pics From Rent
Rent went on to win the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, among many other awards and accolades. It closed on Broadway Sept. 7, 2008, after a 12-year run and 5,123 performances, making it the tenth longest-running Broadway show. Countless productions have been done all over the world, and the musical is adored by many.
Aronson, the man with the original concept (who is credited in the Playbill with Original Concept/Additional Lyrics), says, "I wish I had been in on the whole process now, of course, in retrospect. Although, I'd hate to think… Suppose I had changed it?! I love the way it turned out."
Greif and others who collaborated with Larson think that the late artist would still be writing if he were alive. "I think he would be really happy, and he'd be really busy working," says Greif. "I think that he would probably…very quietly recognize his big influence and his big inspiration, but I think mostly, he'd be very busy working on new material. That's what he loved to do."
Of course, Burkhart says that Larson would probably not know what to do with the money, since he was so accustomed to being penniless. ("This is the guy who would literally buy one pair of shoes a year… If he were around and the show made a lot of money, someone would have to teach him, 'You could buy two pairs of shoes, Jonathan!'")
But, above all, his collaborators, colleagues and friends believe that he would have kept trying to change the world with his artistic voice.
"Everybody had a higher purpose; we were no longer doing a show," says McCollum. "We were breathing life into the voice of a young man who had much more to say, and we had to say it with all the muscularity and clarity we could. There was no room to be afraid."
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)