The tragedy of Rent’s debut has become an American theatre legend. On the morning of the show’s first preview, its young creator, Jonathan Larson, died when his aorta tore open. In an instant, his family was overwhelmed by sorrow, even as they were stunned by a runaway hit. “It was like the Hamilton of its day,” says Julie Larson, Jonathan’s sister, and his estate’s executor. “We were completely unprepared, even without the attached grief. We had no time to grieve—any grieving we did was in the public.”
A work of art may be a property that’s inherited by an heir, but it’s also an orphan that’s adopted by the bereaved. Even as they mourn their loss, the family of the deceased faces difficult decisions about how to let the piece grow and mature without its creator, and how to memorialize their own lost parent, child, sibling or spouse. Even 20 years later, Larson wonders how best to honor her brother and his work.
Her tentative answer has been that “people should be creative in what they do, but in the confines of the script.” Larson recalls one staging that, in her view, overstepped her brother’s vision and his estate’s prerogative. “There was one production somewhere in Europe,” says Larson, “and in their version Mimi died, like in La Boheme. That was not at all what my brother would’ve wanted.”
Broadway producer John Breglio started his career as an entertainment lawyer, giving him a unique perspective on an executor’s responsibilities. “The most common error is being [too] protective of the property,” he explains. “They don’t understand that any art is a living, breathing thing.” When his friend Michael Bennett passed away in 1987, Breglio assumed the management of his estate, including A Chorus Line.
Breglio and his creative partners had felt strongly that Bennett’s concept was the “correct” way to produce the show. But just recently, director Donna Feori approached him wanting to mount A Chorus Line at the Stratford Festival in Ontario—on a thrust stage, not the usual proscenium. Breglio decided, “Let’s flex the muscles of the show a little bit, see how it works. So I went out to Stratford and spent a few days with Donna.… She came up with what I thought was a creative solution, and it got spectacular reviews.”
Though the creator’s original vision is important, it can be offset by a need to protect the long-term success of the work. Ted Chapin has managed the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate for three decades. He notes that some directors take so many liberties with the piece they’ve licensed that, from the estate’s perspective, they may violate the integrity of the work. “If somebody wants to use ‘My Favorite Things’ for a television commercial and wants to change the lyrics, there’s an argument to be made that it is detrimental to ‘My Favorite Things’ in the show for which it was written.’
But Chapin also recognizes that part of his job is taking risks in order to keep the plays fresh and in the public eye. He mentions the 2002 revival of Flower Drum Song, when he worked with David Henry Hwang and Rodgers’ daughter, Mary, to update the Chinese-American musical for the 21st century. “Mary Rodgers was very straightforward. If she didn’t like something, she’d tell you right off the bat. But she was intrigued by this, we all were.” Though the show was successful out-of-town, it closed quickly on Broadway. Chapin notes that the book did earn a Tony nomination. “But even though the story David Henry Hwang put together for Flower Drum Song was more interesting and more dramatically appropriate than the one that was done originally, the score wasn’t the right score. [It] had been written for something else.”
Chapin agrees with Breglio that family and loved ones can take better care of an artist’s estate than lawyers or corporations. Breglio says, “It’s a matter of insecurity, particularly with banks and trustees. They’re so conservative, they don’t want to take any risk, so they would rather say no than yes. I understand that, but it’s not an enlightened way of dealing with copyrights.” Chapin believes that the creators’ children, Mary Rodgers and James Hammerstein, had an added advantage. “Since both were creative artists in their own right, sometimes they were like, ‘My father’s not around to make this decision, so let’s do it this way.’”
When Jonathan Larson’s family inherited a massive hit amid personal tragedy, they had no experience in show business, so they sought guidance from his collaborators and friends. But early on, Julie also found it tempting to ask what her brother would’ve done in this situation. “The answer is he wouldn’t have had a clue, because Rent became so big so quickly! He would’ve been calling us asking, ‘What do I do?’” Over the two decades since his passing, she and her family have learned to be flexible. “All I can say is, when we’re approached with something, we just try to make as good as a decision as we can, knowing that some people might like it, and some people might not like it.”
Watch Julie Larson and some of Rent’s original cast and creative team members discuss the show at the 20th anniversary panel at Broadwaycon 2016: