Twenty years ago today, Rent opened on Broadway. The show transferred from the New York Theatre Workshop downtown to the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street; the buzz was insane—think today and Hamilton. But one person was missing from it all: the show’s creator, composer and lyricist.
Some mistakenly believe that Larson died of AIDS, simply because of Rent’s deep connection to the HIV crisis and those affected by it. Larson did not have HIV; he died of an aortic dissection. Months after he had passed away, the Larson family discovered that it was a consequence of undiagnosed Marfan syndrome.
Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue, which holds together all the cells in the body—organs, tissues, etc. Signs of the disorder (though not all-inclusive) include a tall and thin body type, chest sinks in or sticks out, a curved spine and long arms, legs and fingers. Upon Laron’s death, his father, Al Larson, became a champion for education about the disorder that affects approximately 1 in 5,000 people. He had the pass out cast literature at the end of performances. They raised money for the Marfan Foundation. Twenty years later, on April 14, 2016, the foundation honored Larson at its annual gala and in celebration of Rent's 20 years.
“Marfan is nationally known because of what the Larsons did in the light of their son’s death,” says Rent’s original Joanne, Fredi Walker Browne. “Rent is a lifesaver, in general. I have many young people coming up to me all the time. They say they felt free enough to be themselves through Rent, they stopped thinking about suicide because of Rent. It was already saving lives and now, literally, saving lives by bringing attention to a little-known disease.”
Before Larson, Daphne Rubin-Vega (Rent’s original Mimi) had never heard of Marfan, but Larson’s posthumous diagnosis got her thinking about another life lost too young: her father. “My father was diagnosed with heart attacks, but in these little provinces in the interior of Panama. How do we know he didn’t have Marfan? My dad was a lanky guy, and he died at 37,” she says. “It hit me that Marfan was something that we need to learn more about.”
Rubin-Vega and Browne were on site that night to join members of the ever-expanding Rent family in a performance of selections from Rent, including “Seasons of Love.” In the year of the 20th anniversary, there has been a lot of reflection and reliving of that time. But Browne says she doesn’t think she ever stopped living it. “It’s not a piece that leaves you easily,” she says. “It was such a life-changer, not just a career-changer. I did that show for 23 months. … It changed everything. It changed the entire outlook on life.”
Still, while it molded her, and Browne continues to workshop the piece with new productions, she can’t bring herself to ever listen to it. “It’s funny,” she laughs through teary eyes. “I never listen to it. I can’t listen to it.”
The show, the experience, the story is so deeply personal, it’s practically part of her skin. While Browne didn’t know Larson that well personally, she feels he knew her. “My association with Jonathan was so brief. He was a writer; I was an actor,” she says. “The only thing I can say is ‘Take Me or Leave Me,’ being one of the last songs he wrote, has been one of the most special things ever. … When I walked in [to rehearsal] and heard that music, I was like, ‘When did you get to know me like that?’”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.