Joyful Celebration in the Face of Death: Jonathan Larson’s Rent

A while back, I saw a Facebook post where some theatre folk were sharing their theater culture’s pre-show traditions. These are always wildly different, but invariably bizarre, fun, and full of energy. The comment that made me stop and think was one about a high school’s pre-show activities for their production of Rent. The poster said they typically did some fun sort of hype-up activity, but didn’t do it for their more serious shows– Rent included– because it wasn’t appropriate.

This took me off-guard. Sure, Rent is a serious show, but it’s never one that I’ve considered so overly serious that any celebration beforehand is bad. In fact, after some thought, I’d wager even the opposite- that Rent is serious, and you must celebrate. The seriousness of Rent isn’t the most important part of it. Rent is about much more than dying of AIDS and battling drug addiction. These are present and powerful entities in the show, but they are never the most important piece. Rent is, at its core, a celebration. Rent’s message is not one of sorrow and regret, but one of celebration in spite of, and even of, death itself.

To fully see this aspect of Rent, I think it’s important to start at the root. The root here is Jonathan Larson. 

Jonathan Larson’s works all have some similarities. First of all, Larson was as much a fan of the broadway theaters his parents took him to as a child as he was of the rock scene exploding around him in his youth. His works blend these passions: his vision of the rock musical lead Jonathan Larson to introduce himself, as described in the coffee table book, by saying, “I’m the future of musical theatre.”

Second, Larson lived– and worshipped– the “bohemian” life. He had spent significant time living in run-down, one-room apartments in NYC. Anthony Rapp talks a bit about Larson’s apartment situation in his memoir Without You: Larson had to throw down the key from a window, since the building had no way to buzz in visitors, and his bathtub was in the kitchen. Larson and his friends would host Christmastime “peasant’s feasts” in this rundown apartment, hosting revolving groups of friends who couldn’t go home for the holidays for huge potluck meals. Larson glorifies this lifestyle in his most popular works– Tick Tick BOOM’s cast recording includes a song called “Boho Days”, where Larson recounts essentially autobiographical details of living in a horrible, dirty, crowded, and wonderful apartment. Rent is, in every sense, a serenade to the artists and alternatives struggling to keep up their passion, and survive, too. 

Larson’s works are almost all autobiographical in some sense. Indeed, many memorable aspects of Rent come directly from Larson’s life. The project began as a collaboration, but Larson’s drive to write about his own experience turned Rent into a solo project instead. Jonathan says, as quoted in Without You, “I wrote this show about my life. About the lives of my friends. And some of my friends are gone. And I really miss them.” It’s important to note that the values of these shows are as much Larson’s values– and this shines through clearly.

Larson is not mourning the pain of his “starving artist” lifestyle in Rent, not really. Neither are the characters in the show.

Rent is hardly a somber dirge. From its outset, it is never exceedingly negative about the life of the alternative. The opening number “Rent” is an electric burst of energy while singing about being poor and unable to afford housing. “Light my Candle” is a sensual number in which Mimi asks Roger to light the candle she’ll use to heat heroin. “Another Day” is an argument between friends and lovers, and yet it’s upbeat pop-rock anthem. Even some of the more somber moments in the show are written in a positive way. For example, take the mortality-realizing “Will I”. This song is not a sad, slow piece, as it perhaps would be in another show. In Rent, it is comfortably mid-tempo, accompanied not by dramatic orchestral strings but by a simple piano and guitar. It doesn’t sound overtly sad, especially not with its soaring harmonies. The round format combined with the lyrics is rather bleak– a nod to the fact that nearly every character in the show is worried about dying alone and being forgotten, or touched in some way by the miserable realities of addiction and AIDS. Nonetheless, the song is set firmly in Gb major, not a dramatic minor key. (Typically, major keys denote a “happy” or “light” sound, while minor keys invoke a “sad” or “dark” sound.) “I’ll Cover You Reprise”, which takes place at Angel’s funeral, is a soulful gospel anthem, not a sad orchestral piece, and is ALSO set in a major key: this time, B major. Taking away the lyrics, neither of these would sound very sad or negative at all. 

The show remains positive and even hopeful in moments that would be anything but in a different show. In fact, Rent goes out of its way to do so. Although Rent is only based loosely on the original La Boheme opera, it distinctly turns away from the source material at the ending: instead of ending on the death of Mimi’s character, Rent ends with Mimi living and the group celebrating another year gone by. This massive change is not made without reason. Larson clearly had something to say in making this decision.

Of course, Rent represents life and death for other reasons, as well. Jonathan Larson died the night of the show’s off-broadway preview premier. The performance the next day, as per the decision of the team and cast, was to be staged as a simple concert sing-through for the friends and family of Jonathan Larson. The cast decided that it had to be performed in Larson’s honor, but getting caught up in the production itself seemed inappropriate– having the cast simply sit and honor the work Jonathan created was the idea. They set up tables on the stage, lined with throat lozenges and tissues; the audience was jammed with people, filling the sits, overflowing into the aisles, standing in the back. In Without You, Rapp explains now the momentum of the show quickly took control. Despite, or perhaps because of their mourning, the show’s energy was more electric than it had ever been. As the show drove on, the cast battled through emotion and performed powerfully. By “La Vie Boheme,” the energy reached fever pitch. As Anthony Rapp writes, “it was clear that the time for sitting down was over.” The actors were up dancing on the tables, singing loud and joyful, and the rest of the show was decided to be staged as written to enormous cheers. Larson’s work was performed as a celebration of his words and music, and that power was overwhelming.

At the end of the show, the audience sat in stunned silence and stillness until a single voice called, “thank you, Jonathan Larson.”

Rent went on, after some thoughtful re-writes by the rest of the artistic team, to open off-broadway as scheduled and on broadway at the Nederlander Theatre later the same year. It did not die with Jonathan Larson.

I hope you can see the parallel: Rent’s message as a show is not just one of celebrating life and death. Rent itself and its development as a whole is a message of celebrating life and death.

Jonathan Larson did not build Rent to be a tragedy. It is not a sorrowful show. Rent is not about death. Everything else about the show– its energy, its strength, its joy– is far more important than the sorrowful elements. The seriousness of Rent is besides the point. Rent is a celebration. It is, as Rapp writes, “a valentine to bohemia,” the product of a childhood of rock and roll, Sondheim, and opera. It is an autobiographical documentary of Larson’s lifestyle and love, and a story– both on and off stage– of friendship and love. And indeed, it tells a tale of loss– but there’s a reason the show doesn’t end in loss. There’s a reason the problems in the show are resolved whether through actual solution or simply the characters’ acceptance of these shortcomings. The loss in this show isn’t a product– it’s the catalyst. Loss is not something to resent, and it is not the end. Rent tells us that loss gives way to something else far more important. The show tells us to love the people we have while we have them. It tells us to work on your art for yourself, even when you are starving and homeless. It tells us to love and love freely, wildly, and without regard for social norms. It tells us that true friendship will weather anything, even if it isn’t completely invincible to trials. And most importantly, it tells us that loss is only temporary– that all that comes from loss is far more important than the instant of mourning.

Rent is not about mourning. It is, out of memory for Larson and of his choices in the show, not a piece to cause sorrow. Rent, in its totality, is a wholehearted, endless celebration of love, life, and yes, even loss. 

5 Nonfiction Reading Recommendations for Theatre People

Because it’s the subject in life I’m most passionate about, theatre is nearly the only subject on which I actively seek out and enjoy nonfiction. Some might say I’m just growing up and discovering a more sophisticated taste in books, but fiction is no less refined than nonfiction, and I’d make a list on theatre-related fiction recommendations if I’d read more of it. (Maybe soon!) Regardless of your ideas on the sophistication merit of nonfiction versus fiction, these are five nonfiction books anyone can appreciate, even if nonfiction isn’t your usual gig. For the sake of the less enthusiastic nonfiction readers, I will order this list following a sliding scale of “reads like a novel” to “reads like an essay” and let you decide for yourself where reading will become a chore. I really encourage everyone to try these five books, even if they intimidate you– they’re worth the struggle!

1. Without You:  A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent by Anthony Rapp

This memoir reads like a novel about the first toddling steps of the musical Rent, and I love it to pieces. As a huge Rent fan, I geeked out over almost every page. You learn about the true stories of real people involved in the original try-outs and OBC of the show, unfolding alongside personal events in Anthony Rapp’s life. Just like the musical, there is equal measure joy, sorrow, and meditation on LGBT+ issues, woven together by hard reality and the drive to connect to others through our passions. If you are a Rent fan, this is absolute required reading. If not, I advise you to read anyway– you may find more to take away than you expected.

2. Theater Geek: The Real Life Drama of a Summer at Stagedoor Manor by Mickey Rapkin

Half history lesson on the famous performing arts camp and half reality show unfolding in its midst, Theater Geek is supremely fun and validating to read. The camp is a haven for those who throw themselves wholeheartedly into their passion for theatre. While high school theatre kids get a bad rap for being dramatic, ambitious, and larger-than-life, Stagedoor Manor welcomes and worships these qualities, and promises unparalleled training and potential fame to the best of the best. Rapkin weaves the perilous history of the little camp that could turned Broadway pipeline with the true dramas of young actors preparing to perform with all they’ve got in the camp’s most demanding productions. A page-turner that keeps you in true suspense while delivering triumphantly, lovingly never-dry history on a camp we’re all too old to attend– but wish we could go to, anyway.

3. The Actor’s Art and Craft: William Esper Teachers the Meisner Technique by William Esper and Damon DiMarco

If you’re looking to learn something about acting, I would recommend this book in a heartbeat. The Actor’s Art and Craft is like being a fly on the wall in one of the most incredible acting classrooms in the world. It’s a relatively easy read, with all of the acting advice given in narrative form through a fictionalized re-telling of Esper’s tutelage. It is inspiring and deeply informative, and full of heart in a surprising way. You read this book because it’s interesting on its own and realize you’ve learned more than you bargained for along the way. A fantastic primer on Meisner technique and a shining beacon for anyone interested in the art of acting.

4. The Great Acting Teachers and Their Methods by Richard Brestoff

An unconventional read that provides a basic background on the greatest actors and acting teachers in history– essential reading for anyone looking to learn more about acting. Chapters provide history as well as sample lessons on the beliefs of each teacher. The wide sampling of ideas provides ample room for further reading, while also giving readers a basic understanding of many viewpoints on acting. This is a fantastic starting point for those looking to deepen their knowledge of acting as a craft. It is shockingly dense and yet surprisingly easy to read– you could read it in a day if you wanted, though you’d hardly get the full weight of the content if you rushed through it so fast! Take your time with this one and absorb as much as you can. It is well worth it.

5. The Empty Space by Peter Brook

Undoubtedly the most involved read on this list, and yet the shortest. Essentially a set of four essays on theatre as a whole– what it is, and what we do with it. This book provides a vocabulary for feelings about performances I previously had no words for, and lights a way to creating lively and inspiring theatre going forward. Reading it has fundamentally changed my understanding of theatre. If you are passionate about theatre, it is required reading that may shake you to your core.