25 Years Since The Birth Of 'Rent' And The Death Of Its Writer, Jonathan Larson On Jan. 25, 1996, a new rock musical by a little-known writer, Jonathan Larson, gave its first performance. But that show almost didn't happen: Larson died of an aortic aneurysm early that morning.
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13,150,080 Minutes: It's Been 25 Years Since The First Performance Of 'Rent'

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13,150,080 Minutes: It's Been 25 Years Since The First Performance Of 'Rent'

13,150,080 Minutes: It's Been 25 Years Since The First Performance Of 'Rent'

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/959666108/960253927" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Twenty-five years ago this evening, a new rock musical by a little-known writer named Jonathan Larson went onstage for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONATHAN LARSON'S "SEASONS OF LOVE")

MARTIN: The audience that night was just friends and family. They filed into a small off-Broadway theater to see "Rent." The show was a retelling of "La Boheme" set on the Lower East Side of New York as people were dying of AIDS. It became an international phenomenon, winning the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, among others.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEASONS OF LOVE")

RENT ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST: (As characters, singing) Five-hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes - five-hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear...

MARTIN: But that first preview performance almost didn't happen. Early that morning, Jonathan Larson died of an aortic aneurysm. Here are a few people who were there that night.

TIM WEIL: My name is Tim Weil, and I am the original music director for the show. It really begins and ends with Jonathan's writing as a great composer and a great lyricist. He knew as much about Billy Joel's piano playing as he knew about Sondheim's lyric writing. He was really just extraordinary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEASONS OF LOVE")

RENT ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST: (As characters, singing) How do you measure a year in the life? How about love? How about love?

ANTHONY RAPP: Hi. This is Anthony Rapp, and I played Mark Cohen. I've always felt that Mark was the closest sort of stand-in for Jonathan. You know, Jonathan himself was a cishet, HIV-negative man who was watching what was happening around him and responding to it and trying to find a way to channel the grief and anger and hopelessness that he was feeling into something positive. And Mark is very much doing that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RENT")

RAPP: (As Mark, singing) How do you document real life when real life's getting more like fiction each day?

DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA: I'm Daphne Rubin-Vega, and I played Mimi. It was a lot of fun to be able to practically apply my research of partying (laughter), not that I was a junkie stripper with AIDS - no offense to junkie strippers with AIDS. But I knew these people. I knew this world. I grew up around this world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT TONIGHT")

RUBIN-VEGA: (As Mimi, singing) Let's go out tonight. I have to go out tonight.

MICHAEL GREIF: I'm Michael Greif, and I'm the director of "Rent." We were rehearsing "What You Own," and there was a disruption. And we found out that the disruption was that Jonathan was feeling very ill.

WEIL: They called a stop to the rehearsal. And Jonathan, as only Jonathan would, he said, can you believe that I passed out in the theater right as the characters are singing, dying in America?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT YOU OWN")

ADAM PASCAL AND ANTHONY RAPP: (As Roger and Mark, singing) Dying in America at the end of a millennium - we're dying in America to come into our own.

RUBIN-VEGA: They misdiagnosed him with possible food poisoning.

WEIL: Of course, they don't look for a 10-inch tear in your aorta from a healthy 36-year-old.

GREIF: So we had a dress rehearsal. Jonathan showed up after being ill for a couple of days.

RAPP: We felt super happy and excited. I mean, it'd gone very, very well.

WEIL: We did notes that night, and that was the night he went home and passed away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE SONG GLORY (DEMO)")

JONATHAN LARSON: (Singing) One song glory - one song before I go. Glory - one song to leave behind.

JIM NICOLA: This is Jim Nicola. I'm the artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop. At 8:30 in the morning, my phone rang. And it was our production manager, who said she'd just gotten off the phone with the police. And she told me that he had died and - didn't see that coming. So I got dressed. We called the cast. We need to be together.

WILSON JERMAINE HEREDIA: I am Wilson Jermaine Heredia, and I played Angel. The call came to me in the morning, and it was surreal.

RUBIN-VEGA: We were huddled together because the only thing that was real was uncertainty.

RAPP: Sometimes we would talk to each other, but sometimes we would just sit in silence and shock and cry.

RUBIN-VEGA: It was decided that we do it with a sit-down reading - no costumes, water on the table, scripts in hand - but that the show must go on was imperative.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA VIE BOHEME")

RENT ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST: (Singing, as characters) La vie boheme. To days of inspiration, playing hooky, making something out of nothing, the need to express, to communicate - la vie boheme...

RAPP: The show itself is so much about, in the face of loss, still finding opportunities to find joy.

HEREDIA: We were doing it as a reading. But because there were so many emotions involved, that by the time that we got to "La Vie Boheme," you know, it completely erupted into a whole full-out staged performance. Daphne got on the table, then I got on the table. It was just an explosion of people. We couldn't stop doing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA VIE BOHEME")

RENT ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST: (As characters) Viva la vie boheme.

GREIF: We took a break where intermission was. You know, I remember going backstage and said, well, it's clear that we want to do more of this, so let's do a staged version of whatever you want to do of Act 2.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL COVER YOU (REPRISE)")

RENT ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST: (As characters, singing) Oh, lover, I'll cover you.

RAPP: It was an incredible mixture of life matching art matching life. The distance between what we were experiencing ourselves and as the characters was, like, tissue paper thin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINALE")

RENT ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST: (As characters, singing) There's only us. There's only this. Forget regret, or life is yours to miss.

RAPP: There was this, you know, thunderous ovation at the end. And then when we went backstage to, like, change and get out of our microphones and all that stuff, when we came out, no one had moved. And when you have a couple hundred people sitting together in silence, that is a profound silence.

GREIF: We were painfully aware that Jonathan wasn't, you know, getting up and coming in from the back of the house.

RAPP: And we all sat there together just for a very, very, very long time. And then finally, a voice from the back of the theater said, thank you, Jonathan Larson. And that sort of broke the spell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINALE")

RENT ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST: (As characters, singing) No day but today...

RAPP: It was as if Jonathan had written his own memorial service or funeral and we were performing it for ourselves and for his loved ones. It was an astonishing moment that - you know, yeah, it's 25 years ago. I will never forget it as long as I live.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINALE")

RENT ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST: (Singing, as characters) Without you - there's only...

MARTIN: A few of the voices from the very first live performance of "Rent," which happened 25 years ago today. Our story was produced by Jeff Lunden and Rose Friedman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINALE")

RENT ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST: (As characters, singing) No day but today.

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