When the rock musical “Rent” opened in 1996, it was a time of both celebration and mourning.
A success story of a show that Julie Larson’s brother, Jonathan Larson, spent seven years writing and rewriting finally being realized in an off-Broadway production. The shock and sadness of Jonathan Larson’s unexpected death at age 35.
Larson’s brother had died earlier that day of a heart condition caused by an undiagnosed genetic disorder. He did not die of AIDS, nor was he gay, says Julie Larson, addressing assumptions made at the time.
“Rent” opened in the wake of his passing, without him, and within months, it opened on Broadway to sold-out crowds. It would become one of the longest running shows on Broadway, winning both a Tony Award for best musical and a Pulitzer Prize for drama, in addition to other accolades.
Based on Puccini’s opera “La Bohème,” it is the story of a group of struggling artists, friends, and lovers living in New York’s gritty East Village, many of them gay but not all of them. Its songs would be sung for years to come.
Now 20 years old, “Rent” has outlived the generation that it captured so adroitly, and is now again on tour in the U.S. We recently talked to Julie Larson about her brother, and their relationship, and why the show still resonates with audiences today.
Does it feel like 20 years have passed? It must be so strange to be talking about Jonathan and his life leading up to the production of “Rent.”
“It’s complicated. There are moments it feels like yesterday and other moments when I say, ‘How has it been 20-plus years?’ It changed all of our lives and the timing of losing a brother at the moment [“Rent”] came alive is all mixed up in that, and it’s been my life for 20-plus years and my business. I had my own life. It’s become a family thing. I left my career. I was in film production, a behind-the-scenes person.”
Your brother was writing plays in New York and you were on the West Coast in film. Your parents must have nurtured your creativity.
“We grew up in suburbs of New York, in White Plains, a half-hour from Manhattan. It was a very idyllic childhood. We’d hop on bikes and be gone all day and we’d go into the city for school trips and Mom would take us in every once and a while to see a play or the ballet or go to museums. Both of our parents appreciated the arts. We grew up with every album for every Broadway musical, and we’d spend hours reading the back of the albums and reading the liner notes.”
Music was a big part of your lives.
“We always had music. I took seven years of piano and had good technique and my brother had two years, and he had music just going through him. It came naturally to him. Something like classical piano wasn’t what he was interested in at all. I remember I’d bought the album for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and my brother heard me listening to it a few times, and he just sat down and began to play what he’d heard. He was known in high school as ‘the piano man.’ If there was a piano in the room, wherever he was, he would sit down and start playing.”
Your brother was living in Greenwich Village and working at a diner to make ends meet. It sounds like “Rent” was quite autobiographical.
“It was a real mix. It was certainly based on what he saw and experienced and his friends, but he took his lead from the characters and their personalities from ‘La Bohème.’ He went back ‘to the source of ‘La Bohème,’ a book by Henri Murger about Paris in the 1840s, and took a lot from that as well, and that’s where the characters started. Marcello, the artist, is now a filmmaker. But yes, there was a lot that is autobiographical. He lived in a funky, top-floor walk-up, and when you’d get into his apartment, there was a phone booth across the street and you’d call him and he’d throw down the key in a leather pouch. He wasn’t going to walk down five flights. . . . It’s a sense of where he was and living at that time.
Besides updating the characters from “La Bohème,” he also changed the setting from the Latin Quarter in Paris to New York’s East Village and tuberculosis to AIDS, which was a risky and certainly difficult subject to stage a musical to back then.
“The AIDS crisis was just ballooning downtown where my brother lived. . . . He was losing friends left and right and it was a time when AIDS wasn’t being talked about — it was considered the gay man’s cancer and women weren’t supposed to get it — and he knew three close female friends who had died of AIDS, and no one was talking about that, either.”
Do you think that “Rent” helped effect change when it came out or did it simply broaden the exposure of this issue?
“I think it has done both. It had a much broader audience than we had ever imagined it would have. I know for a whole group of people it gave them a voice; they felt like they belonged and they felt like someone was finally hearing them, and it became their anthem. It appealed to a certain segment of young people then, and was on Broadway for 12 1/2 years, and now we have this new generation seeing it.”
Today, AIDS isn’t the death sentence that it once was, but the show is still going strong. Why do you think the show still resonates with audiences today?
“It was about being young and passionate and finding your place in the world, and the importance of community, tolerance and inclusion, and compassion — all of those things are what keep this relevant 20 years later. Being present in your life and finding joy in what you’re doing, those things are very universal. Wanting to feel like you fit in somewhere. It’s ultimately about love. The overall messages are timeless and I think very needed right now.”
Besides helping to bring awareness about AIDS at a time when it wasn’t being talked about, “Rent” also changed how Broadway musicals are made.
“If you listen to all the people that have come since ‘Rent,’ you’ll hear it. [Jonathan] was raised in an environment where we appreciated Broadway musicals and he also came from a generation of loving the music of his day. He saw theater was dying and it was such a great art form, but it didn’t sound current. He wanted to take the traditional form of musical theater and modernize it with a current sound. All of these other shows that came since hark back to my brother and ‘Rent.’ It spawned a whole new generation of Broadway musicals.”
Tell us about the night that “Rent” opened. The night that he died.
“There was a dress rehearsal the night before, and the reaction was phenomenal. The opera critic for The New York Times happened to be there because he was doing a piece on the 100th anniversary of ‘La Bohème,’ and he was so blown away, he sat with my brother and interviewed him, and he said, ‘This is going to be a huge hit.’ He got his New York Times piece. We’re forever grateful that he heard from somebody that was going to be successful.”
Did he have any idea that “Rent” would end up being such a hit?
“He had total confidence in himself and what he was trying to do, but he had plenty of self-doubt about whether the show would be understood or recognized.
“He was hoping for a six-week run.”
- Presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth
- Oct. 17-22
- Bass Hall, Fort Worth
- $44 and up. Note: A limited number of $20 tickets are available by lottery. Enter two hours before each performance at the Bass Hall box office. Names will be drawn in the lobby 90 minutes before showtime. Those whose names are drawn can then purchase one or two $20 tickets at the box office. One entry per person. Must be present to win.
Meet ‘Rent’ lead actor Sammy Ferber
When Sammy Ferber was young, his mother used to play the “Rent” soundtrack in the car when she was driving him to school in the suburb of Chicago where they lived. “All of my friends knew the show. We would belt out the lyrics of ‘Seasons of Love,’ and it was an accomplishment if we could get through a line of ‘La Vie Bohème,’” he says. “From an early age I felt a connection to [the character] Mark because he was on the outside and kind of awkward, yet he wanted to be cool and included, and all of that resonated with me.”
Ferber, now 21, was cast in the role of Mark Cohen, the show’s lead, for the 20th anniversary tour of the show, which began last year. “He’s been one of my dream roles,” Ferber says, on the phone in his hotel room in Charlotte, N.C. one afternoon before the show. “I’m still pinching myself.”
Like Mark, a frustrated filmmaker who realizes his films are awful and decides to try documentaries instead, Ferber, too, has tried different forms of art. “I tried to write poems, songs, and a novel, and they weren’t very good, and right now I’m working on a graphic novel and maybe it will be good.”
Even though Ferber was didn’t understand much of the show until later, now that he’s part of it, he sees its timelessness as well as its place in a particular time. “It’s definitely a period piece,” he says. “Thankfully, AIDS isn’t the death sentence it used to be. But the idea of loving and respecting each other, people who are different from you, is still revolutionary.
“The message of the show is about learning to live your life and how to make a life of meaning knowing that you don’t know how long you have. We don’t know what’s going to come tomorrow but we know today we’re alive and is that not the most important thing? It’s about living your life for today and measuring your life in love.”
Ellise Pierce, Special to the Star-Telegram