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While establishing its archives, New York Theatre Workshop unearthed a pile of demos and drafts by the late composer, Jonathan Larson. (Courtesy of New York Theatre Workshop)

‘Rent’ Check: Did Jonathan Larson’s Vision Get Lost in the Media Uproar?

Larson’s demise leaves his musical to speak for itself amidst the hype.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand journeys to plan.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How can you measure the life of a woman or man?
In truths that she learned or in times that he cried?
In bridges he burned or the way that she died?
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you figure a last year on earth?

—Jonathan Larson, "Seasons of Love," Rent

Some 525,600 minutes ago, Jonathan Larson was listening to a sing-through rehearsal of J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation in a gutted, empty floor of a New York City Financial District office building. He was there by the confluence of talent, accident and perseverance that typifies most theatrical endeavors. Larson was offered the assignment-to compose music for En Garde Arts‘s outdoor production of Jeffrey M. Jones’s postmodern pageant detailing the life of the famous financier of the title only a few months before, after Jones’s longtime collaborator, Dan Moses Schreier, dropped out. Artistic director Annie Hamburger suggested Larson as a replacement composer, after seeing (and hearing) the workshop production of Rent at New York Theatre Workshop.

For Larson it was the best of times. Rent, his rock version of La Bohème, was now scheduled for a full production in NYTW‘s upcoming season, and Anne Bogart had just commissioned a new composition for her next project. His children’s video, Away We Go, was scheduled to be released in 1996. And here I was, a freelance writer for the Village Voice, invited to attend rehearsals, check in on a rainy tech dress and visit the recording studio where, with his arranger Steve Skinner, Larson mixed his music. He was clearly a man with a plan, bicycling around town to drop off the latest version of the finale he’d written for J.P. Morgan, calling to sing the latest addition to the score, written in a frenzy the night before the first preview. He fed me demo tapes and scripts like food. And in our interviews, he detailed his life’s mission.

Last summer was Larson’s 13th out of college, and after several modest but essential grants, awards and workshops, J.P. Morgan would be the first opportunity for large numbers of theatregoers and (especially important to Larson) critics to hear his practicum on how he planned to save the American musical theatre. The score for J.P. Morgan contains Larson’s musical recipe: employ a full range of pop vernaculars, from Sousa to soul to Seattle-flavored, electric-guitar-heavy grunge, mix them carefully with Skinner’s help, and have them sung, with gusto, by voices that haven’t been unnecessarily vacuumed of emotion by excessive conservatory training.

In the “Notes on Design” to Superbia, an as-yet-unproduced futuristic parable that predates Rent, Larson states his goals succinctly: “The sound design is as important a factor as costumes and sets. The music mix must be clean, current and digitally enhanced—reflecting today’s standards in pop music rather than ‘Broadway’ sound.” However, as he himself made clear in our discussions, these stylistic concerns must at all times be in service of the story’s narrative and the emotional development of each character.

Anyone who can manipulate multiple integers can do the math.
Multiply the 60 minutes in an hour times the 24 in a day. Multiply that figure, 1,440, by 365 days. Whether you did it on a napkin in your kitchen at 2 a.m. or in your head on the subway to work, you’ve just done what Jonathan Larson did in the process of creating “Seasons of Love,” the second-act song, quoted above, that serves as the heart and soul of Rent. But as Larson asked, how do you calculate the ineffable-the worth of a person’s life? And to extend the implications of his question: On what Richter Scale do we measure the impact of a work of art?

You can certainly tally the Pulitzer, Tony, Obie, Drama Desk and other awards. The trade magazines update the number of performances, the box-office gross, the amounts offered by Hollywood for the film rights, the sum David Geffen paid to produce the cast recording. You can measure the column inches of newsprint and front covers that Rent has inspired. But such calculations have been tragically complicated by Larson’s death the night before Rent‘s first preview in January.

In the last few months, I have often wondered what the audience and critical reception of Rent would have been if that aneurysm hadn’t developed in Larson’s aorta. Were that the case, you obviously wouldn’t be reading a year-old interview with him-Larson would have been more than willing to give an update on his mission.

More important, the whole endeavor of Rent—which most theatregoers now know relocates Puccini’s famous doomed romance to the East Village of New York, with its two main love interests, Roger and Mimi, struggling against the ticking of their HIV-positive clocks—would have been treated as Larson intended it to be, as a work of art, a stage drama, a fiction, a compelling critique of traditional definitions of “family values.” It may have been dismissed as facile, derivative and exploitative of its subject matter, or it may have been seen as a vital, innovative rock opera that heralded a bright future for the composer. Either way, or somewhere in between, the composer’s literal presence would have forced critics to actually listen to what he had to say.

But in article after article, Larson’s real-life tragedy is inextricably linked to the onstage drama. A typical review details the circumstances of Larson’s death, mentions the “important” entertainment industry people who were spotted in the audience, and ends with a cursory examination of the musical itself, commenting on the parallels with Puccini or the structural flabbiness of the second act. Peter Marks in a New York Times article in February, shortly after

Rent‘s debut at New York Theatre Workshop, made this conflation clear: “Until a few weeks ago, hardly anyone had heard of the musical. Then its 35-year-old composer and librettist, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm on the night of the final dress rehearsal. And now, buoyed by waves of glowing reviews and strong word of mouth, Rent is the hottest show in town.”

The paper of record was particularly prone to hyperbole, devoting practically an entire Sunday arts section to the musical. Frank Rich even used his oped column to stand in as musical theatre champion and lift the victorious arm of the latest contender: “Rent is all the critics say it is…It takes the very people whom politicians now turn into scapegoats for our woes the multicultural, the multisexual, the homeless, the sick-and, without sentimentalizing them or turning them into ideological symbols or victims, lets them revel in their joy, their capacity for love…all in a ceaseless outpouring of melody.”

Larson, so eager to share his passion and music with the critics, would have appreciated this enthusiasm and validation of his life’s work. Yet, I’d venture, he’d be troubled by the fact that few tried to really listen—to hear what he was trying to say. And as he says in the interview, he felt that writing a play or musical without a burning need to articulate some important concern was a waste of time.

While some lauded the grittiness and the authenticity of his musical, it’s clear Larson was a severe romantic and shameless sentimentalist. After all, his answer to his own question: “How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?”—was simple: love. His East Village Romantics are Rodgers and Hammerstein versions—they forsake their death wish and dissipation, join support groups and find love in the unlikeliest circumstances. And, in the most notable departure from Puccini, Mimi rises up from her death bed, her fever broken, her recovery assured. Ah, the American musical ending! This is pure art, as in artifice, and Larson, so well-versed in the musical and structural materiel of the genre in which he worked, knew it. How can Rich claim that Larson doesn’t “sentimentalize” the characters? Of course, they’re sentimentalized. Sentimentality is at the heart of every Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, and it’s the pulse behind all the characters in Rent.


Larson’s ability to infuse lyrical, wide-eyed optimism into the darker realities of contemporary life—homelessness, AIDS, dog-eat-dog capitalism—is exactly what helped move the musical uptown. In the past three decades, many films and plays have dealt with such themes with far higher levels of credibility—the Living Theater’s 1959 production of The Connection comes immediately to mind. The Normal Heart conveyed the anger and frustration of living with AIDS more powerfully. Angels in America gave it a deeper, more insightful socio-historical context.

In his New Republic review, Robert Brustein perceived some of these criticisms, as he decried what he saw as sloppy sentimentalism and the way AIDS was used for “mawkish purposes.” However, when he wrote, “Larson has been hailed for creating the downtown equivalent of Bohemian life. I fear he has only created another fashion…Larson’s New Age Bohemians display nothing but their lifestyles,” Brustein was aiming at the wrong target. It was Roling Stone, Time Out and the Voice, not Larson, that reduced Rent to fashion spreads. Tamed by the proscenium frame, these “lifestyles,” which existed before Rent, were suddenly ripe for the co-opting.

Personally, watching a chorus line of homeless people shuffling in a dance step on Broadway was acutely disturbing to me. However, it’s clear Larson did have a vision with social and political implications. He was deeply disturbed by a society that could become obsessed with an exclusionary notion of “family values” while alienating itself from the fundamental human values of community, caring and love. Society’s embrace of superficiality and the power of mass media are the culprits.

But Larson was faced with a profound paradox: how to condemn the pervasiveness of the media and the alienating effects of technology while exploiting their dramatic possibilities. Rent, like his early work Superbia, is a constant comment on how technology can alienate us. Take the phone messages from Mom that we hear punctuating the score; the way Mark, a documentary film maker, continually puts his camera between himself and those closest to him; the irony of his ex-girlfriend Maureen’s performance art piece. Solo work like hers has been traditionally one of the most potent tools in postmodern theatre to burst the isolating media bubble we live in. Yet Maureen’s piece can’t take place until Mark fixes the sound system.

Larson’s concerns about the society’s slide into superficiality were evident in Superbia (the only other musical he’d written book, music and lyrics for), which he was still pushing to get produced when I talked to him (it had received a workshop production at Playwrights Horizons in 1988).

The futuristic setting is populated by two classes of people the Ins and Outs. This Brave New World was founded by Mick Knife, a rock star, and is now controlled by the Master Babble Articulator, or MBA. It all seems a Tommy-like metaphor for how rock music becomes co-opted and audiences become slaves to fashion. Act 2 opens (ironically, considering the fate of Rent in the media) with an Award Show to name the new “Face of the Year.” And at the heart of his musical, of course, is a romantic Romeo-andJuliet like love affair between an In and an Out. Their one-night fling, however, is televised, like everything in this world. As Larson writes in his own synopsis, “The result is instant celebrity.”

Larson’s awareness of the perils of fame didn’t ease his hunger for recognition. After my Voice piece was published a year ago he called to express appreciation for describing his one-man manifesto. I had made one mistake, though, that he corrected. I implied that Mimi died in Rent. “She doesn’t die in my version,” he reminded me. And that’s the ultimate tragedy: that we can’t rewrite his story to make a happy ending. The sad fact that Larson’s demise is irreversible highlights just how far his art diverged from his life.

Writer and critic John Istel is senior editor of Stagebill and a regular contributor to this magazine.

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