Measure a life in love: Remembering Jonathan Larson 20 years on

Monday 25th January 2016 marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Jonathan Larson, the talented composer and playwright whose passing at the age of just 35 cut short a highly promising career. He had already written several musicals, including the futuristic rock opera Superbia and his rock monologue Tick, Tick… Boom!, and was also involved in writing for a wide variety of projects in the areas of dance, music, film and theatre, such as composing the score for J.P Morgan Saves the World and writing songs for Sesame Street. His work up to then earned him numerous prestigious prizes, including a Stephen Sondheim Award from the American Music Theater Festival – Sondheim was a great inspiration to him, and indeed, Sondheim himself was a supporter of Larson’s work and often wrote letters of recommendation to producers for him.

Undoubtedly though, his crowning achievement was the game-changing musical Rent.

Rent was the result of seven years of work for Larson, but his unexpected death from an aortic aneurysm just hours after the show’s final dress rehearsal sadly meant he would never see it performed to the public. Rent could have elevated his career to the next level, but instead it became his parting gift to the world…and what a parting gift it turned out to be.

Larson’s own summary of the musical was that “Rent is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century.” The rock musical is a modern re-telling of sorts of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, and centres on a group of impoverished young artists living in New York City’s East Village under the shadow of HIV/AIDS. There have been many medical advances in the treatment of the disease since then of course, but AIDS carried a death sentence in that time, just as Tuberculosis did in its time (Larson substituted La Bohème’s TB for AIDS in Rent). There were still a lot of unknowns and assumptions about AIDS, but Rent highlighted the issue and educated people on the diseases, bringing about discussions and a wider understanding of it through the story and characters of the musical. For that alone, Rent is one of the most important and relevant musicals of its time.

Rent isn’t just a ‘musical about AIDS’ however. Larson wanted to introduce a more modern sound and feel to musical theatre, and bring in a new, younger audience. Rent is often referred to as ‘the voice of Generation X’. The stories and themes held within it, coupled with the rock score, resonated with a younger audience as they addressed such real-life issues as drug addiction, sexuality, poverty, homelessness in addition to AIDS. Most musicals are about fantasy and escaping into another world, but Rent thrusts the realities of life into the face of the audience. It not only tackles these every-day subjects, but confronts them head-on and presents them in a raw, gritty and true manner rather than dressing them up in a pretty pink bow to soften the blow. Rent was fresh and edgy, and very different to the shows that were playing at the time, and heralded a new type of musical for Broadway and the musical theatre industry, just as he had envisioned.

With such an abundance of hard-hitting subject matter, Rent could have been a very dark and despairing tale about the woes of life. Larson’s genius was to flip that completely on its head though, and show the harsh reality of life hand-in-hand with a message of joy and hope. Loss and pain and darkness…these are things that everyone experiences in life, but we can choose which way to go when faced with them, and Larson’s message is an inherently positive one that speaks of embracing love and living for today rather than living in fear of what tomorrow may bring, or if there will even be a tomorrow. His songs in particular have become something of a source of comfort and inspiration to people in their daily struggles, providing a light in the dark with such poignant lyrics such as in ‘Another Day’ –

There’s only us
There’s only this
Forget regret
Or life is yours to miss
No other road
No other way
No day but today

Rent is almost a philosophy on how to live life; ‘measuring your life in love’ and living for today. It isn’t the greatest musical to have ever been written, and has certainly had criticisms thrown at it over the years regarding the plot, themes and characters, but it has a die-hard following (who call themselves Rent Heads) and is still considered as something special after all this time, by both fans and those within the industry. The original cast members still speak about Rent as a life-changing chapter of their lives which they look back on with immense pride, and remember Larson with such warmness and fondness that it is clear that the wonderful sense of community he imbued his musical with existed outside of it as well. On what should have been the first public preview of Rent, the cast gave a sit-down sing-through private performance of the show for Larson’s friends and family, but by the second act, the spirit of Rent had taken hold and they performed the rest of the show as intended.

Several of the original company spoke out on the anniversary of his death. Anthony Rapp, who played film-maker Mark Cohen in the musical, posted a picture of Larson on Instagram on Monday alongside the message, “On the 20th anniversary of my friend and collaborator Jonathan Larson’s death, I share this photo I snapped of him during rehearsals at the New York Theatre Workshop. His energy in the rehearsal room was always so positive. I miss him very much, and I remain forever grateful to him for his major role in transforming my life in every meaningful way.”

Playbill.com also posted a touching quote from Fredi Walker-Browne (Joanne Jefferson), who revealed, ‘I carry and keep a picture of Jonathan everywhere I teach because I want him to see, and I want him to watch. I can only imagine what he’d be saying when the parents of people who were sleeping on the street bring me their kids to study. I’m like, “This is crazy.” So I’m hoping that he’s seeing all… That’s why I put him there to make sure he sees it because I want him to see it: “Look what you did. Look what you gave us.”

Many other people took to social media to pay tribute to his memory, including other stage performers who had an involvement with Rent, such as Telly Leung, who was in the ensemble of the final cast of Rent and appeared in Rent: Live on Broadway as well as playing Angel in the 2009 Tour. He wrote on Twitter, “Measure in love. Thank you, Jonathan Larson. You are no longer with us, but the music is eternal. RENT was a gift to me – artistically, professionally and personally.” Debbie Kurup, who played Mimi in the West End production at the Prince of Wales Theatre and also performed at the Seasons of Larson tribute concert at the Lyric Theatre on Monday night (along with other Rent alumni), also tweeted “Thank you Jonathan Larson. Tonight is for you. #NoDayButToday”.

Jonathan Larson received a slew of posthumous awards for Rent, including three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but his legacy extends far beyond theatrical plaudits. Rent has impacted on so many lives, both on and off the stage. It came along at just the right time, and it was that, along with the poignancy of both Larson’s words and his message, that paved the way for the musical to become the cult hit that it is.

It’s impossible to say with any certainty where he would have gone in his career had he lived, but he was right on the verge of breaking through to the ‘big-time’ and there is no doubt that he had it in him to become one of the great musical theatre writers, perhaps even another Stephen Sondheim. It is a testament to him and his work that he is remembered and celebrated with so much feeling 20 years after his death. He put so much of himself into Rent, which changed the face of musical theatre and continues to stand as a timeless monument to the life and talent of this much-loved man. Rent is the legacy of Jonathan Larson, a man ahead of his time who was taken before his time, and it’s a legacy that will forever keep his memory alive.

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Tuesday 26th January 2016