One of the most beloved musicals in Broadway history, Rent, premiered to a small group of theatergoers in the East Village of New York City 25 years ago today, the opening performance coming just hours after its creator Jonathan Larson's tragic death from an aortic aneurysm.
Rent would go on to win both a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, reported NPR. It was the brainchild of Larson, who created the score for a play that would become a touchstone for a generation that dealt with the onset of the AIDS epidemic. It also displayed loving relationships between same-sex couples and how friends can become one's chosen family, all set to a rock 'n' roll score.
Larson developed Rent alongside his friend Billy Aronson, who would later depart the project. However, the composer would never get to see the fruits of his labor. His sudden death at just 35-years-old the evening before the musical made its premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop almost derailed the production.
Larson complained of not feeling well in the days before he collapsed on January 21 during rehearsals for the musical, as reported by People Magazine. After going to the ER, he was diagnosed with food poisoning and was sent home following medical treatment for that condition. Three days later he was dead.
Larson worked on the musical for six years before its premiere. It was loosely based on the opera La Boheme, composed by Puccini. The original story is set in Paris around 1830 and shows the Bohemian lifestyle of a poor seamstress and her artist friends, as reported by MetOpera.
The story and music for Rent would take from Larson's own life. He too shared an apartment in the East Village of New York City with his best friend in the 1980s, and his experiences would be infused into the musical's stories and characters.
Despite Larson's passing, the production went on as scheduled. The performers banded together to honor their friend's work. People said that the performance of the first act began as an intimate reading and sing-through. By the time the cast got to the finale of Act I which is the song "La Vie Boheme" they began to exuberantly dance as they released their feelings of grief and at the same time, celebrated the composer's passion for the project.
Some of the more iconic songs that would become classics in the musical theater community included "Seasons of Love" and "Rent."
The original cast of Rent contained entertainers who were relative unknowns at the time. Many would go on to become well-known members of the industry. These included Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jesse L. Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Idina Menzel, Fredi Walker, and Taye Diggs.