The True Story of Rent: How the Cast Banded Together After Creator Jonathan Larson's Death
Audiences around the country will see Jonathan Larson’s award-winning rock musical Rent on Sunday, in Fox’s live television production lead by Vanessa Hudgens, Jordan Fisher, and Emmy nominee Brandon Victor Dixon.
It was the latest incarnation of the critically acclaimed hit musical about a group of New York City artists dealing with the HIV/AIDS crisis in the late ’80s — which ran for 12 years on Broadway, played several national tours and numerous international productions, and was adapted into a 2005 film version directed by Chris Columbus.
But there’s one person who never got to see Rent‘s success: Larson himself.
Tragically, the creator and composer died on January 25, 1996 — the night before Rent‘s Off-Broadway premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop — of an aortic dissection believed to have been caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome. He was just 35 years old.
Larson had been working on Rent for six years before his death. The idea of the musical, loosely based on the opera La Boheme, came to him from friend Billy Aronson.
“I had this idea for a Bohème for now; for our generation that had sort of a ‘noise’ and [that] captured the un-Bohèmeness of it: not sweet and not luscious,” Aronson recalled to Playbill. “Since I don’t write music, I went looking for a composer, and I was affiliated with Playwrights Horizons, so Ira Weitzman, the director of musical theatre there, recommended two composers, one of whom was Jonathan Larson.”
The two would eventually go their separate ways, with Larson working furiously to finish the project by himself as he waited tables at the Moondance Diner. Many of Larson’s own life experiences, including the SoHo apartment he shared with best friend Jonathan Burkhart in the mid ’80s, would be infused into Rent‘s stories and characters.
A staged reading of the show would follow in 1993, with a two-week workshop coming the next year and a fully staged production at the NYTW’s new East Village location in 1996. It was the first musical NYTW ever produced.
It was during the rehearsals for that production that Larson started battling some health issues.
Trouble started the evening of Jan. 21, 1996, at the beginning of the final week of rehearsals for Rent. At about 6:45 p.m., Larson was watching a rehearsal at the 150-seat NYTW when he was suddenly struck by intense chest pains. “You’d better call 911, I think I’m having a heart attack,” he told an actor just before he fell to the floor between the theater’s last two rows, PEOPLE reported in 1997.
An ambulance brought Larson to the ER of Cabrini Medical Center, the hospital nearest the theater. “He was pale and clammy,” Burkhart, who met him at the hospital, told PEOPLE. “You’ve never seen a person breathe as hard as he was breathing.” But an electrocardiogram and an X-ray appeared normal. A doctor diagnosed food poisoning, pumped Larson’s stomach, prescribed a powerful painkiller, Toradol, and sent him home.
The next morning, feeling no better, Larson phoned Cabrini to inquire whether tests showed evidence of food poisoning. “They couldn’t find the results,” Jonathan’s friend Eddie Rosenstein, who spent that day nursing him, told PEOPLE back then. “But he was told they were sure if there was something wrong he would have been notified.”
That evening, Larson’s roommate Brian Carmody returned to their apartment near Greenwich Village to find Jonathan in bed, short of breath and speaking in a quiet mumble. He tried to eat but was only able to get down some Jell-O and tapioca pudding.
The following afternoon, Larson called his father in Albuquerque. “His chest still hurt, his lower back hurt, and he had a low-grade fever,” recalled Al to PEOPLE. “Frankly, I didn’t think it was a life-threatening situation.”
But by that night, Larson’s chest pains had again become so intense that he decided to return to the hospital. After Carmody called Cabrini — where, he recalls, an attendant said the hospital would be unable to get access to the records from Larson’s previous visit — he took Larson by cab to St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center, which was closer than Cabrini. There, when Larson rated his chest pain at seven on a scale of 10, a nurse labeled his case urgent, but it was more than 90 minutes before a doctor could examine him.
“‘I don’t know,'” Burkhart remembered Larson saying. “I don’t feel right, but I just want to get out of here.'” The doctor who finally saw Larson ordered an X-ray and an EKG. Both were read as normal. Told he had a virus, Larson was advised to go home and rest. “‘They can’t find anything. Nothing has changed,'” he told Carmody.
On the evening of Jan. 24, Larson had two items on his schedule: to watch the final dress rehearsal of Rent and, afterward, to be interviewed by a reporter for the New York Times. Arriving at the theater, “he was happy to be there, though you could tell he was conserving energy,” Rent director Michael Greif. told PEOPLE “He was moving slowly and didn’t speak loudly. Jonathan was usually an exuberant guy, and he was behaving gently.”
After the rehearsal — the first time Rent was ever staged in its entirety — he met with Times reporter Anthony Tommasini in the only quiet space available, the theater’s tiny box office. Toward the end of their talk, sometime after midnight, Larson told Tommasini, “I think I may have a life as a composer.”
The remark would later haunt the reporter. When Carmody returned from a night out at 3:40 a.m., he discovered Larson’s lifeless body on the kitchen floor, a gas flame still burning under a scorched tea kettle. “I was roaring at the top of my lungs, ‘Wake up! Wake up, Jon!’” Carmody told PEOPLE. “I still thought he’d be okay.” But police arriving shortly afterward told Carmody that Larson was dead. An autopsy later in the week revealed an aneurysm — an uncommon disorder, particularly in such a young person.
Cast in the Off-Broadway production of Rent at that time were a slew of unknown stars, including Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jesse L. Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, and Taye Diggs.
All banded together after Larson’s death; Rubin-Vega described the gang to Playbill “an inseparable posse”
“We all walked through the fire together,” Rapp told Playbill in 2014. “Sometimes, in crisis, people can really fall apart or it could really splinter people off… But it was like the opposite thing happened for all of us. It brought us even stronger together, so that foundation is always there.”
All — including the show’s producers, Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum — agreed that the show had to go on despite the tragedy.
That first performance on the night of Jan. 25 has become legendary in the theater community. It began as an intimate reading and sing-through. But by the time the Act I finale of “La Vie Bohème” came around, the cast was so excited, they broke out into Marlies Yearby’s iconic choreography. Act II eventually finished as a fully-staged show.
“When we [approached] intermission, they just rebelled,” NYTW artistic director James C. Nicola told Playbill. “Life was imitating art in more ways than one, and the group of angst-ridden bohemian rockers danced in celebration of Larson’s life and work. … It was touch and go whether or not Jonathan’s parents — because they were in New Mexico, and they had to get on planes to be here for that — were going to make it, [but] they did, and that was very powerful. It was an incredibly emotional experience to sit through in that room that night.”
Every performance from that moment on became dedicated to Larson, including its NYTW opening. After the show received raved reviews, a Broadway transfer was imminent. “We had no choice,” McCollum told Playbill. “Everybody had a higher purpose, and it was to get Jonathan’s work heard and seen. And there was no looking back. … We were breathing life into the voice of a young man who had much more to say … There was no room to be afraid.”
Rent opened on Broadway on April, 29, 1996 to rave reviews. At the Tonys that year, it was awarded the prestigious best musical trophy. Larson also won two posthumous Tonys, for best book and best score, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The show ran for 5,123 performances before closing on Sep. 07, 2008. Countless productions around the world have appeared since.
In memory of Larson, his friends and family started the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation — which provides financial grants to artists in support of their creative work. His family’s estate helped produce Fox’s Rent live, alongside Mark Platt (Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, Grease Live, La La Land, Wicked).
Throughout it all, Larson’s music — including songs like “La Vie Bohème,” “Light My Candle,” “Take Me or Leave Me,” and “Seasons of Love” — have become anthems for its fans. And Larson’s legacy has lived on in one lyric in particular: “No day but today,” which many point to as the lesson to learn from the early end to Larson’s life.