BWW Exclusive: The Story of How RENT Came to Be

525,600 Minutes

By: Jan. 27, 2019

Rent: Live

Tonight, FOX will air their third live musical production. Following in the footsteps of Grease and A Christmas Story, the network will be presenting Jonathan Larson's Rent, a rock musical that is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini's 1896 opera, La bohème. The story follows a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in New York City's East Village in the thriving days of Bohemian Alphabet City, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.

Jonathan Larson grew up in White Plains, New York. From an early age, he and his sister, Julie, were exposed to the performing arts through their parents. They owned and played a lot of original Broadway cast recordings at home. When he went off to college, it was with a four-year scholarship as an acting major at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. During his time there, Larson not only got to perform in several stage productions at their theatre conservatory, but he also began to write music himself. He started off writing for small student productions, which were cabarets performed in the cafeteria. Jonathan was later invited by Jacques Burdick, who was the head of the department, to write the score to a musical he had just written titled Libro de Buen Amor. After graduating from Adelphi, Jonathan surprised his family by telling them that he was going to put acting on the back burner in order to devote his time to writing music. He went on to do some summer stock at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan as a piano player, where he befriended an aspiring performer at the time named Marin Mazzie. When Jonathan received his Equity Card for membership in the Actors' Equity Association, he made the move to Manhattan.

When he got there, Jonathan moved into a loft with no heat on the fifth floor of a building at the corner of Greenwich Street and Spring Street in Lower Manhattan where he lived with various roommates. For 10 years, Jonathan worked as a waiter at the Moondance Diner, where he managed to develop his own schedule by only working on the weekends, which turned out to be enough tips to pay off his bills every month. During his days off from work (which were Monday through Thursday), Jonathan would spend a lot of time writing musicals. He went to nearly every producer in Manhattan, hoping that one of them would give him a chance, but to no luck. In the meantime, Jonathan was given several paid opportunities to write music for home videos, a TV Pilot, Sesame Street, and performed with a group Mazzie had put together with some friends called 'J Glitz' at open mic nights all over the city. Jonathan later wrote a letter to his idol, Stephen Sondheim, and even got a reply from him. After that initial connection was made, Jonathan would send everything he wrote to Sondheim for his approval, and he would get replies that would help him every step of the way. Sondheim would also help by sending letters of recommendation for Larson to various producers. He created several musicals that never really went anywhere.

For seven years, Jonathan wrote Superbia, which was originally intended as a futuristic rock retelling of George Orwell's novel, 1984. However, the Orwell estate denied him permission to adapt the novel itself, so he had to do his own thing with it. Though despite performances at Playwrights Horizons and a rock concert at the Village Gate in September 1989, Superbia was never fully produced as many producers just didn't get it. Jonathan would then go on to write an autobiographical 'rock monologue' for himself to perform as a response to his feelings of rejection which were caused by that disappointment. It went through a couple titles before settling on Tick, Tick...Boom. When the show was produced at Second Stage Theater, producer Jeffrey Seller attended a performance, and was immediately interested in producing Jonathan's works.

In 1989, Jonathan Larson began collaborating with playwright Billy Aronson on a new project, which was an update of Giacomo Puccini's opera, La bohème. Aronson had conceived the idea by replacing the luscious splendor of Puccini's world with the coarseness and noise of modern New York. Jonathan was immediately into the idea, as he thought it had potential to bring the MTV generation and the musical theatre world together. He and Aronson later parted ways due to creative differences, and Jonathan went on to write the show all by himself. Rather than adapting the opera itself, he instead wanted to create his own rock opera by only adapting the original story. One aspect of the plot Jonathan updated was the cause. In La bohème, it was the plague. In Rent, it would be AIDS. As he had lost so many friends during the AIDS crisis, Jonathan felt Rent offered the chance to talk about something that really needed to be talked about at that time. He was also encouraged to write a show about his friends so that they would not be forgotten.

In the fall of 1992, Larson found the New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) building, he went inside and thought it was the perfect space for his new musical. He approached the artistic director, James Nicola, with a copy of the script and demo tape for Rent, and it would become the very first musical ever produced by NYTW. When Rent had its first staged reading there in March 1993, producer Jeffrey Seller was in the audience to finally see what Jonathan had been working on. Throughout the reading, it became evident that despite getting off to a great start, many structural problems needed to be addressed, including its cumbersome length and overly complex plot. Jonathan continued working on Rent, gradually reworking its flaws and staging more workshop productions. When NYWT announced it was going to produce a full-fledge production, that meant Jonathan got to quit his job at Moondance Diner in order to give Rent his full attention.

When casting began, Jonathan Larson was very adamant about finding unknown rock/pop voices for the show. A vision that was shared with the director, Michael Greif, as well as the producers, Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum, and Allan S. Gordon. Two of the actors from the readings, Anthony Rapp as documentarian/narrator Mark Cohen and Daphne Rubin-Vega as club dancer/drug addict Mimi Márquez, went on to get cast in the world premiere production at New York Theatre Workshop. Anthony at that time had already appeared on Broadway in The Little Prince and the Aviator, Precious Sons, and Six Degrees of Separation as well as on the big screen in movies such as 1987's Adventures in Babysitting, 1992's School Ties, and 1993's Dazed and Confused. Daphne at the time was performing in a comedy group called El Barrio USA before landing an audition for Rent.

As for the rest of the roles, the creative team auditioned hundreds of people all over the city, and were able to find six talented young performers. Adam Pascal had previously played in a rock band with some friends from high school before he was cast as struggling musician Roger Davis. Wilson Jermaine Heredia was working as a dispatcher for a reality company before he was cast as drag queen Angel Dumott Schunard. Idina Menzel was making money singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs before she was cast as Mark's ex-girlfriend turned lesbian, Maureen Johnson. Fredi Walker was a performer looking to do 12 equity weeks for her insurance before she was cast as Maureen's girlfriend, Joanne Jefferson. Taye Diggs at the time was an actor looking to do more straight plays, films, and TV shows before getting called in at the last minute to audition for landlord Benjamin Coffin III, which he ended up winning as well. For the role of anarchist professor Tom Collins, casting director Bernard Telsey had known of actor Jesse L. Martin through various auditions for commercials. Telsey kept trying to bring him in to audition for Rent, knowing that he could sing, but Jesse kept canceling because he was not interested in doing a musical. After a while, Bernie went up to Connecticut to see Jesse in a play he was doing, and begged him to audition, even letting him know that it was not going to be a traditional musical at all. Finally, Jesse came in to audition for the creative team, he sang 'Amazing Grace', and he won the part.

As the musical was in the middle of tech week at New York Theatre Workshop, Jonathan Larson had been experiencing some chest pains. After two trips to the hospital, doctors sent him home thinking it was only nerves from the show getting ready to open. On January 24th, 1996, Rent had an invited dress rehearsal before opening Off-Broadway. After the performance, Jonathan went to the box office for his first (and only) newspaper interview, which was with music critic Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times. When Larson went home, he was in the kitchen making tea when he suffered from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm (which was believed to have resulted from Marfan syndrome), and sadly died on the kitchen floor early the next morning. Several hours later, the cast and crew as well as friends and family gathered at the New York Theatre Workshop grieving. It was then decided that the first preview of Rent would go on later that night, but as a sing-through of the musical dedicated to Jonathan. By the end of the performance, everyone in the audience gave an immediate standing ovation, sat back down, and did not move until a voice came out saying "Thank you Jonathan Larson".

Rent went on to premiere as planned and quickly gained popularity fueled by enthusiastic critical reviews as well as attention from the recent death of its creator. It proved to be extremely successful during its Off-Broadway run, selling out all its shows at the 150-seat New York Theater Workshop, and had several extensions during the run. The show also ended up becoming the seventh musical in history to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which was accepted by Jonathan's parents, Al & Nan Larson, on his behalf. Due to such overwhelming popularity, Rent ended up moving to Broadway's recently remodeled Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street on April 29th, 1996. Everything was completely intact, such as the material, the cast, the staging, the choreography, and the designs. The show not only became the biggest hit Broadway had seen in years, but also a cultural phenomenon. The musical's controversial topics and innovative pricing, (which included same day-of-performance $20 tickets) helped increase the popularity of musical theater among the younger generation. Miramax Films had almost immediately bought the rights to produce a big screen adaptation of Rent for $2,500,000, though the studio decided that they should allow touring companies to run six years on the road before making a movie.

On June 2nd, 1996, the 50th Tony Awards were held at Broadway's Majestic Theatre (home to The Phantom of the Opera), hosted by Nathan Lane, and broadcast on CBS. The nominees for Best Musical that year were Bring in 'da Noise/Bring in 'da Funk, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Rent, and Swinging on a Star. Rent had a total of 10 nominations going into the night. It ended up winning 4 awards for Best Musical, Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score. Those two latter awards were accepted by Jonathan's sister, Julie Larson, on his behalf.

Over the years, Jonathan Larson's family was very involved in the developmental process of a film adaptation. Stephen Chbosky (who was the author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower) had signed on to write the screenplay. Filmmaker Spike Lee (who is referenced in the song 'Light My Candle') became attached to direct in 2001. Lee himself was already an enormous fan of the musical, and he even saw the Broadway production several times, though after a while, he parted ways, and Miramax had no idea what to do with Rent. No other studio was interested in making it as they doubted the show's subject matter would be commercially viable as a film. Not to mention that at the time, no one was interested in movie musicals until Chicago was released in 2002, and proved to be a huge success. Then, the project was set up at Revolution Studios with filmmaker Chris Columbus set to direct.

After having started out his career writing screenplays for such films as 1984's Reckless, 1984's Gremlins, 1985's The Goonies, and 1985's Young Sherlock Holmes, Columbus made his directorial debut with 1987's Adventures in Babysitting. Since then, he went on to make several more movies such as 1990's Home Alone, 1993's Mrs. Doubtfire, 1998's Stepmom, and the first two Harry Potter films (2001's Sorcerer's Stone and 2002's Chamber of Secrets). He had actually wanted to make a film version of Rent ever since he first saw the show on Broadway as he related to what the characters of Mark & Roger were going through. Columbus lived in New York around the time the show took place, and had a lot of the same experiences living in a loft.

When casting began, the filmmakers auditioned hundreds of performers for each of the eight principal roles. Though each time Columbus connected with an original cast member, he felt they were their characters. Therefore, he let six of the original actors - Anthony Rapp as Mark, Adam Pascal as Roger, Jesse L. Martin as Collins, Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Angel, Idina Menzel as Maureen, & Taye Diggs as Benny - reprise their roles in the film. Daphne Rubin-Vega was pregnant at the time, and couldn't do it while Fredi Walker felt she was too old for her role. So the new additions to the cast ended up being Rosario Dawson as Mimi and Tracie Thoms (who had spent eight years auditioning for the Broadway production before getting cast in the film) as Joanne.

The movie version of Rent was released in theaters nationwide on November 23rd, 2005, and ended up being a critical and commercial disappointment. It currently holds a 46% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with the critics consensus stating: "Fans of the stage musical may forgive Rent its flaws, but weak direction, inescapable staginess and an irritating faux-boho pretension prevent the film from connecting on screen." A common criticism the movie has received over the years is that as smart of a choice it might've been on paper to bring back most of the original cast, they were all at that point way too old to be playing their roles (especially on screen). On a budget of $40,000,000, Rent only ended up grossing $31,670,620 at the worldwide box office.

On September 7th, 2008, Rent played its final Broadway performance after a run of 5,123 performances. Earlier in the year, the producers announced a closing date for June 1st, but decided to extend by three months due to increasing demand in ticket sales. The performance was filmed professionally and had a limited release in movie theaters between September 24th and 28th. According to Sony Pictures Releasing President Rory Bruer, Rent became the first live Broadway show to be available in major North American movie theaters. The closing cast included Adam Kantor as Mark, Will Chase as Roger, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Mimi, Michael McElroy as Collins, Justin Johnston as Angel, Eden Espinosa as Maureen, Tracie Thoms as Joanne, & Rodney Hicks as Benny.

A few months later, the musical became available for licensing through Music Theatre International, which also created a Rent: School Edition to make the show more accessible for high schools and teenagers to perform. In the summer of 2011, Rent made its return to New York via an Off-Broadway revival at New World Stages. Michael Greif returned to direct a brand new staging with a cast that included Adam Chanler-Berat as Mark, Matt Shingledecker as Roger, Arianda Fernandez as Mimi, Nicholas Christopher as Collins, MJ Rodriguez as Angel, Annaleigh Ashford as Maureen, Corbin Reid as Joanne, & Ephraim Sykes as Benny. Though critics were not impressed as they thought that the new actors did not have a feel for the characters they were playing and it made the show feel contrived. The Off-Broadway revival played its final performance on September 9th, 2012.

On May 12th, 2017, FOX announced that one of their next live musicals would be Rent. Marc Platt, who had previously produced both Grease and A Christmas Story for the network as well as Jesus Christ Superstar for NBC, is producing the telecast along with Jonathan Larson's sister, Julie, and father, Al. Michael Greif once again returns to direct along with Alex Rudzinski providing live television direction. This production stars Jordan Fisher as Mark, Brennin Hunt as Roger, Tinashe as Mimi, Brandon Victor Dixon as Collins, Valentina as Angel, Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen, Kiersey Clemons as Joanne, and Mario as Benny. The telecast will be broadcast in front of a live audience at the sound stages of FOX studios in Hollywood.

As we're now only much less than 525,600 minutes away from the telecast, I hope everyone has a great time tuning in tonight!

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