'Rent' turns 25: How Jonathan Larson's 'unusual' rock musical became a cathartic Broadway phenomenon

Patrick Ryan, USA TODAY
·6 min read

It was 1994 and Anthony Rapp was working at a Starbucks when he auditioned for a new musical called "Rent," a gritty update of Puccini opera "La Boheme" set in New York City's East Village.

"My agent described it as a rock opera based on 'La Boheme,' and the phrase 'rock opera' didn't exactly fill me with confidence," Rapp says. "At the time, musical theater was a lot of pageantry, and the idea of a rock opera felt to me like big wigs and loud, obnoxious things. So I just didn't know what the tone would be."

But he was intrigued by the script breakdown, which "mentioned the subject matter and that there would be a rock musician struggling with HIV, a stripper struggling with HIV and a drag queen. So I was like, 'Those are all unusual characters to depict in a musical.' "

That messy, somewhat meandering two-week workshop was quite different from the musical that eventually landed on Broadway 25 years ago on April 16, 1996, less than three months after creator Jonathan Larson's death.

The character of landlord Benny, for instance, initially had a comedy number called "Real Estate," in which he tries to persuade Rapp's aspiring filmmaker Mark to go into business with him. Girlfriends Maureen and Joanne, meanwhile, sang fervent duet "Without You" before it was given to the show's central pair Roger and Mimi.

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But the musical's unflinching portrayal of the AIDS epidemic, groundbreaking LGBTQ representation, and timeless message of "no day but today" have all been at the heart of "Rent" from the start. And with its pulsing rock score, the show helped bring Broadway to a younger audience, serving as a blueprint for countless musicals since including "Spring Awakening" and "Dear Evan Hansen."

"We knew that it was something new, but I really couldn't have imagined it'd have this kind of resonance 25 years afterward," says original cast member Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won a Tony Award playing vivacious drag queen Angel. Over the years, "I've had people approach me and say, 'This show's changed my life.' It goes past just being a cultural phenomenon."

Jonathan Larson's death was 'incredibly shocking' for everyone

Larson was working as a waiter and living in a run-down New York apartment in the late '80s when he was introduced to playwright Billy Aronson, who had the idea for a modern take on "La Boheme." A fiercely driven composer and playwright, Larson had been trying to get a number of projects off the ground, and in "Rent," he saw potential to marry his disparate musical influences of Stephen Sondheim, the Beatles and the Who's Pete Townshend.

He eventually took over the show for himself in 1991, incorporating some of his own experiences as a struggling artist into the story. (Maureen, for example, was inspired partly by a girlfriend who left him for another woman.) Even more so, "Rent" became a deeply emotional tribute to Larson's friends, many of whom contracted HIV and later died at the height of the AIDS crisis in the U.S.

The cast of Rent performs at the 1996 Tony Awards held at the Majestic Theatre in New York.
The cast of Rent performs at the 1996 Tony Awards held at the Majestic Theatre in New York.

"He spoke very eloquently and specifically about how personal the show was to him, as someone who was witnessing what was going on in the community and to his friends," says Rapp, 49. "He felt he had to write something in response."

After a 1993 staged reading at New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) and 1994 studio production featuring Rapp and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Mimi, NYTW produced “Rent” Off-Broadway in January 1996. The cast included then-newcomers Heredia, Adam Pascal and Fredi Walker-Browne, as well as future movie and TV stars Idina Menzel ("Frozen"), Taye Diggs ("Private Practice") and Jesse L. Martin ("Law & Order").

But the day after the final dress rehearsal, the cast and creative team was gutted to learn that Larson had died overnight from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. He was 35.

"It was incredibly shocking," Rapp says. "He hadn't been feeling well, but there was absolutely no indication or warning it seemed to any of us that he was going to die."

Rather than cancel that night's show, they decided to do a closed performance for family and friends, which provided much-needed catharsis for everyone as they reeled from Larson's loss.

"The show itself is about living fully and joyfully in the face of crisis, in the face of grief, in the face of loss. That's what happened to us in that performance," Rapp says. "When we sang 'Seasons of Love' at the opening of Act 2, I mean, that song is definitively about finding ways to celebrate and mourn at the same time. It's not one or the other, it's both. And that kept resonating throughout the night."

The 'Rent' phenomenon was both 'fantastic' and 'exhausting'

News of Larson's death quickly spread and "Rent" became a hot ticket off-Broadway, bolstered by enthusiastic reviews and word of mouth. The show transferred to Broadway's Nederlander Theatre that spring, marking its official opening night on April 29, 1996. It attracted countless celebrity guests from Tori Amos to the Clintons, and even spawned its own clothing line. (At one point, Heredia says, there were talks of "Rent" dolls.)

"Rent" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama along with four Tony Awards, including best musical, book, score and featured actor in a musical (Heredia). But Heredia, who is of Dominican descent, says he wasn't able to fully comprehend the significance of his Tony win or the magnitude of the show itself until much later.

"For the first four months straight, there was not a day that any of us had off" between interviews, magazine shoots and TV appearances, says Heredia, 49. "All fantastic stuff, but just so, so exhausting. I guess that was part of the way we were processing our grief (over Larson). It was like, 'Just keep going.' "

When he reprised the role of Angel in London's West End in 1998, and some of the "Rent" hoopla had subsided, he was finally able to take stock of the whole experience.

The show closed on Broadway in 2008 after 12 years and more than 4,300 performances. But it lives on in Fox's "Rent: Live," a 2019 TV production starring Vanessa Hudgens, and a 2005 movie version, which features most of the original Broadway cast as well as Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thomas.

The "Rent" film received mediocre reviews from critics and fans, many of whom felt the cast had aged out of their twentysomething-year-old characters.

"I know there are two camps for that movie: Some people love it and some people hate it," Heredia says. "But nevertheless, it still introduced that show and that message to a new generation of people.

" 'No day but today,' man. I still live that philosophy, I really do."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Rent' 25th anniversary: Anthony Rapp, Wilson Jermaine Heredia reflect