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"How do you document real life, when real life's getting more like fiction each day," Mark, the filmmaker narrator of Rent, asks at the start of the show's title song. It's one of many frighteningly prophetic lines playwright Jonathan Larson wrote before he died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm at age thirty-five — and before his show became the biggest theater story in two decades. Larson's death and Rent's subsequent success are such epic tales of tragedy and triumph that it's no wonder they've already taken on mythic stature. "If we had written that scene together, of him dying at that point, I would never have let him put it in," says Eddie Rosenstein, himself a filmmaker, and one of the playwright's best friends. "It was perfect Jonathan: he was always over the top that way. Dramatically, it made sense. The dramatic question of his life was over."
The story of Rent has a strange trajectory. For seven years, Larson, a talented playwright, composer and pianist who was eager to remake the American musical and hungry for a career breakthrough, had worked on an update of the opera La Boheme, relocating Giacomo Puccini's tale of Parisian artists to New York City's East Village. The off-Broadway production of Rent was scheduled to go into previews January 25, 1996, at New York Theatre Workshop. The night before, at the final dress rehearsal, the play received a standing ovation. Larson then went home, put a pot of water on the stove for tea, collapsed and died alone on the floor of his apartment. Two weeks later, Rent opened to phenomenal acclaim. Within three months, the show moved to Broadway, its youngcast became stars and Larson won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Rent swept the theater awards that spring, including the Tonys; the cast recording was nominated for a Grammy; and a film is in the works. Rent not only invigorated the moribund Broadway musical form; it offered a testament to lives lived on the edges of creation and death — a testament that struck a chord with thousands.
To those who discover Rent by being excited and moved by the performance, or by the CD or even by this book, Jonathan Larson's life is the finite chapter within the show's ongoing story. But for those who knew him, his absence is a painful reminder of a career that should still be evolving, works never seen that must be unfolding in some parallel universe. As Jonathan's friend Ann Egan says, "For us, when Rent began, Jonathan ended. For the actors, Rent catapulted their careers, and now they're bigger stars than Jonathan ever was in his lifetime." Rent is a moving show that has changed the lives of many of its participants and fans. Hopefully this book conveys some of that joyous, transforming spirit. Yet after talking to people who knew Jonathan and witnessing their sadness and anger, it's hard not to think of this story as, ultimately, a tragedy. "As you wander on through life Bud, whatever be goal/Keep your eye upon the donut, and not upon the hole." Jonathan's father, Al Larson, used to tell his children, quoting an old advertising slogan. Talk to Al now and he'll say, shaking his head, "Rent and its success to the world can be a consolation for the fact that Jonathan is not here, but as a parent, if I had a choice. I'd dump the whole thing and take Jonathan."
"The opposite of war isn't peace, it's creation," Mark sings in"La Vie Boheme." One of Jonathan's missions while writing was to celebrate art and art-makers. "Rent also exalts 'Otherness,' glorifying artists and counterculture as necessary to a healthy civilization," he wrote in a 1992 statement of concept. The production of his play gathered together a group of people who embodied the creative spirit. "Jonathan spoke eloquently about demons and fears surrounding creativity," says Mark Setlock, who played Angel in the 1994 workshop production of Rent and understudies on Broadway. "He speaks volumes to anyone who wants to make it as an artist in this society."
That faith in creative work helped drive the writers of this book.We never met Jonathan Larson. He's the hole in the donut we hadto write around, which is why we interviewed more than seventypeople, trying to capture as many curves as possible. This story ofRent's creation is told in a Rashomon chorus of voices, as Al Larsonputs it, where every point of view reveals the speaker as well as thesubject. For Jonathan's voice, we're left with a few randomquotes — and of course, the show's libretto. In it you'll find the bursting-with-love belief in life that characterized Jonathan Larson to those who knew him, and this gift to the rest of us known as Rent.