Larson’s Legacy: Broadway 20 Years After RENT
When we thought about how to celebrate 20 years of RENT and it’s success, we could have gone the more boring, typical route. What we mean is we could list how many productions of RENT have played worldwide in different countries and languages or talked about how much profit the show has made over the years or mentioned the stars born from this show after appearing on stage in the musical itself. Instead, we decided to take a different route for celebrating 20 years of RENT. Rarely does a musical come along that changes everything. However, with a perfect example of one that did and an anniversary to celebrate, we’re digging a little deeper. Today, Luner on Theatre celebrates 20 years of RENT with a look on the legacy it’s Tony Award winning composer Jonathan Larson has left on Broadway!
20 years ago today, the first preview of RENT was cancelled at The New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village. It was not cancelled not due to a lack of preparation on the production’s behalf but because the show’s composer, Jonathan Larson (Pictured Right), died unexpectedly earlier that day in the early morning hours of an aortic aneurysm caused by Marfan syndrome. He was never officially diagnosed. While Larson would never live to see the success of RENT or its impact to theatre community, there is no doubt RENT was a turning point in Broadway’s history. Today we celebrate 20 years of RENT by looking back at the legacy of Jonathan Larson’s musical that not only changed Broadway forever but inspired some of Broadway’s biggest blockbusters since.
One of Jonathan Larson’s original ideas for when he was writing RENT was an MTV meets Broadway feel. Musical numbers on stage, with rock music unlike anything Broadway had ever seen, almost appearing like music videos in the show advancing the plot and characters. In a generation of kids growing up with music videos on their televisions daily, Larson saw an opportunity to bring a younger generation into the theatre, which was typically dominated by a much older audience. The concept of taking the “music of the day” and bringing that to the stage was also something new for Broadway. Bringing that well-known style of music and turning it into a Broadway score for audiences is something that not only resonated then but has provided itself as inspiration for countless composers of musicals since.
In 2006, a new musical came along that very much echoed RENT with its youthful tone, frustration and rock musical score that would capture young audiences once again on Broadway bringing them back in drives. Spring Awakening, featuring music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater, came to life based off of the German play of the same title from 1891. The musical followed the lives of teenagers who adapted to the ever-changing world rebelling against their adult counterparts who weren’t as quickly to adapt. The musical appealed to many RENT lovers featuring a rock score and much angst among the characters frustrated with a lack of understanding from others. It also spoke to the RENT generation turning that rock music on the stage into music video esq styled production numbers. The original Broadway production was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and went on to win eight including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score just as RENT had a decade earlier. The musical just recently saw a critically acclaimed revival on Broadway presented by Deaf West with half of the actors hearing and half non-hearing. While presented totally different from the original, one could argue the revival’s production numbers could also have been music videos with their rock music, flashing lights and popping choreography (This time as well with ASL).
In RENT’s final year on Broadway in 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda tapped into Larson’s example of putting the music of the day on stage when be brought his new musical, In The Heights, to Broadway. Much like RENT, In The Heights was a New York story. It focused on the Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights and it’s residents. However, Miranda brought a new and more familiar sound to Broadway to tell his story in 2008; hip-hop and rap. (Click here to listen to the Opening Number) Mixing a chart topping style of music of the day with elements of Broadway musicals audiences were familiar with hearing, Miranda sent In the Heights sky-rocketing to success. The show was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and went on to win several including Best Musical and a Best Original Score award for Miranda’s work. In The Heights was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for its groundbreaking work on broadway just as RENT had been nominated (And won) 12 years prior. What we didn’t know then was Miranda was just setting the stage for the ultimate hip-hop musical to come. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Green Day tested the Broadway waters in 2010 bringing their catalogue of songs to the stage in a musical titled America Idiot, after one of their best-selling albums. Putting a plot to some of their most iconic tunes over their career, Green Day brought back the first real “rock musical” Broadway had seen since RENT hit the stage over a decade prior. Sure, to many the musical was considered a “jukebox musical” as Green Day put together songs they had previously written and framed a plot around it all as many artists had done before when diving onto Broadway. The difference is with such a well-known band, American Idiot (in a sense) is what Larson had imagined when thinking “MTV meets Broadway”. Here, you had one of the best known bands of a generation bringing to life their classic hits in musical numbers in a production that one could easily considered staged and styled like music videos. The production last only a year in New York but went on to launch several US. national and international tours. While American Idiot on Broadway would not run nearly a fraction of the time RENT did, it truly embodied the idea of an MTV generation meeting Broadway as Larson originally imagined once again bringing a new and younger generation to the theatre.
RENT could even be considered the foundation for Broadway’s current hottest hit, Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda returned to Broadway in 2015, less than a decade after In The Heights debuted, and brought back an even more powerful example of hip-hop on Broadway. Hamilton, a musical about the founding fathers, birth of America and Alexander Hamilton, has taken over pop culture headlines bringing hip-hop and rap to Broadway like never before. Cabinet meetings as rap battles and lyrics moving a mile-a-minute has sent Hamilton into the spotlight with the hip-hop and rap music scene only expanded since Miranda first tested the waters in 2008. His loyal fans have returned and brought 10 with them. Hamilton is considered by many to be the RENT or A Chorus Line of the decade. What does that mean? After this show, like the others mentioned above, nothing will ever be the same. Hamilton took another lesson RENT brought us in 1996; reinventing the story and our education of a topic. RENT took us into the AIDS epidemic like never before and taught us more by showing us a different side of the story; the people’s individual story and their daily struggles they faced. The AIDS epidemic to many Americans before RENT was simply they had heard of, maybe not even known about. But thousands of Americans had faced the harsh reality that RENT brought to life in its staging. Hamilton reinvented our education of American then by presenting it through America now. A multi-cultural cast brings to life this story showing you American history in a way like you’ve never imagined it.
And incase all of what we’ve listed above as RENT’s success isn’t enough for you…here are just the facts; RENT transferred to Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre (Pictured Right) just months after premiering at The New York Theatre Workshop in 1996 after selling out its entire original engagement. The original Broadway production was nominated for 10 Tony Awards winning four not only including Best Musical but Best Book Of A Musical and Best Original Score for the late Jonathan Larson. It was nominated for the Best New Musical Olivier Award when RENT premiered in London in 1998. The show was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It ran on Broadway for an outstanding 12-years playing 5,123 performances. The original production grossed over $280 million dollars. The show has gone onto live in the form of multiple U.S. national and international tours, countless overseas productions, a Hollywood Bowl production, an Off-Broadway revival and even a major motion picture in 2005. To this day, the show has been performed in 24 different languages in over 45 countries.
RENT and Jonathan Larson’s legacy live far beyond the original production’s success it saw in the months and years following his unexpected death. It has inspired some of the biggest Broadway blockbusters to this day and also been the inspiration for countless productions that have brought young audiences into the theatre as Larson intended when he penned RENT two decades ago. When we look back and imagine what laid the foundation for a new sound on stage and young generation becoming fans of Broadway, RENT stands out as the beginning of it all. Larson not only filled us with an incredible story, beautiful music and lyrics but laid down the path for the future of Broadway. And while doing so, he reminded us of one of the most important things we could ever be reminded;
There’s only us, There’s only this. Forget, regret or Life is yours to miss. No other road, no other way; No Day But Today.