What’s 525,600 times 25?
It has been 25 years — or, to use a memorable “Seasons of Love” calculation, 13.14 million minutes — since “Rent” upended Broadway’s sense of what musical theater could be. Jonathan Larson’s gender-splicing, rock-infused reboot of “La Bohème” had already generated positive chatter during its Off Broadway rehearsals at New York Theater Workshop. But then came full-throated shouts of disbelief and anguish on Jan. 25, 1996, when, hours after the final dress rehearsal, Larson was found dead in his apartment from an aortic aneurysm. He was 35 years old.
His shocking death came right before the start of previews, when a creative team typically makes changes based on audience reactions. After briefly considering whether to bring in a script doctor, the team decided instead to streamline Larson’s music and lyrics as needed.
The move paid off. Within weeks, “Rent” had achieved a level of hype that would not be rivaled on Broadway until “Hamilton” almost 20 years later: earning rave reviews (The New York Times’s Ben Brantley said it “shimmers with hope for the future of the American musical”); a Pulitzer Prize for Drama; and a frantic transfer to Broadway, where it ran for 12 years and won four Tony Awards.
On Tuesday, New York Theater Workshop will use its annual fund-raising gala to commemorate the show’s silver anniversary with “25 Years of Rent: Measured in Love.” The largely prerecorded virtual performance, available to stream through March 6, will feature most of the original cast, who still communicate regularly in a group chat, along with high-profile “Rent”-heads like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Platt, Billy Porter and Ali Stroker.
Members of the original production’s cast and creative team discussed the stratospheric heights and ghastly lows of 1996, remembering the gifted young writer who would have been 61 years old today. Here are the lightly edited excerpts.
‘We had to do it for Jonathan’
NANCY KASSAK DIEKMANN, former managing director of New York Theater Workshop: Jonathan had the kind of health insurance where he could only go to the emergency room, and he had already been once. They told him it was food poisoning or something, and they sent him home. On the day of the final dress rehearsal, he wasn’t feeling well, and he called to say he was going to take a nap. I said to him, “Jon, why don’t you let me make you an appointment and pay for you to see my doctor?” I always wonder what would have happened if he had gone.
JAMES C. NICOLA, artistic director of New York Theater Workshop: Everyone felt a degree of ownership and responsibility to do their absolute best on his behalf. It ceased being a job and became a calling.
ANTHONY RAPP, who played Mark: From that last dress rehearsal until mid-July, no one missed a performance. It seemed impossible. No one could. I don’t say that to brag. I just think it showed our level of commitment. We had to do it for Jonathan.
MICHAEL GREIF, director: One terrible advantage of being in your mid-30s working on “Rent” was that you had a decade of experience of loss. Jonathan’s death made him part of the community he was honoring.
ADAM PASCAL, who played Roger: People are often surprised to hear this, but I only knew Jonathan for about four weeks. I was cast in December, and he died in January. I grieved the loss on behalf of his family, who we got to know afterward. But I personally miss him the way the public misses him. I miss the music that never got written.
‘We did a lot of cutting’
NICOLA: Four of us met the day after Jonathan died — me, Michael Greif, Tim Weil and Lynn Thomson [the dramaturge]. And one thing that came up was, “Should we bring in another composer/writer to finish the job? Is that the choice that has integrity?” But we quickly decided against it.
TIM WEIL, musical supervisor: Our idea was, “Let’s do what Jonathan wanted us to do,” even if we couldn’t know exactly what that was.
GREIF: We did a lot of cutting. We cut things that we felt Jonathan would agree to or even advocate cutting.
RAPP: I think Jonathan was raring to go for the preview process. It would have been very discombobulating and weird for morale to have a foreigner — I mean that artistically, not xenophobically — come in at that point.
DIEKMANN: Tim had to step up on the musical side, and he did. He and Michael knew what Jonathan wanted — because, God knows, he was there all the time.
WEIL: I still continue to make little bitty changes for new productions, since it has always been tailored to specific performers. I think I’m the only one who has that kind of license.
‘Everything was just coming at us’
WILSON JERMAINE HEREDIA, who played Angel: Everything was just coming at us, and there was a part of me that was on automatic pilot. The only thing that felt safe and constant was going back on that stage every night. The most stable thing was that it was happening to all of us.
DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA, who played Mimi: Today is 12 weeks out from a partial knee replacement for me. And part of me is like, “How did I get here?” But I know exactly how I got here: by playing Mimi eight times a week.
RAPP: I have weird little nagging injuries that still bother me from carrying around that video camera for two hours straight.
‘Representation really matters’
GREIF: The idealism and openheartedness of the piece, which I was very wary of at the time and found myself guarding against, has had a profound impact on very, very young people. I’m talking 12- and 13-year-olds. And in many ways, “Rent” opened the door to the possibility of the musicals I went on to direct, musicals like “Next to Normal” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”
RUBIN-VEGA: Representation really matters, and it was important for a woman who looks like me to be thrust into that ingénue role.
PASCAL: It is something that I’m clearly forever connected to. And it is something that is still literally paying the rent. Do you know about Cameo? Earlier today, I did five Cameos where I sang “Rent” songs.
NICOLA: I am just now able to hear these songs without any baggage or context — just hear them as musical theater songs. And I’m thinking, “These are really good songs.”