Twenty five years ago, Rent exploded like a firework on Broadway. Twenty-five years ago, the picture of the leads on the cover of Time magazine lead me down the road toward become a rent-head, forcing me to give in to the overwhelming urge to get my butt on a plane to New York and see it . Twenty-five years ago, I also mourned the death of a stranger named Jonathan Larson, Rent’s creator. And an inspiration I never got to meet.
Based not he opera La Boheime, it centers on a group of artists, addicts and squatters living, illegally, in a neighborhood in New York in the 1980s. Centering on Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, and Rodger, a musician and recovering addict with AIDS and their circle of friends. Mimi, a striper with demons and her own issues with drugs, who falls for Mark. Collins, a college professor, recently back in town, who gets saved by, and falls for, Angel a gay many who dresses in dresses. Maureen, Mark’s ex, who left him for Joanne, still pulls his strings and he gets roped into helping her put on a piece of performance art. The musical follows them as they break-up, make-up, and fight the man, in the form of Bennie, former friend who married up and now owns the building they live in. Racially diverse, looking the AIDS epidemic square in the face (four characters, two gay, Collins and Angel, and two straight, Mark and Mimi, are positive), and powerful lyrics that incorporated rock music seamlessly into the musical format, Rent broke the mold. The power ballad, the classic 525,500 Minutes, lingers. For me, it’s the last last lines of the musical that haunt. The words remind us to hold onto the now.
Larson died right before opening night of an undiagnosed heart defect. He watched AIDS invade and decimate his artistic community. As a memorial, he gave us a snapshot fill with compassions and complexity. We lost him when he hit his stride. We will never get to know what he might have done next. All those songs unsung. But. But, life is about the ripples. Jonathan Larson inspired another young broadway geek named Lin-Manual Miranda. He got tickled by the idea that you could actually write a musical about your life. How much duller would the world be without him and Into the Heights, coming soon to a theater near you, and, of course, Hamilton.
And in the deep dark of 2020, even then, it only had 525,600 minutes. So will 2021. And I’m still grateful for a mentor I never met, who still inspires.
Remember the love. No day but today. Everything is RENT!