Ten million, five hundred and twelve thousand minutes. How do you measure twenty years in the life?
Two decades ago today, RENT opened on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre, where it would continue to run for twelve years and over five thousand performances. It would gross over $270 million dollars, have four national tours, an Off-Broadway revival in 2011, and become one of the most popular productions for regional theatre. How did it get this way? A man wrote about the people he knew and what he saw.
Jonathan Larson lived in a crap apartment in New York City, where, just like his characters Mark and Roger, he had to throw his keys down to his visitors in the street if they wanted to get into the building. He was absorbed in his work and eventually quit his job as a waiter to focus exclusively on writing RENT. And it paid off: it won the Best Musical Tony, and Larson won Best Book and Best Score. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming the first person to ever win the award for writing both the score and the libretto (the second person to do that just won this year). Only he wasn’t around to see it happen. Larson, at 35, died of an aortic aneurysm before the first performance at New York Theatre Workshop on January 25, 1996.
Without a captain at the wheel, RENT set sail regardless. They used their sorrow and turned it into success. And here I am, twenty years later, writing about a musical that debuted when I was thirteen months old, that I still relate to and get inspiration from.
I’ve talked about the show on this blog before, so I’m not going to recap the story (you can check out my beginner’s guide to musicals for that). But a musical only becomes a revolution every once in a while: A Chorus Line, Les Mis, Phantom, The Book of Mormon. And RENT. The musical that unapologetically tells the stories of AIDS-ridden strippers and cross-dressers.
Sometimes, when an artist dies, it can reflect in their last work: David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, reeks of death. RENT leaves you with the message that you should make every moment you’re lucky enough to have count:
Or life is yours to miss
No other road
No other way
No day but today
Live your life. Tell your story. And remember to measure your life in love.