It was closing night for the new musical "Rent" at the New York Theatre Workshop, a 150-seat East Village theater where the pop opera, loosely based on Puccini's "La Boheme," opened in February. Onstage, friends and creative personnel, including director Michael Greif, mingled with the youthful cast and band in the kind of pizza-and-beer ritual that has been repeated countless times in experimental theater spaces.
The Jonathan on the minds of almost everyone in the room was Jonathan Larson, the 35-year-old author and composer of "Rent." It is his life and the lives of his friends that are reflected in the musical, a raw and exuberant celebration of bohemian East Village artists--drag queens, drug addicts, performance artists and vagrants--living on the edge. The prevalence of violence and HIV in the stories of these characters suffuses the musical with the fragility of life, the theme of Puccini's opera. Indeed early in "Rent," a character sings of writing one song " . . . before I go, one song to leave behind. . . . " All the more affecting, therefore, that on Jan. 25, the day "Rent" was to begin previews at NYTW, Larson died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm.
While Larson had previously shown promise with two comparatively modest shows ("Superbia," "JP Morgan Saves the Nation") and had won prestigious theater grants, he was largely unknown among New York's theater-going public at the time of his death. But that changed dramatically after "Rent" opened on Feb. 13. Glowing reviews hailed Larson's swan song as the " 'Hair' of the '90s" and soon limousines were wending their way past the East Village bodegas and coffeehouses to the tiny theater on East 4th Street. Uptown theater owners began fiercely bidding, courting the show's neophyte producers, and David Geffen or Ahmet Ertegun became the odds-on favorites to produce the show's original cast album.