Larson wasn't there to read the reviews--he died of an aortic aneurysm on the night of the final dress rehearsal at the age of 35. His opus depicts the life he knew--the disease- and drug-plagued but joyous Bohemia of New York's East Village, circa 1995. More than one reviewer dubbed the show a watershed event in the history of the American musical and declared Larson the posthumous savior of the form. The press celebrated a fabulous story, more dramatic even than when choreographer Gower Champion died hours before the opening of "42nd Street" 16 years before.
A Pulitzer Prize soon followed, and a phenomenon was born, producing extreme curiosity and understandable skepticism among theater-goers who could not get a ticket to the tiny East Village theater where "Rent" played a sold-out run. Monday night "Rent" opened on Broadway, at the Nederlander Theatre, the most anticipated opening in several years. Anyone who hasn't seen it cannot help but ask: Would this musical be the red-hot ticket it is if Jonathan Larson had lived?
What an incalculably strange and sad question that turns out to be. Muscular, chilling and energizing, "Rent" is as full of death, and the prescience of dying, as any musical has ever been. The show focuses on a group of young people clinging fiercely together while living a difficult, exhilarating existence on the brink of poverty. And, as it turns out, Jonathan Larson is the main character in this wonderful but imperfect show. What would have been merely moving in "Rent" is made almost unbearably bittersweet by the knowledge, apparent in almost every song, that Larson had grappled profoundly with the meaning of life and art in his final years. His death should be irrelevant to his achievement, and yet it is not.