Skip to content

How Rent changed my life, RIP Jonathan Larson

The announcement that Rent was heading to Broadway came on Friday Feb. 23, 1996.

Early the next morning, my father took his own life.

Between that day, Feb 24, 1996, and May 10, 1999, I graduated from high school, started a long-term relationship, left home for college, finished two years at the University of Alabama, ended that relationship, transferred home to the University of South Carolina, secured my first professional journalism job and finished my junior year in college.

But through all those things I was in a haze.

Sleepwalking almost.

Then I walked into Nederlander Theater on West 41st Street in New York City on May 10, 1999.

All I knew as I walked in was that Rent was the show to see if you were taking in a Broadway show in 1999.

I didn’t know the story that would play out on stage.

I didn’t know that this “rock opera” was a modernized version of Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme. Nor did I even know of Puccini or La Boheme.

And I didn’t know the back story of Jonathan Larson – who died 17 years ago today of an aortic aneurysm after Rent’s first dress rehearsal – or that he never saw his show performed on Broadway.

In Rent, Larson swapped 1830 Paris for New York’s lower East side in 1989.

He Americanized the character’s names and occupations. And he transformed the deadly illness ripping away young lives from tuberculosis to AIDS, the disease taking the lives of his friends in late-1980s New York City.

Rent is about living in the moment.

It’s about overcoming isolation to achieve connection.

It’s about embracing love of all kinds.

It’s about learning to deal with the fear that comes with living life and awaiting death.

What I saw was personally revolutionary.

The healing process from the death of a loved one is typically a long and winding one.

That certainly was the case for me.

And I had been getting better, but what happened that night gave me the perspective I needed to lift myself out of my grief and realize that life is a gift.

You never know how much longer you have.

So live it.

Experience it.

Engage.

Talk.

Love.

Do all the things you can while you have time.

Because time is not something we can control.

Those principles, combined with gaining a perspective on things not typically visible to someone who grows up in the suburbs in the South, is how Rent changed me.

It opened my eyes to homelessness.

It opened my eyes to AIDS.

It opened my eyes to love.

And with open eyes, I realized that the most important things to me were civil and human rights and equal opportunity for all.

Rent showed me that in all situations if a choice exists between love and hate, there is no choice. Love wins.

It knows no bounds. And it’s right – in all situations.

Rent has been transcendent for many people over the past 17 years.

Some because they love the characters and the story.

Some because they love the music.

Some because of how it opened their eyes to the world.

And some for all of those reasons and more.

One of the things Larson believed would make him a success was a positive review in The New York Times.

On Jan. 24, 1996, Anthony Tommasini of The Times attended a dress rehearsal for Rent at the New York Theatre Workshop.

Afterwards, he interviewed Larson. Larson went home that night and died on his kitchen floor.

Read Tommasini’s story from that evening as well as his story on the 7-year odyssey of Rent, and check out Rent on DVD, where you can see the movie version, starring all but two of the original cast, as well as Rent Live on Broadway, which is the live performance of the final Broadway show in 2008.

But most importantly, remember to soak up every one of the 525,600 minutes we get in a year.

Scroll To Top