11 Things You Should Know About Rent
Fox's live performance of Rent, the Broadway musical that ushered in a new age of pop-rock music on the Great White Way, has finally arrived. The rock opera’s uplifting message still strikes a chord with audiences everywhere. Before you rock out to the live version, study up on these facts about the original play.
1. It's loosely based on the 1896 opera La Boheme.
The story of Rent began with playwright Billy Aronson, who moved to Manhattan's Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in 1983. Homelessness was a huge issue in the city at that time, as was the emergence of AIDS, which would affect 1096 new victims by year's end. One night, Aronson caught a performance of La Boheme. The opera, written by the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, is a four-act masterpiece about a group of penniless, starving artists in 19th-century Paris. The four main characters share a crowded living space which sometimes gets so cold that they must burn their own works for warmth. To make matters worse, their city has fallen prey to a raging tuberculosis epidemic. Still, in their strife, the artists find camaraderie.
"I remember walking home … and noticing the contrast between the luscious world of the opera and the world I lived in," Aronson told Mediander. Soon, he hatched the idea of adapting La Boheme into a musical that would be set in New York during the AIDS crisis. Many plot points in Rent mirror La Boheme, including the relationship between Mimi and Roger (in Puccini’s opera, much of the drama stems from Rodolfo, a poet, and his rocky affair with a poor woman named Mimi, who ultimately dies of tuberculosis) and Angel’s decision to kill an obnoxious dog for money (in La Boheme, one character earns some badly-needed cash by doing away with a pesky parrot).
2. Billy Aronson provided the initial lyrics for three of Rent's most beloved songs.
"I love working with musicals and dance, but I don’t write music," Aronson said. To enlist some help with his La Boheme project, the writer approached some acquaintances at the theater Playwrights Horizons, who put him in touch with composer (and part-time restaurant waiter) Jonathan Larson. Eventually, other projects drove Aronson to leave the show behind. Larson—who felt the show might well become his generation’s answer to Hair—also stopped working on it for a time, but he eventually came back to it, with his ex-collaborator’s blessing. Before the two parted ways, however, Aronson penned the first lyrics to "Santa Fe," "I Should Tell You," and the titular song, "Rent."
Aronson wrote on his website that sometime before the off-Broadway premiere, he asked Larson what was left of his work. Larson responded, “the lyrics for 'Rent' were basically his, the lyrics for 'Santa Fe' were basically mine, and the lyrics for 'I Should Tell You' were half and half.”
3. "Will I?" was inspired by something Jonathan Larson heard at an HIV/AIDS support group meeting.
While working on Rent, Larson regularly attended the meetings of a nonprofit group called Friends In Deed, which was created in 1991 as a support group for New Yorkers with AIDS and other life-threatening ailments. The discussions Larson observed there prompted him to write "Life Support" and "Will I?" According to organization co-founder Cynthia O’Neal, "Jonathan had been sitting in … one night when a young man raised his hand." The man said "I’m not really afraid of dying, and I think I can handle suffering, but the thing I think about all the time is 'Will I lose my dignity?'"
4. To nab a role, Adam Pascal had to break a bad singing habit.
Pascal played Roger Davis, a musician and ex-junkie with HIV. Though he’d never appeared in a musical before trying out for Rent, the performer—like his character—did have an impressive rock and roll background; he’d spent many years in bands, including one that had recently broken up. But things that work well at concerts don’t always cut it on an off-Broadway stage. During the audition, he was asked to sing "Your Eyes," Roger’s tender love ballad. Although the vocalist aced every note, there was one big problem: He couldn’t keep his eyes open. "As a rock singer, I was used to closing my eyes when showing/feeling emotion," Pascal wrote in retrospect. Obviously, that technique was ill-suited for acting. Pascal fixed the issue and landed the role.
5. Producers saw a workshop performance, and offered to fund it before they'd even seen Act II.
An early version of Rent was performed as a staged reading at the New York Theatre Workshop in March 1993. One year later, a new workshop production—complete with a heavily-revised script—was staged. This proto-Rent ran for two weeks; toward the end of its run, producing partners Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum stopped by to see the show. Larson’s musical was still very much a work in progress. "For the first 20 minutes, I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s great energy,’'’ McCollum told Vulture. "Then, 25 minutes in, ‘Light My Candle’ happens." The producers couldn’t believe their ears. "I turned to Jeffrey and said, ‘That’s the best piece of musical-theater storytelling I’ve seen in a long time,’" McCollum recalled. During intermission, the duo found Larson and told him they wanted to do his show. "Well," Larson replied, "do you want to see the second act?"
Seller and McCollum later brought their associate Allen Gordon on board as a third producer. After numerous revisions, Rent was ready for its first official preview.
6. Larson didn't live to see Rent's success.
On January 24, 1996, Rent had its final dress rehearsal at the New York Theatre Workshop, an Off-Broadway venue. By all accounts, the run-through went well, and afterward, Larson sat down for an interview with New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini. When their discussion wrapped up, the composer headed back to his Greenwich Village apartment. The next day, Larson was found dead on the kitchen floor; he had succumbed to a fatal aortic aneurysm. He was only 35 years old.
Rent was set to have its first-ever preview performance that very night. With heavy hearts, the cast decided to take the stage in his memory. It was a performance like no other. The doors were closed to the general public; every available seat was reserved for Larson’s friends and family. Together, the cast decided there’d be no choreography or blocking—instead, everybody would sit down in front of the audience for a full sing-through. But, as the night wore on, the actors grew more energized. "By the time we got to ‘La Vie Boheme,’ we could not contain ourselves," Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who played Angel, said in the documentary No Day But Today—The Story of Rent. For the rest of the evening, the whole company danced and did their blocking with gusto.
7. Rent is in some elite company, awards-wise.
With the impromptu memorial performance behind them, the cast dove into their first public preview on January 26. That April, Rent made the jump to Broadway, where it would remain for the next 12 years. Altogether, Larson’s passion project nabbed four Tony Awards, including the coveted Best Musical. It also took home the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, something that only eight other musicals (Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello!, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park With George, Next to Normal, and Hamilton) have ever won.
8. It pioneered the Broadway ticket lottery.
For many, it can be tough to catch a show on the Great White Way without breaking the bank—but these days, most Broadway productions offer daily ticket lotteries before a performance, with the winners getting the right to buy choice seats at a bargain price. Rent is credited with inventing this concept.
According to Seller, he and McCollum felt the need to make Rent accessible to those "in their 20s and 30s, artists, Bohemians—the people for whom [Larson] wrote the show." So after the musical moved to Broadway, the producers set up a rush ticket system. At every performance, two rows’ worth of premium seats were sold off for $20 apiece. The process began two hours before the show, and the tickets were distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Soon enough, huge lines of hardcore fans (known as "Rentheads") clamoring for rush seats started forming outside the theater. To beat the frenzy, many diehards even took to pitching tents and camping out on the street. Naturally, this raised some concerns. "We became worried that kids were going to get hurt and get into trouble in the middle of the night with what was still a pretty large contingent of low-lifes around there," Seller said. The show ended up replacing its ticket rush with Broadway’s very first ticket lottery system. Since then, this sort of thing has become an industry standard, although modern shows tend to conduct their lottos digitally.
9. The original cast sang "Seasons of Love" at the 1996 Democratic National Convention.
On day one of the convention—August 26, 1996—the ensemble serenaded First Lady Hillary Clinton and an admiring Chicago crowd with Rent’s most famous number. A year later, the first family celebrated Chelsea Clinton’s 17th birthday by taking her to a Broadway performance of Rent. The 42nd Commander-in-Chief later described the musical as "really powerful. It has a real grip on the people."
10. Martin Scorsese was considered as a possible director for the 2005 movie adaptation.
As Seller, who co-produced the film, told The Washington Post, "Scorsese admired the piece but didn’t know what to do with it." In the end, it was Chris Columbus of Mrs. Doubtfire fame who assumed the director’s chair.
11. The cast of Hamilton celebrated Rent's 20th anniversary with their own rendition of "Seasons of Love."
Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first experience with this paradigm-shifting musical came at age 17, when he was taken to see it on his birthday. For the future star, it was a life-changing event. Miranda said that Larson’s music immediately triggered "a revelation—that you could write about now, and you could have musicals that really felt contemporary."
In 2016, the cast of Hamilton celebrated the 20th anniversary of Rent by performing a version of "Season of Love."
An earlier version of this article ran in 2016.