A Brief History of ‘Rent’

By Heather Oberlander
Rent Dramaturg

The engaging themes, interesting characters, and unique stories in Rent have captured the interest and imagination of nearly two generations.  Rent has been a phenomenon among fans of theater, as well as those whose interest in the theater is limited to this one show.  However, there is another interesting story in Rent that doesn’t appear on the stage.  The story of its creation is just as interesting as anything that appears on stage.

henri murgerBilly Aronson had the original inspiration for a rock musical based on La Boheme. He put out a call for collaborators, and a mutual friend introduced him to Jonathan Larson. They began work on this new musical.  After making little progress, Larson asked Aronson if he could take over the project as his own. Aronson agreed.

For inspiration, Larson went back to the book the opera was based on, The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter: Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, by Henri Murger. The play was originally set in the East Village, but Larson was more familiar with the Lower East Side, since he lived there. He considered it grittier and more akin to the Latin Quarter in Murger’s book.  Although Rent and Henri Murger’s book part company near the end of the first act, there are myriad similarities between the two, including the importance of Tom Collins’ coat, the café where the artists often gather but rarely pay, the close camaraderie of the main characters, and the casual attitudes towards sex.

Larson started work on Rent in 1990. It had its first preview in 1993. At the time it was a near disaster, but respondents thought it had a lot of promise, and it caught the attention of director Michael Greif. A year later, Rent had a much more successful public reading. In October 1995, a reading was presented where the entire show was a flashback from Angel’s funeral. Larson’s final version was presented in previews at The New York Theater Workshop in January 1996.

Unfortunately Jonathan Larson died the last night of previews. Several collaborators used Larson’s notes to make the changes they thought he would have made. Shortly before his death he wrote, “Rent is about a community celebrating life in the face of death from AIDS at the turn of the century.” This became the touchstone for the changes that were made.

rentnederRent moved to Broadway on April 29, 1996 in the Nederlander Theater, where it was a huge hit. In fact, it was the best-selling show since The Phantom of the Opera. Frank Rich, a very challenging critic, said, “At so divisive a time in our country’s culture, Rent shows signs of revealing an untapped appetite for something better.” Fans of the show, called “Rent Heads,” would sometimes line up a day in advance to purchase tickets for front row seats that were set aside to be sold at a much lower price than what was usually charged for popular Broadway shows.

Some critics say Rent shouldn’t have worked. Its episodic nature, its sparse set, and sexual themes presented at a time when the most popular Broadway fair was the spectacular family friendly Disney musical, and the fact that there is little cynicism or irony in a script that is supposed to be representational of a generation whose hallmark is irony and cynicism, were all cited as flaws.

It may be the pure heart and connection of this show overcomes theses flaws. It might be these very flaws that make this show magical. Either way, the experience of seeing it live cannot be missed.