When Jonathan Larson introduced himself to the cast of the first, downtown production of a new musical called “Rent,” the composer and playwright told those gathered that he’d written a show “about my friends, so that they would not be forgotten.”
Now, more twenty years, three posthumous Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize later, the greatest work of an artist who tragically never lived to see its opening performance has defined a generation of theater-goers while returning the Broadway musical to the realm of conceivable characters and building — prophetically — a memorial to young artists who were suddenly famous and no longer alive.
“He didn’t know the power of what he was saying; he couldn’t have known the meaning of that at that very moment,” said Heather Hitchens, the CEO and president chairman of the American Theatre Wing. The organization, which also presents Broadway’s Tony Awards, has provided the Jonathan Larson Grant to up-and-coming musical theater composers since 2008, honoring the composer’s legacy and family at its annual gala on Monday night in New York City.
“Rent” — the improbable rock musical sourced from Puccini’s “La Boheme” and written in the deathly shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic by struggling composer Larson — and its 1990s-bound beginnings were a world away from the Cipriani ballroom on E 42nd street. And it’s that contrast which attendees like Daphne Rubin-Vega, who originated the role of Mimi, weighed most.
“‘Don’t let the door smack you on your way out’ was how we were all feeling in the beginning,” she said on the red carpet. “We didn’t care if you left, if this wasn’t for you. We weren’t trying to be what we weren’t. There was a respect that ‘Rent’ wasn’t for everybody, but that these were the people who we were advocating for and who’d never had advocates.”
As Rubin-Vega saw it, “Rent” and Larson’s single-minded mission to extend the reach of the popular musical is what carried the show toward its storied rise, even as cast members learned of his sudden death the morning of the show’s first preview off-Broadway.
“We were in shock. We had to deal with the fact that Jonathan was dead, which was absurd. But the importance of what we were saying overrode the grief,” she recalled to Variety. “You can’t sing ‘La Vie Boheme’ in grief.”
That dogged optimism of Larson’s creation, the kind of ragged hopefulness that writes “Seasons of Love,” is the foundation on which the Larson family has built the composer’s posthumous legacy. And the Jonathan Larson Grant — an investment whose endowment has yielded 531 musicals, 41 Tony nominations, six Tony Awards, four Emmys and an Oscar since its inception in 1997 — is the philanthropic jewel of that legacy. As former recipients — now big names like “Be More Chill” scribe Joe Iconis and EGOT-winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — gathered alongside the American Theatre Wing to honor the late composer where the humanity of his work took precedence.
“Jonathan Larson is that voice that is somewhere out there writing words and music that have to be heard,” Jordan Roth, the four-time Tony award-winning producer and president of Jujamcyn Theaters, told Variety on the red carpet.
“So, the idea that, in his name, more voices will be found, championed, celebrated and given oxygen is extraordinarily meaningful. I saw ‘Rent’ as a teenager, and it felt like the whole world had been cracked open,” he remembered. “And sometimes there are just these shows — and these voices; voices the Larson Grant hopes to find — that really feel like they have buried deep, deep, deep inside all of us and lifted themselves out to say ‘This is what we sound like.’”
The sudden tragedy of Larson’s death and the meteoric rise of the unknown composer’s work is as operatic as “Rent,” but his family looked to remember principally the man and endeavoring artist. “He had a passion for something and he pursued it,” his sister Julie Larson said at the gala. “He would have his doubts, but this is what he was supposed to be doing. I remember friends asking ‘How long can he do this?’ And the answer was always ‘As long as it takes.’”