Study Guide

Jonathan Larson

Jonathan Larson Essay - Critical Essays

Larson, Jonathan

Introduction

Jonathan Larson Rent

Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Drama; New York Drama Critics Circle and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical; Drama Desk Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Music, and Best Lyrics; Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Score of a Musical; Obie Award for Outstanding Book, Music, and Lyrics.

An American dramatist, Larson was born February 4, 1960, and died January 25, 1996.

Winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Rent was hailed by the critics as the breakthrough musical of the 1990s when it premiered at the off-Broadway New York Theater Workshop; within three months it opened on Broadway. Rent also has become something of a theatrical legend: Larson, who worked on the words and lyrics of his play for over seven years, died of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35 on the night of the last dress rehearsal. Consequently, he never saw the phenomenal success of his play. Larson's sudden death "has undoubtedly deepened the emotional power of the musical's central motif, the struggle of doomed young people to find love with time running out," according to Peter Marks. Based loosely on Giacomo Puccini's opera La Boheme, Rent tells the stories of a group of struggling artists in New York's East Village who celebrate life despite suffering the effects of drugs, poverty, and AIDS. Among the characters are Roger, an HIV-infected punk rocker desperate to write one great song before he dies; Mimi, a drug-addicted dancer at an S & M club, also HIV-positive; Angel, a drag queen dying of AIDS who loves Tom Collins, a computer science teacher; Maureen, a performance artist in a violent relationship with her lesbian lover, Joanne; Mark, Maureen's ex and would-be filmmaker who narrates the play; and Ben, an eccentric landlord who threatens to evict the artists from their loft. Billed as "the rock opera of our time," and often called "the Hair for the '90s," Rent is admired for its unique blending of show tune traditions and rock music. "[Larson's] gift for direct, compelling, lyrical statement seems to prove that the show tune can once again become both pertinent and popular," remarked John Lahr. While many critics have pinned their hopes on Rent for the survival of music theater, John Gardner responded that "despite its studied hipness and its aspirations to be the voice of the Nineties, Rent … is pretty much the same old showbiz fare." Nonetheless, Rent, as Richard Zoglin put it, "is the most exuberant and original American musical to come along this decade."

Principal Works

Superbia (drama) 1988
Tick, Tick … Boom! (drama) 1990
J. P. Morgan Saves the Nation (drama) 1995
Rent (drama) 1996

Criticism

John Lahr (review date 19 February 1996)

SOURCE: "Hello and Goodbye," in New Yorker, Vol. LXXII, No. 1, February 19, 1996, pp. 94-6.

[Below, Lahr examines the theatrical implications of Rent's popularity, hinting at Larson's possible influence on musical theater.]

By some terrible irony, the restaurant next to the Minetta Lane Theater, where a memorial service for the composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson was held last week, is called La Bohème. Puccini's opera was the inspiration for Rent, Larson's rock opera (at the New York Theater Workshop), and the show features, among forty well-sung numbers, three songs that are as passionate, unpretentious, and powerful as anything I've heard in the musical theater for more than a decade. Larson died of an aortic aneurysm on January 25th, a few hours after the dress rehearsal of Rent. He was thirty-five. Larson's name is new to me, but his talent and his big heart are impossible to miss. His songs spill over with feeling and ideas; his work is both juicy and haunting. That's why, after seeing Rent, I ended up at his memorial service. I found out that Larson was a rangy, goofy-looking guy with jug ears and a funny grin; that he grew up in White Plains; that he had the capacity to love and to be loved; that he'd done six downtown musicals with suitably quirky titles like Tick, Tick … Boom!, J. P. Morgan Saves the Nation, and Superbia; that he waited tables at a SoHo diner to support his musical habit; that he dreamed of earning enough money from his writing to splurge on cable TV; and that he believed, like Gatsby, in the green light and the orgiastic future. "Count the green flags, not the red flags," he told his friends. He also talked about his crazy ambition to bring the musical up to date: Rent is billed as "The Rock Opera of the '90s." Larson is certainly not the first composer to take aim at that elusive target, but he may be the first to have hit it. His gift for direct, compelling, colloquial lyrical statement seems to prove that the show tune can once again become both pertinent and popular. Over his desk Larson had posted the motto "Make the familiar unfamiliar, and make the unfamiliar familiar." Whatever the problems of the production, the score of Rent achieves the astonishing feat of marrying the musical's old sense of blessing to the society's new sense of blight.

The landscape of Rent is a gray and dishevelled loft space and environs in the Lower East Side's Alphabet City. "The curtainless set seems more like a pile of junk than a set," Larson's stage direction says; and waste is the right metaphor for this soiled, threadbare world of artists, addicts, and the homeless—the compost out of which the lost souls in Rent try to grow their dreams. Here poverty, and not abundance, is the musical's issue. "No Visa No Mastercard / No Amex / No travellers' checks / No dollars / No cents / No," a chorus of Village vendors sings. It's Christmas, and the holiday provides an ironic frame for the uncharitable events of Rent, which include the eviction of a group of artists from their loft. In fact, every assumption of the traditional musical has been stood on its head. The old romance of triumph has been replaced by the new romance of despair. Now lovers don't meet cute, they meet infected. Roger (Adam Pascal), a young songwriter struggling to write one good song before his light is snuffed out, falls for Mimi (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a strung-out dancer; both are H.I.V.-positive. The drag queen Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) camps up catastrophe in his seduction of Collins (the smoky-voiced Jesse L. Martin), a young teacher who ends up giving him safe harbor. "Yes," Angel sings. "This body provides a comfortable home / For the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome." Mark (Anthony Rapp), a would-be filmmaker who bears witness to the group's eviction battle and earnestly tries to take the moral temperature of his times, asks, "How can you connect in an age / Where strangers, landlords, lovers, your own blood cells betray?" Death is the climate in which this musical lives. The air is full of loss—loss of home, loss of dreams, loss of life. If it sounds like Sondheim territory—well, in a way, it is. Larson won a Stephen Sondheim Award for Superbia and a Richard Rodgers Development Award for Rent. Although he wasn't a Sondheim clone, he was definitely a disciple; he even works his decidedly uptown mentor—a Broadway baby if there ever was one—into a rhymed catalogue of downtown bohemian icons: "To Sontag / To Sondheim / To anything taboo … "(At the memorial service, a college friend recalled long late-night talks with Larson about...

(The entire section is 1919 words.)

New York Times (review date 25 February 1996)

SOURCE: "Rent Is Brilliant and Messy All at Once," in The New York Times, February 25, 1996, sec. 2, pp. 5, 22.

[In the following review, the critic describes Rent as "a lot of things: brash, brilliant, sweet, canny and messy."]

It's odd to have joined the generations that talk about what "the young" are doing, saying and going through these days, and how that is reflected in art and entertainment. When Hair, the counterculture antiwar musical, opened to the late 60's, I was pleased but a little patronizing as well you always are when you're part of a subculture that suddenly goes mass culture. So I wonder what today's counterculture young think...

(The entire section is 1005 words.)

Jack Kroll (review date 26 February 1996)

SOURCE: "A Downtown 'La Bohéme'," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXVII, No. 9, February 26, 1996, p. 67.

[In the review below, Kroll focuses on the characterization in Rent.]

During rehearsals of his musical Rent, composer-writer-lyricist Jonathan Larson was told by his excited producers, "Jonathan, you're the new voice." Larson smiled: "Yeah? That's good." Hours after the dress rehearsal on Jan. 24, Larson, 35, was found dead of an aortic aneurysm in his Greenwich Village apartment. After the show's opening last week at the off-Broadway New York Theater Workshop, the new voice, now stilled, was greeted with the most feverishly enthusiastic reviews for any new American...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Peter Marks (review date 26 February 1996)

SOURCE: "Looking on Broadway for a Bohemian Home," in The New York Times, February 26, 1996, pp. C9, C11.

[In the following review, Marks describes the frenzy surrounding Rent's premiere.]

On the opening night of Rent two weeks ago, the phones in the offices of the New York Theater Workshop began ringing off the hook. They haven't stopped since.

Theater producers, record promoters, film directors, actors, musicians and ordinary theatergoers have been jamming the phone lines in search of tickets to the critically acclaimed rock musical, in a clamor unlike anything the people who run the nonprofit theater on East Fourth Street have ever...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)

Frank Rich (review date 2 March 1996)

SOURCE: "East Village Story," in The New York Times, March 2, 1996, p. A 19.

[In the following review, Rich describes the theatrical and political significance of Rent.]

In an age when almost every showbiz event is predigested and presold by the media long before the public can decide for itself, the truly spontaneous pop-culture phenomenon is almost extinct. Almost but not quite. Two weeks ago, at a 150-seat theater in the East Village, a rock opera called Rent, written and performed by unknowns, came out of nowhere to earn the most ecstatic raves of any American musical in the two decades since A Chorus Line. And now the world is rushing to catch up:...

(The entire section is 759 words.)

John Simon (review date 4 March 1996)

SOURCE: "All in the Family," in New York, March 4, 1996, p. 65.

[Below, Simon gives a mixed review of Rent.]

In September 1914, Puccini got wind of an abridged version of La Bohème to be mounted in Lucca, and promptly wrote his publisher, "I beg you not to give them the opera. You will do me a real favor." How would he have felt about a version called Rent, which updates the Giacosa-Illica libretto, transplants the action to the East Village, and keeps only a few bars of his music, strummed on a guitar—just enough to put the rest of the score to shame? Well, with the copyright lapsed, it would not matter what he felt.

Jonathan Larson,...

(The entire section is 633 words.)

Richard Zoglin (review date 4 March 1996)

SOURCE: "Lower East Side Story," in Time, Vol. 147, No. 10, March 4, 1996, p. 71.

[In the following favorable review, Zoglin praises the life-affirming message of Rent.]

Jonathan Larson was looking tired and pale all week, but it might have been just the stress of preparing for the opening of his new musical, Rent. Twice he went to the hospital, complaining of chest pains and a fever; his trouble was diagnosed as food poisoning, and he was given a battery of tests. He managed to drag himself to the last dress rehearsal, but colleagues were concerned: Larson, who rode his bicycle even on the coldest winter days, came in a taxi. "You could see he was trying to...

(The entire section is 834 words.)

Donald Lyons (review date 6 March 1996)

SOURCE: "Rent, New Musical Is Deserved Hit," in Wall Street Journal, Vol. CCXXVII, No. 46, March 6, 1996, p. A 18.

[Below, Lyons distinguishes between "Rent the phenomenon and Rent the show," claiming that the production's "artlessness is a sophisticated achievement."]

There's Rent the phenomenon and Rent the show. The phenomenon: Limousines and taxis snake through East Fourth Street, a strip of tenements and bodegas, toward the New Theater Workshop, where the new musical is the town's toast. It's an updating of Puccini's La Boheme, which, exactly a century ago, celebrated the defiant struggles of Paris bohemians....

(The entire section is 1055 words.)

Bernard Holland (review date 17 March 1996)

SOURCE: "Flaws Aside, Rent Lives and Breathes," in The New York Times, March 17, 1996, sec. 2, p. 31.

[In the following review, Holland discusses Rent in terms of its relation to high art.]

Who has musical culture and who doesn't? A letter to the editors of this newspaper recently complained that young people don't. Its author used opera on the radio as a measuring stick. "I … remember walking from one end of the Yale campus to the other on a warm Saturday afternoon without missing a beat of the Metropolitan Opera broadcast through open dormitory windows," the offended correspondent writes. "Thirty years later, the same trip yields loud rock." A strong...

(The entire section is 960 words.)

Patrick Pacheco (review date 14 April 1996)

SOURCE: "Life, Death and Rent," in Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1996, p. 4.

[In the following review, Pacheco recounts the history of Rent as the production prepared for its Broadway premiere.]

It was closing night for the new musical Rent at the New York Theater Workshop, a 150-seat East Village theater where the pop opera, loosely based on Puccini's La Boheme, opened in February. Onstage, friends and creative personnel, including director Michael Greif, mingled with the youthful cast and band in the kind of pizza-and-beer ritual that has been repeated countless times in experimental theater spaces.

But this celebration...

(The entire section is 2133 words.)

Paula Span (review date 18 April 1996)

SOURCE: "The Show Goes On," in Washington Post, April 18, 1996, p. C1.

[In the following review, Span relates the genesis of Rent and its phenomenal growth.]

Opening night looms, and at the Nederlander Theater all is chaos.

An artist with one name (Billy) and two earrings is painting graffiti-ish murals on the mezzanine ceiling to invoke that gritty downtown ambiance. Workers are installing cheetah-spotted carpeting in the lobby. Onstage, 24-year-old Wilson Jermaine Heredia rehearses a dance number that calls for him to hop onto and off a table, no small feat in a Santa jacket, zebra-striped tights, a wig and huge platform heels. The theater...

(The entire section is 2334 words.)

Robert Brustein (review date 22 April 1996)

SOURCE: "The New Bohemians," in New Republic, Vol. 214, No. 17, April 22, 1996, pp. 29-31.

[Below, Brustein questions the popularity of Rent, disparaging Larson's lyrics and the production's use of rock music.]

The American theater chases after a new musical sensation with all the messianic fervor of a religious sect pursuing redemption. And when the composer/librettist dies the day before his show begins previews, we have all the conditions required for cultural myth-making—a martyred redeemer, a new gospel, hordes of passionate young believers and canonization by The New York Times, which devoted virtually all the theater columns of a recent Arts and...

(The entire section is 1371 words.)

Laurie Winer (review date 30 April 1996)

SOURCE: "Rent Goes Up—to Broadway," in Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1996, p. F1.

[Below, Winer ponders whether Rent would be as popular if Larson had lived, suggesting that "what would have been merely moving in Rent is made almost unbearably bittersweet by the knowledge."]

When Rent, a rock musical version of Puccini's La Boheme opened off-Broadway last February, Jonathan Larson garnered the kind of rave reviews that young, struggling composer-lyricists pray and dream for.

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...

(The entire section is 1061 words.)

Gregory Beals (essay date 13 May 1996)

SOURCE: "The World of Rent," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXVII, No. 20, May 13, 1996, pp. 58-9.

[In the essay below, Beals, a former roommate of Larson's, reminisces about the playwright with cast members and friends.]

In December of 1995, Jonathan Larson wrote his good friend Victoria Leacock a touching Christmas card. This was typical of Larson; even when he was entirely consumed with his work, he still made the effort for his friends. He'd been working on Rent, obsessing over it, since 1989. Now it was finally going to open. But for both Leacock and Larson, the season was a difficult one. They'd lost two close friends to AIDS since September. Their lives and...

(The entire section is 1238 words.)

Jon Wiederhorn (essay date 16 May 1996)

SOURCE: "A New Rock Opera Celebrates Life after the Death of Its Creator," in Rolling Stone, May 16, 1996, pp. 54-8.

[In the following essay, Wiederhorn examines Rent in terms of Larson's life and death.]

The day before his rock opera, Rent, was scheduled to begin previews at a small off-Broadway theater in New York's East Village, the composer and playwright Jonathan Larson felt like he was coming down with the flu. Tired, pale and feverish, he had also experienced chest pains and had visited two emergency rooms earlier in the week. His symptoms had been diagnosed as food poisoning, but some of his colleagues thought he might be suffering pre-show...

(The entire section is 1340 words.)

John Guare (review date May 1996)

SOURCE: "Smash!," in Vogue, May, 1996, pp. 305, 347.

[In the following review, Guare considers the tragedy of Rent and of Larson's death.]

I'm sitting in the Truck and Warehouse Theater on East Fourth Street in New York City's East Village, a.k.a. Lower East Side, a.k.a. Loisaida. The matinee performance has just ended for the new smash hit Rent, which reviews have ballyhooed as the most important musical since A Chorus Line, I can't help going back 25 years to when I sat in this same theater (now the home of the New York Theater Workshop) in the same cold month, waiting for my play The House of Blue Leaves to open. In 1971, I was in my...

(The entire section is 806 words.)

James Gardner (review date 3 June 1996)

SOURCE: "Lowering the Rent," in National Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 10, June 3, 1996, pp. 56-7.

[In the review below, Gardner dismisses Rent as mostly hype and little substance.]

I have this theory: in any given musical after 1970, there will come a moment in which the protagonist is on stage alone and sings the words, "Who am I?" This may be called the hokey-identity-crisis moment, when the character is torn between his principles and his self-interest, and tempted to take the easy way out, which threatens to damn his soul and shave twenty minutes off the second act.

In Rent, the new great hope of the American musical theater, this does...

(The entire section is 838 words.)

Stefan Kanfer (review date 3-17 June 1996)

SOURCE: "Tragedy and Art," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXIX, No. 3, June 3-17, 1996, pp. 22-3.

[In the following review, Kanfer faults Rent on the basis of its form, characters, and the theater building, suggesting that the play is "only a mainstream entertainment disguised as avant garde art."]

Plot A: An earnest polymath—playwright, composer and lyricist—struggles for recognition. He writes a musical and takes it to producer after producer, hoping for a showcase somewhere, anywhere. After many disappointments he finally attracts the attention of a director and a vigorous little theater group. They get him a production at a 150-seat Off-Broadway house....

(The entire section is 1009 words.)

Molly Ringwald (essay date June 1996)

SOURCE: "Jonathan Larson," in Interview, Vol. 26, June, 1996, p. 104.

[In the essay below, Ringwald offers reminiscences of Larson and her perspective on Rent.]

Recently, my best friend, Victoria Leacock, woke me from a nap. When I answered the phone, I was still disoriented, halfway between sleep and waking. She asked, "Did you hear about Jonathan?" Her voice was trembling and sounded oddly grave. My first thought was, Oh God no, he died. And then, No, it couldn't be. "He won the Pulitzer," Victoria told me. I felt a huge rush of happiness. But then, of course, our friend Jonathan had died.

I met Jonathan Larson through Victoria,...

(The entire section is 1140 words.)

Francis Davis (review date September 1996)

SOURCE: "Victim Kitsch," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 278, No. 3, September, 1996, pp. 98-100, 102-104, 106.

[Below, Davis argues that Rent is not the solution to Broadway's problems.]

As everyone has surely heard by now, Jonathan Larson's Rent—the seventh musical ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama and the first to do so in advance of its premiere on Broadway—is a rock musical in the tradition of Hair but with even grander pretensions to opera, "sung through" by an energetic young cast that plays East Village versions of the artists and paupers in Puccini's La Bohème. The painter Marcello and the poet Rodolfo have been transformed...

(The entire section is 4549 words.)

Ed Siegel (review date 19 November 1996)

SOURCE: "Rent Has a Lease on Energy," in The Boston Globe, November 19, 1996, p. D1.

[In the following review, Siegel analyzes Rent's blend of show tunes and rock music.]

There is one characteristic of rock music that it alone possesses. It's the jolt at the beginning of a song, from Chuck Berry's "Reelin' and Rockin'" to Cracker's "Teen Angst" that shoots the audience onto the dance floor, or at least into the middle of the living room playing air guitar. It's as if the electric instruments have created a musical energy field.

Show music has its own form of up-tempo energy, consisting of hummable tunes that get your toes tapping while...

(The entire section is 847 words.)