Jonathan Larson’s Rent was the Our Town of the 1990s. That’s right: Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Our Town, the ultimate family-values play, set in a fictional, white-bread New Hampshire village in the early years of the 20th century. Larson’s microcosm of choice, at the end of the same century, could not be more different: New York City’s gritty East Village, populated by women and men of every race and sexual orientation. Yet the core themes in these two staunchly American tales are the same. Rent, like Our Town, confronts death at its most wrenching and inconceivable— when it claims the young—and measures and exalts the meaning and preciousness of our lives through our interconnectedness as members of a community.
It was playwright Billy Aronson’s idea that the two of them collaborate on a contemporary retelling of Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème —about a colony of artists in Paris—and set it on the gentrified Upper West Side of Manhattan. The two parted company, however, soon after Larson proposed another setting entirely: the East Village, where young artists created their work surrounded by poverty, homelessness, drug addiction and the AIDS epidemic. By the late 1980s, Larson had lost three friends to the disease and he saw the chance, in Rent, to respond to AIDS and other forces threatening what he labeled a “desensitized society” at the end of the millennium.
Writing the script, music and lyrics himself, Larson focused on eight characters that parallel Bohème’s . He later recalled: ”I analyzed the libretto [of the opera]….What would these characters be in my world?” In addition to its obvious meaning, he chose the title of the show for its resonance: The word “rent” connotes ”torn,” and our country, Larson believed, was “ripping apart at the seams.” His musical would attempt to heal.
Larson’s perspective as a musical theater artist was singular. Though committed to the stellar craftsmanship advanced in the 1940s by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and further inspired by such adventuresome Stephen Sondheim musicals as Sunday in the Park With George and Assassins, this self-described rock ‘n’ roller at heart also counted Pearl Jam, Liz Phair, Peter Townshend and Kurt Cobain among his influences.
Jonathan Larson is challenging us with the most inclusive notion of family and community he can assemble in one theater, daring us to embrace all the “others” outside society’s mainstream: those we often ignore, avoid, deny or even condemn. Rent is Our Town written for a less kind and gentle nation, but a nation whose increasing diversity offers shimmering new possibilities. It is a place where there is still time, as one of his lyrics puts it, for us to “come into our own” by rejecting our self-imposed isolation and complacency, and by reaching out to each other in the spirit of creation.