How Rent Revolutionized Modern Musical Theatre

by Kathryn Utke

    “…And all he had to do was die.” : Aaron Burr

“Hey, that’s a lot less work.” : Alexander Hamilton.

“We outta give it a try.” : Aaron Burr. (The Room Where It Happens, Hamilton the Musical)

The story behind Rent begins with the tragic story of Jonathan Larson, the composer and playwright, dying the night before his magnum opus began previews. The show became a raging success, but Larson never lived to see it. Rent was like nothing else on Broadway at the time, bringing a new generation to the theatre; the generation “living in America at the end of the millennium.” (What You Own, Rent). When the show hit Broadway in 1996, after 7 years of workshops and editing, it created a ripple effect towards Musical Theatre that is still felt today. According to Jonathan’s sister, Julie, his goal was to revolutionize Broadway; “to create the Hair of the 90’s.” He did that and more.

Jonathan Larson Photo Credit:

To fully understand Rent and its impact, take a step back to ponder the state of Broadway at the time. The only shows playing on Broadway were Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Into the Woods, Sunday In The Park With George, and Cats — spectacles from Europe or Stephen Sondheim’s intellectual explorations of the human condition. There was nothing to appeal to an average person. Musical Theatre had begun as entertainment for the masses —  where showtunes from My Fair Lady and Carousel would play on the radio. Over time, it became an elitist tourist trap for people with substantial amounts of pocket change.

Almost all the popular musicals at the time were based off of pieces of fiction, works of art, and glorious battles of times passed. While Rent is loosely based on the Puccini Opera La Boheme, it was updated for the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Genders of characters in the opera were changed for Rent, scenes from the original opera became songs in the new show and names were changed. Rent also changed the tragic disease at the center: instead of dying of tuberculosis, they were dying of AIDS.

Jonathan Larson singing “Sunday” from his show Tick, Tick… BOOM!

The creation of Rent took time: Jonathan worked as a waiter at the Moondance Diner for about 10 years; he worked at the diner on weekends so he could make enough tips to pay rent and spent his weekdays working on his music. He was living in a cramped studio where the bathtub was in the kitchen. Cops were coming in kicking out the homeless people and squatters, as areas formerly ignored by elites in New York City were becoming gentrified. As well as incorporating elements from the opera, Jonathan also incorporated instances from his own personal life. Maureen leaving Mark for Joanne is based on an actual event: his own girlfriend left him for another woman. The AIDS epidemic was in full swing and Jonathan watched his friends die left and right due to the disease.

Jonathan had strong ties to the gay community. His childhood best friend, Matthew O’Grady, came out to him when they were pre-teens and remained close throughout the rest of Jonathan’s life. Matthew O’Grady was diagnosed with HIV+ and took Jonathan to a Friends in Deed meeting. Jonathan began volunteering at the meetings and those meetings were the inspiration for the song Will I?. The names in the beginning of the song Life Support were the names of friends of his that had passed away. One of Jonathan’s goals with the show was to “write a story about [his] friends.” (No Day but Today: The Story of Rent).


Will I? from the 2005 film version of Rent

While Jonathan’s goal was to bring pop music to Broadway, Rent is a mixture of music genres. Rent is technically a rock opera, because apart from a few lines here and there, the whole show is sung. Resistive, or sung dialogue, is a technique used throughout the show, Light My Candle being a great example of this; Roger and Mimi are singing, but they are singing what would be usually be seen as dialogue. Another common technique used in the musical is quodlibet. A quodlibet is a piece of music that combines several different melodies in counterpoint. Counterpoint in music is when two melodies are independent in rhythm and sound of each other, but are harmonically interdependent. The songs Christmas Bells and Finale B are example of when Larson uses quodlibet in the show, two or more different melodies are playing at the same time, and your ear isn’t sure which one to focus on.


Christmas Bells at the Final Broadway Performance of Rent in 2008

(get to about 4:26 in the video for the beginning of the quodlibet.)

One big difference between La Boheme and Rent is the ending. In the original, Mimi dies. In Rent, Mimi almost dies. Anthony Rapp talks about this change in his memoir, Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the musical Rent: “I was worried that Jonathan’s ending might bother some people, that it would seem cheesy or contrived, but he was adamant that Mimi should live at the end of his story; he wanted for his show to end with life, not death.”

The off-Broadway opening at the New York Theatre Workshop was scheduled exactly 100 years after Puccini’s original opera had premiered, so that attracted the attention of a music critic from the New York Times. After the last dress rehearsal, that music critic took Jonathan Larson’s first and last interview. The interviewer told him that off the record, he thought the show was a marvelous piece of work. After the interview, Jonathan went home, made some tea, and died due to an aortic aneurysm. According to Daphne Rubin-Vega, one of the orginal cast members, Jonathan’s death “let us remember that the bottom line is really about what you do with this experience, because tomorrow isn’t promised you. There was no more powerful way of receiving that message than from someone who… died. Someone whose life was just beginning.” The first preview became a private tribute to Jonathan’s friends and family, and then the rest of the performances went on as planned.

As the headlines were advertising the tragedy of his death, audiences turned out in droves to see Rent at the New York Theatre Workshop. Much like Hamilton today, celebrities came to see the show and to get their pictures with the cast. The show moved to the Nederlander Theater on April 24th, 1996. The show closed September 7th, 2008 with 5, 124 performances, the ninth longest running Broadway show at the time, and a production gross of over $280 million.

As the show grew in popularity and kept selling out, the producers, in honor of Jonathan, started selling the tickets for the first two rows in the theatre for $20.00. This was so the people who the show was about, struggling artists, could come and see it. This created the phenomenon of “Rent-heads,” extreme Rent fans. Rent-head was the term used by the people waiting in line, sometimes getting in line the evening before, to see the show for $20, similar to the Ham4Ham lines we see today. It was through this that student rush and cheap tickets became a consistent pattern for theatres, because most of the people lining up were young kids who watched music videos on MTV and listened to Green Day on their CD players, waiting to see themselves reflected on stage for the first time.

Rent was nominated for 10 Tony awards in 1996 and won four of them: Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical: Larson, Best Score of a Musical: Larson, and Best Supporting Actor: Wilson Jermaine Heredia for his portrayal of Angel. The song Seasons of Love became a major pop hit, much like how showtunes from the musicals of the Golden Age became pop hits, and was performed at the cratic National Convention in 1996. After the initial success of the show, two foundations were created: Broadway Cares, an organization that funds awareness and research regarding HIV/AIDS, and The Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation, which gives grants out to lyricists, composers, and librettists at the start of their careers.


The lasting legacy of Rent is the musicals and artists it inspired. Spring Awakening, which premiered on Broadway in 2006, 10 years after Rent premiered on Broadway, was a rock musical about German teens at the end of the 19th century, singing their frustrations through rock music. Next to Normal, which premiered on Broadway in 2009, was co-produced by Anthony Rapp and told the story of a suburban family dealing with mental health issues singing their frustrations through rock music.

However, the biggest inheritor of the Larson Legacy is Lin Manuel Miranda.

Lin-Manuel Miranda Photo credit:

There are many comparisons to be made between Larson and Miranda. Both of them are writing about their own experiences and are doing a retelling of a classic work: with Larson, it was a modern La Boheme, and with Miranda, it’s the founding of America. Both of them incorporate different musical genres in their work and use quodlibet, a medley approach, as a music technique. My favorite example of Lin Manuel Miranda using quodlibbet is in 96,000 in In The Heights.

96,000 performed at the 2008 Tony Awards (at about 2:46 minutes in is when the first phrase of the quodlibbet begins).

Both men had the goal of bringing popular music to Broadway: rock music with Larson and rap/hip-hop with Miranda. They both idolized Stephen Sondheim and told their truths. They both had the goal of making Musical Theatre accessible and to bring in new audiences to the theatre that may not have gone otherwise, be it with the cheap ticket prices or the telling of stories not told on Broadway previously. With Hamilton, we are seeing a repeat of the Rent phenomenon and I can think of no one better to carry the torch. In the video below, Miranda talks about how Rent influenced him and his work:

Lin Manuel Miranda mentioning Rent among his musical influences

Rent means a lot to me. I was 13 years old when I saw the movie adaptation at a school movie night in St. Paul, MN. It was the first time I had seen gay couples on screen and was one of the most racially diverse films I had seen. I became obsessed with the score and made my parents stop at a Barnes & Noble in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin on our way to my grandparents’ house so I could buy the CDs and then upload them on my computer when we finally arrived. It was the first film that ever made me cry and it began my lifelong obsession with musicals. Jonathan Larson made a piece of work about himself, his friends, and the life that they lead, telling their stories through the music that he loved, and in turn, allowed future artists to do the same on a wider scale.

April 29th, 2016 was the 20th anniversary of Rent’s move to Broadway. Lin Manuel Miranda wrote on Twitter: “I think about an alternate timeline where Jonathan Larson is 56 years old, with many shows written & more on the way. Wish I could hear ’em.” Jonathan Larson lived, died, and told his story, and musical theatre was never the same. He took musical theatre and gave it back to the masses; allowing the artform to expand and more stories to be told on a grander scale.

Lin Manuel Miranda and Adam Pascal singing “What You Own” from Rent for Ham4Ham

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