Before there was Be More Chill, before there was Spring Awakening, before teens were swiping on purple eyeliner and lipsynching to Beetlejuice’s “Dead Mom” on TikTok, there was Rent. The iconic rock musical was a multicultural paean to the lives of impoverished musicians, filmmakers, philosopher-poets, kinksters, runaways, and junkies struggling to survive in the then-squalid Alphabet City area of Manhattan’s East Village, against the backdrop of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Written by Jonathan Larson, who tragically died before Rent opened to widespread acclaim off-Broadway, the musical was revolutionary for not only depicting, but celebrating, the lives of marginalized youth who had never before had their stories told on Broadway, winning multiple Tonys and a Pulitzer, catapulting songs like “Seasons of Love” and “La Vie Boheme” into the zeitgeist and kickstarting the careers of Anthony Rapp, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, and Jesse L. Martin.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Rent, the New York Theater Workshop (NYTW) — which staged the original workshop version of Rent — is staging a virtual fundraiser gala on March 2nd, featuring many of the original NYTW cast members as well as such musical theater luminaries as Jeremy O. Harris, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Annaleigh Ashford, and Neil Patrick Harris. In advance of the gala, Rolling Stone is exclusively publishing four never-before released demo tracks for Rent dating from 1992 and 1994, including “Light My Candle” and Larson’s vocals on “La Vie Boheme,” “Seasons of Love,” and “Finale.”
The pared-down demos, featuring synths and drum machines, are a haunting reminder of Larson’s preternatural talents, as well as a testament to how clear his artistic vision was from the very start of the creative development process. With the exception of “La Vie Boheme,” which contains a few additional verses (including references to Nirvana and sativa and a rather ponderous interlude musing about the definition of art), most of the demos are relatively consistent with the final product when the show premiered Off-Broadway in 1996.
The demo for “Light My Candle,” the sexually charged first meeting between the heroin-addicted exotic dancer Mimi (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and the grieving musician Roger (Adam Pascal), is what convinced NYTW artistic director Jim Nicola to embark on the project in 1992. “I felt in that song he did something really powerful and difficult and rare, which is he took the form of a pop song and he made it a little play, a dramatic event,” he tells Rolling Stone. “Generally you can find a lyricist who have a sense of that, but to find someone who knows how to make a good pop song and write the lyrics and make a dramatic event — that is rare. that is a gift. And I saw he knew those things instinctively.”
Director Michael Greif joined the development team in 1994, immediately feeling an attachment to Larson’s work. “I had known a lot of people who were struggling with HIV and had died of it,” he says. “And I always thought the most beautiful and generous and truest part of the show was Jonathan coping with the deaths and the struggles of the people that he loved.”
During its years-long development, many of the characters and numbers went through multiple iterations: Maureen, Mark’s ex-paramour, initially left him for a man and not a woman, and Roger’s final song for Mimi, “Your Eyes,” was a song called “Open Road” (“Your Eyes” marked a “significant improvement,” says Nicola). In the lead-up to its off-Broadway run, Rent was still in the process of undergoing tweaks: The last song Larson wrote for the show was “Take Me or Leave Me,” the duet between Maureen and her girlfriend Joanne, which Nicola calls “some of the most sophisticated music in the show.” “He was just advancing and growing. He was on fire,” he says.
Most Rent-heads know the tragic ending to the story: The night before dress rehearsal, Larson did an interview with New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini in the box office of the NYTW’s theater. He emerged from the interview, Nicola remembers, elated that Tommasini had compared him to his idol, Stephen Sondheim. Hours later, he died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 36. Though much of the lore of Rent is centered on Larson’s untimely death — and that he never got to see his work become a global phenomenon — that final interview, says Nicola, was the only silver lining to the terrible tragedy: “I thought, ‘This is kind of an amazing life that you would be told you are achieving art on the level of your great inspiration, and then you die.’ Not many people can exit this life feeling that fulfilled or acknowledged.
Rent is, in many ways, a time capsule of a different era. The then-squalid Alphabet City neighborhood of New York City is now home to luxury apartments with sky-high rent and Instagram-worthy speakeasies catering to NYU kids. And at the time the show premiered in 1996, antiretroviral cocktails, such as AZT, were more widespread than they were when Larson started developing the show in 1989. “People were starting to maintain, they were starting to regain their health. Your HIV sentence wasn’t a death sentence any longer,” Greif recalls. “So many of Jonathan and my peer group were lost, but some did get that medication and they’re living today. I’d like to think the people who are struggling with HIV in the show got that medication and are living full lives.”
Despite the fact that Rent constitutes a snapshot of a bygone era, it continues to resonate with theater kids to this day, particularly in light of the events of the past year. “Certainly everyone at this moment understands what it’s like to live in a pandemic and to suffer losses all around us and to feel like the ways in which our government responds to these losses is, in many ways, unjust and uncaring,” says Greif. I feel like people today have a real connection to what that charged environment was like, and I also feel there are many timeless aspects of the show that have to do with chosen family and setting priorities and recognizing and acknowledging the love around us and seeking and being able to give out love and kindness and generosity. I think those are things that young people will always understand.”