To Days of Inspiration: Explore the Evolution of Rent Through Jonathan Larson’s Own Notes
Ahead of New York Theatre Workshop’s Rent-themed gala, Jennifer Ashley Tepper guides readers through archives documenting the late composer’s process.
On March 2, the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent will return to its Downtown home—virtually, at least—in a gala celebration from New York Theatre Workshop. Several of the show’s original stars, myriad alums from various subsequent productions, and more will take part, paying tribute to the musical and its late creator, Jonathan Larson.
Larson died January 25, 1996, the morning of Rent‘s first performance at the Off-Broadway venue. Though he had developed the show for years prior (including in several workshops with New York Theatre Workshop), he would not see his work become an international success, beginning with a transfer to Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre, where it played for 12 years.
Below, Broadway historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper (The Untold Stories of Broadway) guides readers through archival materials illuminating Larson’s process, from documents pertaining to the earliest demo recordings to some of his final recorded thoughts before his passing.
The first three songs that Jonathan Larson wrote for Rent were “Santa Fe”, “Rent,” and “I Should Tell You”. On this sheet, we can see Jonathan planning out the budget for recording demos of these songs in December 1989 and January 1990.
The Library of Congress is home to The Jonathan Larson Papers, an extensive collection of materials that includes boxes of Jonathan’s writing, such as these handwritten lyrics of “One Song Glory” and “La Vie Bohème.”
Roger Bart was a close friend and frequent collaborator of Jonathan Larson’s. He and Jonathan recorded an early demo of the title song from Rent, with Jonathan as Mark and Roger as Roger. In fact, part of the reason for the character Roger’s name was because of Roger Bart. Here are the two collaborators at a presentation of tick, tick… BOOM!.
Jonathan Larson saved all of his rejection letters. He heard “no” endlessly as he tried to get his musicals and projects on stage. These are rejections from the Duplex for Jonathan’s cabaret act J. Glitz with Marin Mazzie and Scott Burkell and from the Public for his musical 1984.
New York Theatre Workshop changed his life when they were the organization to finally say yes to a full production of a Jonathan Larson musical.
This note by Jonathan was saved on one of Jonathan’s floppy discs, which live now at the New York Public Library. Between 1992 (when Jonathan first contacted NYTW about Rent), and 1996 (when the Off-Broadway production premiered), NYTW provided a staged reading and a studio production of the show so it could be further developed. The above provides insight into some of Jonathan’s thoughts after the fall 1994 studio production.
In June 1993, New York Theatre Workshop presented the first staged reading of Rent. This is a page from Jonathan Larson’s notepad on the day of that presentation, where he wrote several reminders to himself. This early reading featured an entirely different cast than who would later appear in the original production. Two notable cast members were Jonathan’s writer peers and collaborators on other projects: Rusty Magee and Bob Golden.
This is a page from Jonathan Larson’s final notepad, which he last used on January 25, 1996, the night he died. These are some of Jonathan’s notes taken while watching the final dress rehearsal of Rent at NYTW that evening.
New York Theatre Workshop’s 25 Years of Rent: Measured in Love will feature, among many others, Anthony Rapp, Idina Menzel, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Adam Pascal, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Fredi Walker-Browne, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jordan Fisher, Annaleigh Ashford, Brandon Victor Dixon, Neil Patrick Harris, Jeremy O. Harris, Ali Stroker, Ben Platt, and Billy Porter. Andy Señor Jr. directs, with Stephen Oremus and Will Van Dyke serving as music supervisor and music director, respectively.
Tickets start at $25 and are available (along with packages and sponsorships) at NYTW.org.