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"Rent" 20 Years Later: Co-Creator Billy Aronson Looks Back

In September 1994, a rock musical about young artists living under the shadow of AIDS, based partly on Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, was seen for the first time in a limited three-week workshop production at the New York Theatre Workshop. It was, to put it bluntly, a mess, with entangled story lines, vacant characters and a plot that seemed oddly more preoccupied (at least at this early stage) with stingy landlords than with love. Its composer, Jonathan Larson, took the next two years to rework it. Rent finally opened off-Broadway to ecstatic reviews in January 1996, before getting rushed three months later to Broadway, where it went on to become one of the greatest critical and commercial triumphs in theater history. It ran for 12 years, won a raft of awards (including the Pulitzer Prize and four Tonys) and featured some of the biggest names in show business, including Taye Diggs, Neil Patrick Harris and Idina Menzel. Larson did not live to see the success of Rent, dying of an aortic aneurysm the night before its off- Broadway debut.

For the 20th anniversary of Rent’s unofficial debut, I spoke with Billy Aronson, the playwright who came up with the original concept for Rent, wrote three of its songs and collaborated on it with Larson in the late 1980s.

How did the idea come about to adapt Puccini’s La Bohème, which takes place in Paris in the 1830s, to modern-day New York?

When I came to New York in 1983 I was living in Hell’s Kitchen, which was a very rough neighborhood. I would take walks every so often up to Lincoln Center to get cheap standing room at the opera. And I remember walking home one night after seeing La Bohème and noticing the contrast between the luscious world of the opera and the world

I lived in. La Bohème is about young artists—they’re poor, they’re destitute, yet despite that they still have love—and being young, poor and a hopeless romantic myself, I related to that. So I wanted to do something that took the world of Bohème and made it my world.

The central theme in Rent—arguably more important than art, love or poverty—is death at an early age. Was HIV/AIDS part of that original conceptual epiphany?

Yes. AIDS was all around us at the time, but it also happens to have its counterpart in La Bohème: tuberculosis. The shadow of TB hangs over everyone’s head, and that’s what one of the characters, Mimi, dies of at the end.

I knew entire theater companies that died of AIDS in the ’80s. It often happened in groups, certain pockets of people. A director once said to me, “I’m depressed—my whole company died.” A good friend, one of my best friends who I went to school with, also died. The doctors said it was brain cancer, but they were misdiagnosing AIDS for years before they knew what it was. I don’t know what he actually died of, but it happened very quickly.

You mention the name Mimi—this is also the name of a character in Rent. Is there a Bohème equivalent for every Rent character?

Most of the characters have their Bohème counterpart. Mimi is the same, of course. And originally I was calling Roger “Ralph,” which corresponds to Rodolfo in Bohème. Mark comes from Marcello, Benny is Benoît, Maureen is Musetta. And Joanne is actually a guy in the opera, a rich man who’s taking care of Musetta.

How did Jonathan Larson become involved with the project?

I’m not a composer myself. I love music, I love working with musicals and dance, but I don’t write music. So I went to Playwrights Horizons, a theater that was doing readings of my plays at the time, and I asked them to recommend composers who would be right for my idea. They gave me two names: Adam Guettel (who went on to become extremely successful) and Jonathan Larson. I talked to both of them. Jonathan right off the bat was

excited about the idea. I remember him saying, “I think it’s time for our generation’s Hair.” I’d never thought of it like that. Jonathan envisioned Rent as a big, gorgeous melodrama, an earnest, powerful, loud, driving rock and roll musical. And that’s what it became.

How was it working with Larson?

Very difficult. We basically loved or hated everything each other did. To become a playwright or composer you want to control the universe, and we were both used to doing things exactly our way. My original draft had some really good stuff in it—the lyrics to “Santa Fe,” “I Should Tell You” and what became the title tune of Rent. Larson took

them to write the music, and when he first played the songs to me I really didn’t like them. I thought the “Rent” song sounded sort of stupid. I couldn’t hear the irony in it yet. Eventually I got into the songs when I heard them with a little more production. “I Should Tell You” I just loved. It was so mysterious, the way it goes in and out, how it captures the delicate feeling of being hurt and scared, yet it’s joyous at the same time. It was incredible.

Eventually Larson took over complete control of the project. Did you two have some kind of falling out?

No, not at all. We struggled for a couple of years on it and eventually both got sidetracked—Jonathan with a one-character show called Boho Days [renamed Tick, Tick…Boom!] and me with a project of my own. This was around 1990. And then around ’92 he called me up and said, “Do you mind if I go ahead with it on my own?” I said, of course—why should we waste those great songs?

Do you like how he developed the idea?

Well, I think Jonathan’s a better composer and songwriter than he is a playwright. His songs are so smart, but a lot of his characters’ personalities lack complexity. They fit into types. The music is sharp and original and personal and that, for me, makes Rent work really well. Melodrama is a very successful form of drama in the United States. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was hugely popular—it practically started the Civil War—because it pushed certain buttons. If you read any melodrama, you see the words are a mess, the language is not poetry—it can be translated without losing anything. Melodramas aren’t high art, but they’re powerful.

If you had continued working on Rent, how do you think it would have turned out?

Anything with if in the arts is hard to talk about—you change one thing and you change everything. But as a whole I’m so happy with how it turned out. Jonathan wrote so much great music. Rent is an orgy of great music.

Over the years Jonathan would ask me for feedback and I would come see the rehearsals. We passed things back and forth. I remember right before he died I asked how the show was going and he said, “Really great. Don’t miss it.” He believed in himself like nobody else did. He was poor, he had no success, but he believed he was going to change the American theater. And that’s exactly what came to pass.

What are you working on these days?

I’m writing for a PBS children’s show that I co-created called Peg + Cat. You would think it’s as far from Rent as can be, but it’s not. There’s a lot of fantastic music in it and we have great composers—the musical director is a very hip guy named J. Walter Hawkes. It’s for young kids but really we’re just writing what we love. That’s my general rule: Write what you love. In my adult plays I keep things really simple, and some people find it too juvenile, and then others will find my kid’s stuff too grown-up or disturbing. But I think Grimm’s Fairy Tales are the best children’s stories, Midsummer Night’s Dream the best children’s play and Mozart’s operas the best children’s musicals. I’d like to do another musical actually—but, you know, there can never be another Rent.

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