Is “Rent,” Jonathan Larson’s 25-year-old groundbreaking musical, somber or celebratory? When I was in high school, in the early throes of my “Rent” obsession, I made my aunt see the show. “That’s so depressing!” she wailed afterward. “No it isn’t!” I insisted. She looked at me like I was crazy.
I often think of that exchange, now 14 years later. For me, the adjective “depressing” never fit this musical, which was about so much more than its tragedies: a generation fighting AIDS, poverty, gentrification and the everyday drama and griefs of those 525,600 minutes that make a year.
On Tuesday night the New York Theater Workshop hosted “25 Years of Rent: Measured in Love,” a virtual fund-raiser commemorating the show, which premiered there in 1996 before going on to Broadway, Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and international renown.
It is well known that Larson died just before the musical’s first preview performance. So even though this was a tender, even intimate celebration, the “Rent” event, hosted by the “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestant Olivia Lux, also embraced loss.
“25 Years of Rent,” directed by Andy Señor, worked as a tribute to Larson, a contemporary telethon packed with stage celebs and, most touching, a documentary about the making of the beloved show. The theater summoned him back to life through archival images and footage — a broad-grinned waiter making milkshakes at the Moondance Diner; singing “Will I” on a cassette tape — as well as via recollections from friends, family, performers and the show’s director, Michael Greif.
The names involved were impressive enough to light up a marquee: the original cast members Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Adam Pascal and Daphne Rubin-Vega, as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Annaleigh Ashford, Neil Patrick Harris, Ben Platt, Anaïs Mitchell, Telly Leung and so many more.
Some teared up recalling Larson’s exuberance and talents, and described the burden of carrying on with a show whose success he would never see. Of course, this is part of the tragedy of “Rent.”
The saying goes that for every death in the world there’s a birth. And as “Rent” was born and grew, so did the careers of the cast members, many of whom were unknowns at the time. Anthony Rapp described working at Starbucks and auditioning with an R.E.M. song, while Idina Menzel, before jumping over the moon or defying gravity, had made a living as a bar mitzvah singer.
The night was also about how Larson’s work helped open people up to themselves. Fredi Walker-Browne, the original Joanne, spoke about first hearing “Take Me or Leave Me,” which Larson wrote for her and Menzel, and feeling that he laced her personality into the lyrics: “I look before I leap/I like margins and discipline/I make lists in my sleep.”
Others, like Lux, hailed the show for portraying queerness and drag at a time when many productions didn’t.
Winners of Jonathan Larson Grants, awarded to promising early-career musical theater artists, spoke to his legacy. And theater notables who weren’t in “Rent” at its beginnings took on pieces of the score in their own styles. Christopher Jackson’s hymnlike “One Song Glory,” Eva Noblezada’s coquettish “Out Tonight” and Billy Porter’s explosively baroque “I’ll Cover You” were standouts.
If Larson’s death is one side of some karmic exchange, another side is the audiences who used — and continue to use — “Rent” to excavate some hidden part of themselves, and to inspire their own art.
So much of this last year has been marked by things unmade: the people unmade by a pandemic, the innocent Black lives unmade by brutality, the planet unmade by a changing climate. My own tiny bubble of a life has gotten smaller, without the chance to see some of my closest friends and where the outside world seems newly and inexplicably dangerous.
And yet in recalling the making (and remaking) of “Rent,” the event helped quiet the grief that creeps up on me every day. In the chat box next to the stream, which reached over 6,000 viewers, “Rent” fans confessed to crying; a final group rendition of “Seasons of Love” seemed to push many beyond comforting.
It took me a few viewings before I could watch “Rent” without bursting into head-aching, snot-falling ugly crying, but eventually the show became my joy, my comfort. As much as Roger and Mark, a songwriter and filmmaker, hoped to make something of themselves through their art, so did I make myself — in whatever facile way — through “Rent,” using it to shape myself as an artist and an outcast and a New Yorker.
At the end of “Rent,” Angel has died but the rest of the bohemians live, and Mark has finally finished his movie. You can read the signature lyric “No day but today” as fatalistic, as the characters’ existential cry, as Larson’s prescience about his sudden death.
But I’ve always read “No day but today” — which gets woven into “Seasons of Love” in the show’s finale, and was this event’s final heart-rending hurrah — as a promise: Today I wake up to a new version of myself. I will be magnificent. I account for the losses of yesterday, but today? Today is alive. There’s no tragedy in that.
25 Years of Rent: Measured in Love
Through March 6; nytw.org