If you grew up in the theater world, or even adjacent to the theater world, chances are you’ve heard the quote, “No day but today.” It’s an incredibly simple, and effective, mantra. If you’re a former (or even current) theater kid, you might even have that tattooed somewhere on your body, as a reminder to live for the here and now. Those words can be attributed to Rent creator Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the musical back in the early 1990s, long before Fox decided to put on a live rendition of Rent. But his history with the musical that would make his name synonymous with theater is also a tragic one. The rock opera started performances off-Broadway in early 1996, and it was so popular that it quickly moved to Broadway on April 26th, 1996. Sadly, though Larson’s music and words have touched millions all over the world, he never actually got to see them up on stage.
On the morning of Rent’s first off-Broadway preview performances, he suddenly passed away due to complications from an aortic dissection. (He posthumously won two Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Rent.) Even though he never got to see his work reach its full potential, Larson’s lasting work on the theater community has touched more than he could possibly have ever imagined. It’s something that’s being consciously thought about as Fox gets ready to put on Rent: Live, airing this Sunday.
“Rent was written by this young man who believed in true love, standing for what you believed in [and] that art was more important than anything else — all of these things that at some point in our lives we all believed too,” executive producer Adam Siegel told Variety. “For a young person it ignites that part of you, and for an older person it wakes up that part of you again, and that’s the most fun thing to put into people’s living rooms.”
Though Rent was written during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City in the 1990s, the show is essentially timeless. Rent is an updated version of the Puccini opera La Bohème, with many of the characters and themes represented in Larson’s work. La Bohème, which was first produced in 1896, was about struggling artists in Paris; Rent is about struggling artists in NYC. It’s not far off to think that in 2096, we’ll get another version of the story, set in a new time period and place, but with the same central core about young people in love and trying to find their way in the world. That core is essentially why the show continues to have such an impact no matter when or where it’s performed for audiences.
“So much of [Rent] is universal, and sometimes it gets missed because — I always say ‘the wrapping’ [of AIDS and drugs and gay lovers] — can seem distasteful to some people,” Julie Larson, Jonathan’s sister, told Playbill in 2016. “They don't really see the real messages. Other than the discussion about AIDS and all that, the bigger messages are, to me, about tolerance and inclusion and community and being present in your life and hope. Those things are very universal, whether it's downtown New York in the middle of the AIDS crisis, or any other time or place."
And while some musicals of yesteryear are incredibly old-fashioned now (Like Oklahoma or Kiss Me Kate, to name a few), Rent’s themes are just human, which resonates with audiences, even though there might be dated reference here and there. Rent’s story could take place at literally anytime over the last 50 years, even though if it were to be set within the last 10 it might be weird because no one has a cell phone or a Twitter account. (God, could you imagine Maureen’s Twitter account?)
Rent also serves as a semi-autobiographical story for Larson, as he pulled many of his own life experiences for the show — like how he was living in a rundown NYC apartment. It’s also hard not to think about Roger, a struggling musician, who is just hoping to write one good song before he dies. Leaving a lasting impact after you’re gone is certainly a fear many have, and if Larson had any fears like Roger, he didn’t just write one lasting song; he wrote upwards of 40.
After his death, the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation was formed, and much of his work was given to the Library of Congress. And Rent is still performed across the nation, and the world, every year (including high schools with more PG versions of the show). Basically. for as long as there’s musical theater, there will be “Seasons of Love,” and Larson’s impact will continue to live on.