Welcome Home, ‘Rent’
On February 27, ‘Rent’ comes home to the Wagner College Theatre.
Today, Jonathan Larson’s rock opera is a staple of modern musical theater — but 20 years ago, ‘Rent’ was still a work in progress consisting of a developmental script and a few self-recorded songs on a cassette made by the playwright–composer himself.
The idea for Rent, a modern adaptation of Puccini’s opera La Bohème, had been conceived in 1989, but by 1991 Larson was still waiting tables at a SoHo diner to pay the rent on a fifth-floor, cold-water Hudson Square walkup he shared with two roommates and a couple of cats.
Fortunately, for him and for us, that’s when Larson somehow heard about the Stanley Drama Award competition for aspiring playwrights, administered by the Wagner College Theatre. He sent his script along with a demo tape to Bill Bly, director of the Stanley — and waited.
“It just jumped right out,” Bly told Staten Island Advance arts editor Michael J. Fressola in 1996. “My impression at the time was that the script needed a little more work, but there was no question [as to whether it was that year's Stanley Award winner]. It was just so obvious.”
Fressola himself today recalls listening to Larson’s Rent cassette in his car in 1992 as he prepared a story about the Stanley.
“The tape was rough,” Fressola says. “Nothing about it was polished, and at first the concept sounded derivative and unwieldy — but the material proved to be terrific: smart, young, heartfelt, rousing and topical.”
According to Fressola, when Billy Bly told Jonathan Larson he’d won the competition, “a grateful Larson told him that the $2,000 Stanley prize would allow him to avoid taking a ‘straight’ job for a while and buy him the luxury of a little time to work on Rent.”
A year after Rent won the Stanley, it was given a staged reading at the New York Theatre Workshop, followed by a three-week studio production in 1994. A lengthy editing process, in collaboration with producers, readied Larson’s masterpiece for its off-Broadway debut on January 26, 1996 — a debut the composer did not live to see. Larson died early that very morning in his walkup flat, killed by an undiagnosed heart condition. He was 35.
Rest in peace, Jonathan Larson — and welcome home to your masterpiece.
The Wagner College Theatre will present Rent, with book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, on its Main Stage from February 27 through March 10, 2013. Tickets will go on sale in early January.