Twenty years after Wagner College awarded Jonathan Larson the 1993 Stanley Drama Award for an early version of his groundbreaking rock opera, Wagner College Theatre staged “Rent” for the first time in February and March 2013.

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, administered by the Wagner College Theatre. He sent his script along with a demo tape to Bill Bly, director of the Stanley … and waited.

Rent stage shot
The cast of Rent performing on the Mainstage this February and March.

“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 late 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 Jan. 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.

After moving to Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre later in 1996, “Rent” went on to win every major theatrical award, including the Tony Award for Best Musical.

“As a piece of theatre in the 1990s, ‘Rent’ changed the course of musical history,” said Tony Award-winning actor Michele Pawk, who directed the Wagner College Theatre production. “For the first time, it brought pop music into the Broadway theatre and told a story.”

Pawk, a Wagner College professor, feels a great connection to the play and the life lessons that Jonathan Larson wrote about.

“I think what is really important is that, even though it is now more of a period piece, the ideas that are written about so beautifully in this play are still important. It’s about love, life and not wasting a second, because ‘you have no day like today,’” Pawk said.

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