The Passing of Jonathan Larson


Most fans of the original musical “Rent” or anyone who has read anything about the musical may have been shocked to learn that the man who created it, Jonathan Larson, passed away suddenly and tragically before the very first performance. When talked to two of the stars of the original production, Anthony Rapp and Taye Diggs, they were quite frank and open about how they learned of Larson’s death and they recounted the somber tone of the first public performance.

Rapp, who worked the most closely with Larson begins the story:

Anthony Rapp: We had a dress rehearsal, and it was an incredible dress rehearsal, which isn’t always the case, sometimes they’re disastrous, but this was literally like a screaming, standing ovation, and Jonathan was crowded around by scores of people after the show wanting to talk to him. That already was something very unusual and special. There was a New York Times reporter there that night who was just going to be reporting on the “La Boheme” aspect, but he wound up being so taken by the piece that he did an interview with Jonathan. So you had a sense in the air that this was going to turn out well. For me, having known him for over a year, I was very proud of him, and I wanted to talk to him after the show, but I couldn’t because of all that going on. So I was like, “Oh, I’ll see him tomorrow.” Then the next morning I woke up and there was a message on my voicemail from the artistic director that sounded very grave. I was like, “Did somebody get fired?”

Taye Diggs: That’s what we all thought. We all thought that the show was going to be canceled or that we all were getting fired, because they told us to all come to the theater.

Rapp: Before I had a chance to call anyone else, my agent called me and told me that she heard the news that Jonathan had died because they were in the same office. I mean, it was incredibly shocking. Weirdly, it all made some sort of cosmic sense that he had poured his whole being into the show and there it was, that that was the point of his life. That’s what we said as a way to comfort ourselves. And then we gathered at the theater. I don’t know if Taye remembers this, but there was a moment when we were sitting on stage and we didn’t know what to do, we were sitting silently, and Tim Wild, the original music director, suddenly starting sobbing, like galvanized sobs, and Taye just put his hand on his shoulder. Those were the kind of moments, just being there for each other. And then the question became “What do we do tonight?” That night was our first preview. Michael Grief and Jen Nicola and I were all talking, and it became pretty clear that we couldn’t keep the theater silent. We didn’t want to do nothing. We wanted to do a sing-through of the show at least so it would be filled with his songs and his music. We invited his friends and family and they came and it was a packed house. Of course, everybody was in shock. We were sitting at tables sort of singing the show, and lo and behold, we did this huge rocking number, and it got a huge ovation, and the laughs got laughs. All the joy that’s in the piece was just as present as it had ever been.

Diggs: I’ll never forget. We all started singing at a long table just like this, and then slowly, it started with Daphne singing “Out Tonight”… Can you finish? Because it always gets me really emotional.

Rapp: We were singing but we couldn’t sing anymore, so she got up and just started dancing on the top of the table. And during “Tango Maureen”, we kind of got up and did a little short version of it. By “La Vie Boheme”, we were all up on the table just doing the number. There was just no denying that that joy and passion was just as present that night in the face of this incredible sorrow as it had ever been. And then in Act II, because it’s much simpler, we decided to get up and do it. We came out and did the lines from “Seasons of Love.” You know, when you sing your throat has to be open and when you cry your throat closes up, so that was the first occasion we had to really learn how to sing when your throat is closing up.

Diggs: We lost our voices.

Rapp: But then Gwen Stewart who was playing the soloist, somehow sang through that whole thing, and then Jesse Martin in the “I’ll Cover You” reprise. When we all couldn’t make a sound, he sang through it. Having that experience of no matter what getting through it for their sake, for our sake, and then at the end of the night when we were done singing the show there was the most absolute silence I’ve ever experienced, to have hundreds of people singing in total, complete silence, not moving a muscle, and then finally someone said, “Thank you, Jonathan Larson,” and that was kind of like the release, and then people moved. It was an unforgettable night, and it was the beginning of the rest of it, and then it became a task of figuring out to finish the piece that was unfinished. We did the best we could under the circumstances, and then with the film we’ve gotten to refine it even more and clarify things.

You can see how it turned out in theaters now.