There are very few musicals that have had the power and longevity of Rent, Jonathan Larson’s inspirational tale of the AIDS generation. Anyone who has seen the show will know that it relates a sad story told through what is usually a happy, upbeat medium and look deep into the heart of American society when it first appeared at New York Theatre Workshop in the mid-1990s, prior to an almost immediate Broadway transfer.
Tragically, the stage story became almost inconsequential when the show’s creator died during the night following the first dress rehearsal on Broadway. According to information obtained by the book’s author Tom Rowan, Larson’s death might well have been avoidable, had the authorities at the hospital that he attended taken the appropriate action in relation to his symptoms.
Almost ironically, given the difficulties faced by his friends and so many of Rent’s characters, Larson died far too early but not of the rampant plague that was and is AIDS.
As a tribute to the show, Tom Rowan has written a book that is as close to a definitive biography of a Broadway musical as it is possible to get.
He is very methodical, exploring and researching in great depth and then delivering conclusions in chapters that are directed at specific facets of the Rent experience.
Amongst other areas on which Rowan focuses, there is inevitably a biography of Jonathan Larson as well as a description and synopsis of La Bohème, the opera on which the musical was based. Inevitably, there is also a detailed summary of the action and songs that make up the show.
Everyone involved gets their moment in the spotlight, starting with the original actors, producers and creative team, subsequently supplemented by those who came on to the project later.
The genesis and development of what started off as a niggling idea in a creative man’s mind and moved on to a full-scale stage production off-Broadway before becoming a sensation on the Great White Way is only the start of the story.
Rowan follows the next 20 years of developments, including the film, tours, revivals and the Larson legacy in an extremely thorough but highly readable book that must surely be the last word in the Rent tale. That is a tribute to the diligence of a writer who clearly cares deeply about his subject and wishes to enthuse every reader, almost certainly boosting sales of DVDs, original soundtracks and scripts along the way.
Although it has been published by Applause Books in the United States, this large format paperback is readily available in the UK for those who wish to immerse themselves in tales of one of the great cult musicals of the last couple of decades.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher