In 1896, opera lovers gathered at the Paris Opera House for the debut of an opera that was destined to become one of the most popular and performed operas of all time. That opera was La Bohème. It was composed by Giacomo Puccini. La Bohème was set in Paris and followed the exploits of several characters who were judged to have been living bohemian lifestyles. The lives these characters were leading were fraught with difficulties and dangers, but their love for life lent an air of purity to their pursuit of happiness and self-actualization. At the time, much of Europe was under threat from a disease called tuberculosis. In La Bohème, tuberculosis would cast a pall over the lives of those being enacted on stage. La Bohème was well received by Parisans and is regarded as one of Puccini’s greatest works. Since its debut, his opera has been performed all over the world and watched by hundreds of thousands of adoring fans. One of those fans was an American playwright named Billy Aronson who watched La Bohème in 1988. As he sat watching the story of carefree twenty-somethings in Paris living freely but struggling to pay their rent and avoid catching TB, Aronson was struck with how similar those times were to the ones he and his friends were living in now in New York City during the AIDS crisis. So, Aronson left the performance of La Bohème determined to create a modern adaptation of it. He approached his friend, Jonathan Larson, who was a songwriter and pitched the idea to him. Larson climbed on board immediately. Larson, who lived in Greenwich Village near the epi-center of AIDS outbreaks in the 1980s, agreed that there was definitely a story waiting to be told. After a period of collaboration that created a skeletal outline of a play, Larson asked Aronson if he could take the developmental lead because he had an idea to turn La Bohème into a rock opera. Aronson agreed in return for a percentage of future profits and formal recognition of his foundational role in the project. From there, Larson composed dozens and dozens of songs; eventually whittling it down to a suitable number, and just like that, a modern day version of the centuries old opera La Bohème emerged in the form of a musical called Rent.
Rent will forever be remembered as much for the circumstances of its debut as it ever has for the quality of its performances and that is really saying something because Rent has gone on to be one of the most highly recognized Broadway shows of all time. It took several years for Larson to complete his musical score, finalize the script and raise the necessary financing in order to mount his production. However, by late 1995, everything had seemingly fallen into place and pre-production began. The show was scheduled to make its off-Broadway debut in January of 1996. The date of that scheduled opening was deliberate because it would have been almost a full century, to the very day, that La Bohème had made its debut in Paris. But unbeknownst to everyone involved in the project, including Larson himself, tragedy was waiting silently for Larson in the wings. On the very eve of the debut of Rent in New York City, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm. Apparently, he had been carrying a non-AIDS-related disease called Marfan Syndrome which makes the blood vessels near the heart susceptible to leakage and/or rupture. Needless to say, the news of Larson’s death on the eve of what would become his greatest artistic triumph, was a devastating tragedy. Although those involved in Rent were shocked by the death of Larson, the musical’s champion, they followed the old adage that the show must still go on. However, instead of performing the musical as was intended, the cast gathered on stage and engaged in a sing-along with the audience in Larson’s memory. The song that touched people the most that night was called “Seasons of Love”.
In a typical performance of Rent, “Seasons of Love” opens Act II. By this time in the musical, the audience will have met all of the characters and know of their struggles and their dreams. They will also know of the spectre of the AIDS virus which looms over the entire play like its own evil character. “Seasons of Love” serves to remind the audience of what has happened and then to prepare them for what is to follow. The song starts out by describing how to measure time in units of one year. It then poses the question as to how one would make use of that time if that time was all that you had left to live. How does one measure the worth of one year in a situation such as those who have contracted AIDS? Well, according to the song, you measure that year in units of Love. I have always firmly believed that Love is the very best aspect of Life and that it is the most powerful force in our world. Larson seems to have felt the same way. Rent resonates so strongly with so many people because his core idea embedded all throughout the musical is one that highlights the importance and power of hearts filled with Love. It is not surprising that “Seasons of Love” has become the official anthem of World AIDS Day.
In the links below, I will obviously include a performance of “Seasons of Love” by the Broadway cast, along with a link to the website for Rent. But, I will also include a link to an interview that aired a year or so ago on the Stephen Colbert TV show at the height of the COVID pandemic. The video will show an interview that Colbert conducted with an actor named Andrew Garfield. At the time, Garfield was starring in a Netflix production called Tick, Tick, Boom! This production was one of many that Jonathan Larson had a hand in developing. Before Rent came to be realized, Larson worked as a waiter in order to make ends meet. In between shifts, he wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs that have ended up becoming parts of many other projects over the years, with Rent and Tick, Tick, Boom! being the most well known. In this interview, Garfield retells the story of Jonathan Larson and then concludes with a similar story from his own life. It is as poignant and intelligent an interview as one gets to bear witness to in this day and age. I highly recommend to each of you who read this post that you set aside a few minutes and watch Garfield and Colbert talk about the fragility of Life and the importance of Love. It will fill your heart; I guarantee it.
The link to the video for the song “Seasons of Love” from the Original Broadway Cast Recording of the Musical Rent can be found here.
The link to the official website for the musical Rent can be found here.
The link to the official website for World AIDS Day can be found here.
The link to the video for the interview between Andrew Garfield and Stephen Colbert can be found here.
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