I’ve spent the past few weeks frantically grading essays and final exams. However, I’m not immune to the charms of the holiday season, and as a writer, I have a number of favorite holiday stories. A Christmas Carol by Dickens is certainly at the top of the list, followed by O’Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. Strangely enough, though, one of the Christmas stories I cherish the most isn’t really a Christmas story at all; it just happens to begin and end there.
I was a teenager when I first discovered Rent. At the time, I was living in a conservative mill town where the population rounded up to ten thousand people. I had notebooks filled with stories and poems that no one had ever read and, as teenage girls often are, I was miserable. Enter Jonathan Larson’s edgy update of Puccini’s La Boheme.
I was utterly seduced by the storyline. How could any artist not be? Larson created an urban family of artists struggling against the harsh reality of life in New York during the advent of the AIDS epidemic. What appealed to me so much was the sincerity and integrity of the characters. As a writer, I find it easy to feel alone and misguided. I find it easy to get discouraged. In modern society, many people consider art a frivolous hobby. The characters in Rent would riot in the face of such blasphemy. What I find inspiring is the passion behind their pursuits and the raw honesty in everything they do, from Roger’s tortured guitar solos to Collins’ heartbreaking refrain at Angel’s funeral.
It’s not just the musical itself that keeps me hopeful when faced with a mainstream culture that would rather read Facebook updates than poetry. Jonathan Larson is an inspiration all on his own. He didn’t just write Rent, he lived it. ‘Life Support’ was modeled after an AIDS support group he attended with friends of his who were living with the virus. He toiled as a waiter at a diner, making just enough money to keep a roof over his head while he composed. His tenacity ultimately resulted in the creation of a musical that would run on Broadway for over ten years. Of course, the fact that Rent is so phenomenal makes it all the more soul crushing that Larson died on the night before it opened.
Every time I watch Rent, I mourn the loss of so brilliant an artist so early in his career. I mourn the stories that he didn’t live to tell. More than that, though, I give thanks for the fact that he existed at all. Although New York city is not the Bohemian mecca it once was, AIDS is no longer a death sentence, and tape-recorded answering machine messages are woefully obsolete, what remains is the fact that the world is full of artists. What is true is that I am never as alone as I feel, that people still read poetry, and that there are still brilliant composers writing musicals that will change people’s lives the way Rent changed mine. Sometimes, I need to be reminded, and for that, thank you, Jonathan Larson.