EW Staff
May 10, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Would Big be victorious? Or would Victor/Victoria be bigger? At the start of the current Broadway theater season last fall, all bets for the year ahead centered on those two new musical comedies, both elaborately packaged mega-budget productions, both based on brand-name movie hits — and both suddenly overshadowed by a radically different kind of musical.

The most talked-about new show on Broadway this year — one of the most highly praised and intensely anticipated productions since A Chorus Line — is a scrappy, hard-edged rock musical called Rent.

A darkly serious twist on Puccini’s La Boheme set in the ”outsider” enclaves of Manhattan’s contemporary bohemia, the Lower East Side, Rent has emerged from the theatrical netherworld of art-for-art’s-sake workshops to become a must-see phenomenon. The show not only raked in $5 million in advance sales before its Broadway opening on April 29, it also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, only the seventh musical ever to do so — an honor made all the more dramatic by the fact that Rent‘s creator, the 35-year-old author-composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson, cannot receive it. On Jan. 25, when Rent was no more than an experiment scheduled for a limited Off Broadway run, Larson watched the final dress rehearsal, went home, and died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm.

”He wrote the play as a response to a lot of friends’ deaths,” says director Michael Greif. ”It resounds as it does because it’s a very honest affirmation of life in the face of death.”

Rent had its genesis seven years ago, at the suggestion of playwright-lyricist Billy Aronson. Aronson had an amusing, ironic show in mind, but Larson (interested in the impact of AIDS upon friends) wanted one more realistic and hard-hitting. Larson took sole charge of the project in 1991, though some of Aronson’s lyrics remain in two songs, ”I Should Tell You” and ”Santa Fe,” and he receives program credit and financial compensation.

For the next five years, Larson worked and reworked the show. Rent evolved via staged readings and productions at the New York Theatre Workshop, gradually attaining greater power. If the focus remained somewhat imprecise, that was by design: Larson wanted a postmodern show as bustling, jumbled, and untidy as life. In the script, he called for a set that would appear ”more like a pile of junk than a set,” adding ”The entire play should seem thrown together out of this junk.”

Larson’s summary of Rent‘s daring, elliptical plot filled two and a half pages. Mark (Anthony Rapp), a struggling filmmaker whose girlfriend has left him for a woman (as one of Larson’s had), and Roger (Adam Pascal), a rock musician whose girlfriend has committed suicide after learning they were HIV-positive, are threatened with eviction from an abandoned East Village building. Mimi (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a drug addict, strives to reimmerse the emotionally benumbed Roger in life. Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a teacher, falls in love with Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a drag queen. But in Rent, Larson has done more than tell what happens to certain individuals; he depicts a whole community of outsiders with rare and startling vividness.

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