Jonathan Larson first began work on Rent when he was twenty-nine years old. Living in a shabby Manhattan apartment not unlike the one Mark and Roger inhabit in the show, his New York City in 1989 was awash with homelessness, crack cocaine, and the deadly AIDS epidemic. He was recommended as a composer/lyricist to playwright Billy Aronson, who was interested in creating a musical adaptation of Puccini’s opera La Bohème. The two met and workshopped some of the musical (including first drafts of what would become the songs Rent, Santa Fe, and I Should Tell You) but the project stalled. A couple of years later, shaken by several of his close friends’ AIDS diagnoses and seeking a medium to raise awareness and honor his friends, Larson asked Aronson for permission to continue Rent on his own.
Rent had its first staged reading at the New York Theater Workshop in March 1993. It was evident from that workshop that the show still needed serious work--it had forty-two songs and a very complicated plot--but it was also clear that the material was promising. After major revisions, the show began rehearsals for an off-Broadway production in 1996. Tragedy struck, however, the morning after Rent’s final dress rehearsal, the day it was to begin previews: Jonathan Larson died suddenly and unexpectedly from an aortic aneurysm. The show premiered as planned, though, and immediately garnered critical acclaim and box office success, selling out every show and moving in April 1996 to Broadway’s Nederlander Theater by popular demand.
A London production was mounted in 1999, and a film version, starring most of the original Broadway cast and retaining most of the musical’s material, was released in 2005. Regional and amateur productions are currently licensed through Music Theatre International, which offers a modified School Edition for high school groups.