Learning the Backstory to “Rent”

This post is by Emily Hauck, a summer intern in the Library’s Communications Office. A version of this post was first published in the Library of Congress Gazette and it also appeared on the Library of Congress Blog.

Members of the national tour cast of Rent examine original items from the Jonathan Larson Collection. Photo by Shawn Miller.

No matter how much you think you know about a topic, there is always more to discover. I found that out during my internship with the Library’s Office of Communications this summer.

One of my first assignments was to write a story for the Library of Congress Gazette about a June 22 visit to the Library by the 20th anniversary national tour cast of Rent. Cast members came to view the papers of Jonathan Larson, creator of the hit Broadway musical. I have a deep love of musical theater that spans back to my early childhood, so I jumped at the chance to interview them.

I learned more than I anticipated about the show from covering the event, and I consider myself to be a musical theater enthusiast. I wasn’t alone—even the cast that performs the show night after night expressed surprise and delight at materials in the collection.

The Larson Collection consists of approximately 15,000 items donated to the Library by his family, after his untimely death in 1996. The materials include lyric sketches, handwritten scripts, 400 recordings, personal correspondence, handwritten notes and more.

“What’s extraordinary about it is how much he wrote down. He’s somebody who sort of took notes about everything,” said Mark Horowitz of the Music Division, curator of the Larson Collection. “When he was writing a show, he would pose questions to himself—should I do this, can I make that clearer—and then he would answer them . . . in writing.”

Members of the cast expressed their fascination with the handwritten aspect of the collection as well. “Just being able to see the handwriting, the human behind the goliath of the show that we know,” said Christian Thompson, who plays Benjamin Coffin III. “It’s breathtaking.”

The display, spread over four tables in the Whittall Pavilion, included Larson’s notes and ideas, character biographies and his own biography through items such as his resume. “It’s so personal,” Horowitz said. “Not only is some of his stuff about the shows, but he also writes very personal things like: what are my goals in life, what do I want to do, how am I going to accomplish it?”

One item in particular that stood out to cast members was Larson’s biographies for the characters in “Rent.”

“Right now, I’m going through the biographies of the characters, and it’s quite interesting, some of the backstory that isn’t necessarily in the show,” Thompson said. “I’m actually just about to turn to the ‘Benny’ page, so I’m about to read about myself. Hopefully, my director doesn’t hate it if I add a couple of things in the next few days.”

“Knowing who each character is and why they act a certain way and to see that he went through so much trying to develop them—that’s amazing,” added Alexis Young, who is a swing of the production, the understudy for all the female roles.

Of all the items in the collection, one that stood out most to the cast and the curator was the handwritten math worksheet for “Seasons of Love” from Rent where Larson calculated that “525,600 minutes . . . measure a year” in the song’s lyric.

“I think the coolest thing, the thing that everybody likes, is the math for ‘Seasons of Love,’ it’s so remarkable and people really get that,” Horowitz said.

Though Rent is now over 20 years old, it is still relevant today, and this collection is proof of that.

“The story is kind of timeless,” Young said, “because it deals with wanting to live in the present and wanting to love. You know, who can’t relate to that?”

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