by Eric Altheide
The Need to Express; To Communicate
The story is almost as iconic as the story of the musical he created. In the early morning hours of January 25, 1996, Jonathan Larson returned to his East Village apartment following the final dress rehearsal of RENT, a project he had worked on for years. Though no one knows for sure what thoughts were bumping around in his head, one can easily bet they were thoughts of validation. The audience that evening had been enthusiastic to say the least and the interviewer with the New York Times had predicted that Larson’s first fully produced musical would be a hit. Finally, after years of struggling to be heard, we can hope that Jonathan arrived home that night feeling validated as an artist. The only thing we know for sure is that he put on a pot of water for tea and then collapsed on his kitchen floor, suffering from an aortic dissection. The man who had just changed the face of American musical theatre was dead at the age of thirty-five. It was as if his heart had said what it needed to say and then just gave out.
I have heard this story many times before. In the years following Larson’s tragic death, the story of his final moments was louder than the story of the characters he brought so vividly to life. However, when I came across the story again as I was preparing to direct the USI Theatre department’s production this fall, the story struck me in a whole new light. And by struck, I mean it knocked the wind out of me.
You see, I turned thirty-five this past September.
When the Pulitzer Prize-winning RENT first burst onto the scene, I was a freshman theatre major at the University of Evansville. The music and lyrics fueled something inside of me that I still cannot explain, but for months I embarrassed myself by being caught by other drivers as I rocked out in my car on the way to classes. Singing along with Larson’s music was like giving an angst-driven finger to all of those people who gave me a wry smile when I told them I was studying to be an actor and then asked, “So you are studying to be a professional waiter?”
Being an artist is a rewarding, frustrating, and heart-breaking experience. The artist is constantly struggling with the need to express himself and the self-doubt that stands in his way. The only way through it is to realize you are not alone. There is a community that exists of people who have the same desires and needs. Jonathan Larson introduced us to that community through his life-affirming bohemians. He told us that it is okay to be who we are and speak our minds in the moment because we only have this moment. His life and death proved that to be true. We brought this opportunity to our students for them to experience that immediacy first hand. I challenge anyone to question the passion and commitment with which they brought themselves to this show. They are artists, after all…
I dedicate this show to all of my friends who are still hanging in there. A life in the theatre is all about persistence and perseverance. We take the moments we are given and use them as fully as we can. To my students: never let anyone make you feel ashamed for what you are.
VIVA LA VIE BOHEME!