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A Brief History of “Rent”

"La Vie Boheme" Scene performed by the original RENT cast on Broadway. Photo by Sara Krulwich, NY Times.
“La Vie Boheme” scene performed by the original “Rent” cast on Broadway. Photo by Sara Krulwich, NY Times.

On April 29, 1996, playwright Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning musical “Rent” made its Broadway debut at The Nederlander Theatre. As many Broadway show-goers and longtime East Village residents already know, “Rent” takes place in the heart of the East Village during the AIDS epidemic in the mid-to-late 1980s.  This legendary rock opera, an updated version of “La Boheme,” celebrates the the once-Bohemian community of the East Village and sheds light upon the lives of those affected by HIV/AIDS.

Although a work of fiction, the play speaks to the very real history of AIDS in the East Village during the 1980s. According to the New York Times, Larson “wanted to set the play in the East Village, amid poverty, homelessness, spunky gay life, drag queens and punk.” The Times also reported “that the show was motivated by his [Larson’s] need “to respond in some way” to his friends coping with AIDS, and to celebrate the lives of people who have died young.” Sadly, Jonathan Larson died suddenly of aortic aneurysm just a few hours after the play’s final dress rehearsal.

In the wake of Larson’s death, “Rent”‘s preview was postponed. The play later opened at the New York Theatre Workshop, a 150-seat venue on East 4th Street, between the Bowery and Second Avenue on February 13, 1996. The musical instantly received glowing reviews and sold out every performance in its six-week run. Due to the growing demand for tickets, “Rent” was moved uptown to Broadway, at the Nederlander Theater that housed 1,035 seats. The musical went on to make Broadway history.

Nineteen years after its preview, Richard Kornberg, the show’s publicist since its start at the New York Theater Workshop, remarked “The East Village of ‘Rent’ is a very different place than the East Village of today.”

One of the things in the East Village that has visibly changed since “Rent”‘s origins is the Life Café. The location inspired Larson to write one of the play’s most memorable scenes, when the characters dance on the tables singing ‘La vie Boheme” in the Café.

Life Café (mid 1980s). Photo from cactusbones Flickr.

First opened in 1981 on Avenue B and East 10th, The Life Café was a real-life neighborhood and cultural establishment in the East Village. The Café was a haven for local artists and residents, hosting weekly poetry readings, art shows and performances, while also serving inexpensive drinks and comfort food. The Life Café remained opened for thirty years, until 2011 when it shut its doors due to a dispute between the two landlords of the building.

Although the character of the East Village has changed since the play’s debut, “RENT” has immortalized this important era in New York City history through the prevailing power of art.

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