Thank You Jonathan Larson (again)

A slight diversion. But as this is the ‘research blog’ it seems only right that I take pause today to talk about the ‘other half’ of my academic life. And so much more.
Larson wrote ‘How do you measure a year in the life’ and the more years that go by- in both his work a part of my life and since the world lost him- it becomes harder to encapsulate those things in words.
Larson’s work shaped me personally and professionally. And musical theatre owes him a debt. We would, theatre kids, likely have no Hamilton if it wasn’t for Larson (Don’t believe me, listen to your God Lin-Manuel while he tells the story of how Larson’s work shaped him here ) Now we aren’t all Lin-Manuel Miranda, obviously. But I’d bet that most of us theatre kids of a certain age (and the generations after us) owe a little something to Rent. And actually, like Miranda I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done without Rent.

For me I came late to it. I was 19 and just discovering musical theatre. And of course, on that discovery Rent came soon after. Eventually I made it to Broadway to see the show. I loved it, who wouldn’t. Interestingly it wasn’t that first time that had a profound effect on me, but I think the second or third. I remember so distinctly being sat in the Mezzanine of the Nederlander theatre and being hit by a wave of emotion stronger than anything I’d felt before, in the theatre, and rarely have since. And although I loved Rent, as musical theatre fans do, it was that moment it really became a part of me that I’d never quite shake.
And so, Rent became a part of me. In that way anything you love intensely in your teens and early twenties does, it became entwined with my growing up. When I started I was a bit younger than those characters, but as time passed I grew up into them and lived on past that point in life. But they remained there. Part of the lessons learned on the way:  I wished to live with the abandon of Angel, love like Collins and be fierce and fearless like Maureen. All the while, being a lot like Mark- the observer, the outsider (and a bit like Larson too it seemed). I gathered the stories, consumed everything on this musical. The year the film came out is a halcyon daze of celebration for this thing we loved in my mind. Early internet fandom (hello Hamilton we got there first) and the sharing of information, grainy video clips, and friendships made. Rent marks out moments in my growing up, a constant soundtrack, my musical home. 
Fast forward a few years, and a few more. I wrote a PhD.  I wrote a PhD on Rent. I am when I’m not being Dr Angels, Dr Rent. And I fought hard for that PhD. I fought people who said I had no business writing on a musical at all. I fought people who said this musical wasn’t worthy. And I did it anyway. I like to think Larson would be pleased with that. Not just that someone, from country thousands of miles away, wrote a PhD on his musical. But that she fought damn hard to prove the legitimacy of it. Because Larson was passionate about musicals as an art form. And we’re getting there now in that recognition, but boy did he fight for us too.
I spent my PhD, when I was doing all the defending, telling people who inevitably asked about the two plays ‘Angels is my head, Rent is my heart.’ That does both a disservice- equally both deserve the analysis I gave them, and equally both are loved. But I was right, there is something about Rent that is etched into my very being. Even without thinking of it, it runs through my veins in the way only music you fall in love with at the right moment in your life can. I have a companion, and inspiration for life in that. I can fall back on it in times of joy and sorrow, or even when I’m just feeling a bit lonely. It’s my friend and companion. And by now it’s a part of me.
(And yes, by the way anyone with the foolish notion to marry me will have to endure Seasons of Love in the ceremony, it’s just the way it is).
 I spent four years with my head in this (and a couple of other pieces). I deconstructed, I stepped away and analysed coldly. I was forced to defend my choice of Rent, a ‘lowly musical’ as a piece of serious work. I was forced to look at it in the most critical way. And I began to feel like I should have ‘grown out of it.’
Almost exactly a year ago I came out of a production of Rent that was, firstly the best version of it I’ve seen since the original. Secondly, one that so profoundly affected me I had to sit on a bench desperately texting the two people I knew would understand, to pull myself together and move. After all this time, all these years, still it’s in my bones. In the very soul of me.
And maybe some people out there feel Rent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But there’s no denying the influence it had on people. From the extremes of, yes writing a PhD on it. To the lesser extent that it just helped people through difficult times. Or that it made them happy.

And for me who Larson was, along with what he achieved, is a part of why every year on this day I pause to think about how he inspired me and continues to. Larson fought hard for what he got. And yes, before anyone says so, for every Jonathan Larson there are dozens if not hundreds who never achieve what they set out to. But does that mean we should all stop trying?
In Tick Tick Boom Larson writes the following:
“I want to sit down at my piano and write a song that people will remember. And I want to do the same thing, every morning. For the rest of my life.”
“When I emerge from B minor or A, 5 O’Clock Diner calls, I’m on my way. I make a vow right here and now, I’m gonna spend my time this way”
That there, in whatever form is what Larson gave me. That feeling that dreams are worth it, if they’re worth it to you. And I’ve come to realise, very slowly, that this is what matters to me. To write, to make something that matters to people. Larson doesn’t put a number on it- he couldn’t have known after all quite what Rentwould become. But it was always the drive to make something. He was 35 when he hung up his battered Converse trainers to go and work on the workshop of Rent. Of course, the story has been mythologised in Broadway history. And Larson had a series of minor successes that led him to that point. But I still hold onto that. It took Larson until 35 to hang up those shoes and leave the diner he worked in. And I like to think he’d have carried on trying beyond that had he needed to. I’m not a believer in anyone sacrificing everything for their art. But you live with what you’re comfortable with. That’s what Larson did- for him working in a diner meant space to write. And that’s what drove him.
I listened to Tick Tick Boom on the drive to work in my last ‘proper’ job. The one I swore would be the last job I settled for. That I was taking the leaps to try and chase some dreams. Yesterday I got fired from a Temp job that was set to become all consuming and not let me follow up on what I’m really trying to do. And no, chances are I won’t be another Jonathan Larson. But if I think to Larson on a parallel path, I’m sure he’d rather have got to say, 50 and said, ‘Well I gave it my best shot.’
And that’s what Larson gave me. The music that shaped my life. And the power to keep going. Through that music. And through how he lived.  Even when it feels like it’s falling apart.
I’ll be honest, my life has felt like it’s falling apart this year so far (and it’s only 3 weeks in). All the tiny steps forward made last year feel like they’re going hurtling back and 100 miles per hour. But I will pause. Breathe. Listen to Jonathan’s music, and think about how it set me on a path that drove me this far. And hope that it can carry me further.
I’ll be sending four claps up to you tonight. And saying once again, Thank you Jonathan.

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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