I’m excited that Hamilton got a record 16 Tony nominations this week. The hip-hop Broadway musical and its creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, deserve every damn award they get: the Pulitzer Prize, the Grammy, the MacArthur Foundation grant, and all the others.
If you haven’t seen Hamilton yet and consoling yourself by thinking, “It can’t live up to the hype!” … well, some of the most jaded New Yorkers I know have gone and come out saying they need to see it again. That was exactly my reaction when I saw it last September. I also walked out of the theater feeling obsessed, once again, with another hugely popular, Pulitzer-Prize-winning musical — Rent, which opened on Broadway 20 years ago last week. April 29, to be exact. Rent‘s opening at the Nederlander Theatre came three months after the play’s January 26, 1996, off-Broadway preview, an event that was marred by the death the night before of 35-year-old Rent creator Jonathan Larson. Larson had gone to two different emergency rooms, complaining of extreme chest pains and shortness of breath. One hospital diagnosed food poisoning and sent him home. The second one said he had a virus and sent him home. Later, both hospitals were fined for missing the potentially treatable aortic dissection that killed him.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is forever linked to Jonathan Larson in my mind, because I first saw him in 2014 playing the main role in Larson’s autobiographical, pre-Rent work, tick tick … BOOM! And Lin-Manuel wasn’t playing any old character, but stepping into the shoes of the man who he says made his career possible. In a moving tribute to Larson that he wrote for the New York Times, Miranda described how he saw Rent on his 17th birthday: “The house lights go down, and from this moment on, nothing is ever the same again.” He continued:
“More than anything, it gave me permission to write about my community. I grew up in a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood in Upper Manhattan that burst with music and characters, and “Rent” whispered to me, “Your stories are just as valid as the ones in the shows you’ve seen.”
Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, came out of that epiphany … and, of course, that successful work led to Hamilton. I love that Lin-Manuel — in the midst of his great success, for a work that in most ways surpasses Rent — is still showing so much respect for Jonathan Larson. On Rent‘s 20th anniversary, the cast of Hamilton paid tribute. I got a little teary over this tweet …
"When you're living in America at the end of the millennium, you're not alone." Tonight, we honor Rent after 20 yrs. pic.twitter.com/1hYUxei6jP
— Hamilton (@HamiltonMusical) April 29, 2016
… and this one.
I think about an alternate timeline where Jonathan Larson is 56 years old, with many shows written & more on the way.
Wish I could hear 'em.
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) April 30, 2016
A lot of people have said that Hamilton is unprecedented, and it has bothered me a little that they have forgotten or are just unfamiliar with what an impact Rent had. It too was a musical for a new, younger generation; it too incorporated popular music, though Rent was rock, not hip-hop. Like Hamilton, Rent had a fanatical following: Rentheads. The subject matter was explosive, taking inspiration from La Bohème to tell the story of young, anti-establishment artists coping with AIDS at a time when new combinations of medications had yet to change the disease from a swift death sentence to a manageable chronic disease. (Remember, in the 1980s, people used to be scared to touch AIDS patients.) It was a huge thing to have characters including heroin addicts, bisexual performance artists and a drag queen sing things like:
“To faggots, lezzies, dykes, cross dressers, too.
To me, to me, to you and you and you, you, and you.
To people living with, living with, living with, NOT DYING from disease!”
I mean, tourists and suburban parents wound up singing along to THAT. On BROADWAY, no less. It was game-changing.
Like I said, Hamilton surpasses Rent in most ways: The lyrics, music and narrative are all more sophisticated. For that reason especially, it warms my heart that Lin-Manuel still tips his hat to Jonathan Larson — the man who inspired him, who never got to enjoy his success, and who didn’t get a chance to take his talents to the next level. I’d like to give him a prize for thoughtfulness!