(November 27, 2005)

A Legacy in Love and Music

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

The movie "Rent," which hit multiplexes Wednesday, opens with a dark stage and a line of spotlights on actors singing Jonathan Larson's "Seasons of Love."

"525,600 minutes,

525,000 moments so dear.

525,600 minutes.

How do you measure, measure a year?"

Adding leap days and subtracting the days he died short of his 36th birthday, Jonathan Larson lived about 18,920,160 minutes. His final minute came the day before his rock opera, "Rent," was about to play its first preview performance.

"Rent" broke new ground on many fronts. It was immediately political, it was loud, it had a rock score and actors who wore headsets instead of body mikes. It was musical theater in the age of MTV. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Chris Columbus' film is faithful to all that. And it uses much of the same cast Larson assembled for that original New York Theater Workshop production.

"Rent" follows friends through 525,600 minutes in their lives - and comes to the conclusion that in a world full of death and pain and poverty, moments of love are the best measure of a life.

In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee.

In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.

In 525,600 minutes

How do you measure a year in the life?

But before he was Jonathan Larson, Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of "Rent," he was Jon, a lanky kid on a bike tooling around the Highlands section of White Plains. That is how Matt O'Grady remembers him.

"In the 1960s, we just all got on our bicycles and rode around White Plains," O'Grady says. "There were no play dates. There were no parents worrying that their children were going to be kidnapped. It was innocent. Everyone in the Highlands just had a bicycle and you rode around and played with your friends."

That's how Larson's sister, Julie Larson, remembers it, too.

"Jon was funny, kind of goofy," she says. He was the kid playing the tuba in the White Plains High marching band. Or appearing in every school show. Or watching his beloved Mets.

He was the kind of kid, Larson recalls, who instead of reading a book report standing in front of his class would grab his dad's 8mm camera and shoot a movie about the book. Or write a play about the book.

"That started early on," she says.

Later, when she married and had children, Larson remembers: "My brother was like a Pied Piper when it came to being around kids. Everyone couldn't wait for Jon to come, if there were kids around. He'd be the one rolling around the floor with them, creating magic out of nothing, taking socks and making puppets out of them."

"For someone who had no money for most of his life," Larson says, "he really had a rich life and if you talk to his friends, he knew how to live and make something out of nothing and appreciate every moment."

A friend since the third grade, O'Grady remembers his wit and sense of irony. "He was also a pop sociologist," he says. "He loved commenting and observing pop culture and political and social trends."

There's a lot of that in "Rent."

How about love?

How about love?

How about love?

Measure in love.

Seasons of love.

Larson's parents, Allan and Nanette Larson, live in Los Angeles now, but keep an apartment in Manhattan.

"The Larsons are people who walk lightly on the earth," O'Grady says. "That's sort of a shocking thing to say, considering the impact that he's had. But I don't think he was calling attention to himself as much as he was calling attention to the issues at hand. He wasn't a gloating type of person.

"White Plains gave us a lot of diversity," he adds. "I thought the whole world, when I grew up in White Plains, was like White Plains. You had all races and ethnicities present."

Larson went to Adelphi College on Long Island on a full acting scholarship. There he began to focus on his music and met Stephen Sondheim who encouraged him to compose. The Jonathan Larson Foundation returns that favor, giving financial aid to a new wave of musical theater composers, lyricists and book writers, and the theater companies who hire them.

"To me, there's Jonathan Larson who belongs to the world and has become this icon and this myth at some point," says Larson, who is a co-producer for the movie. "And then there's Jonny, the person we knew, the struggling artist and the amazing brother and uncle and son and friend."

He was, his sister says, a "phenomenal actor. If you met him on the street, he was kind of unassuming, kind of geeky and gawky, even. But he could command the stage."

525,600 minutes!

525,000 journeys to plan.

525,600 minutes.

How do you measure the life of a woman or man?

For `Rent' books and documentaries, O'Grady has pored over the four-year correspondence he had with Larson when the composer was at Adelphi and O'Grady was at U.C. Santa Barbara.

"He was a prolific writer and his letters were all about the theater - and girls in the theater," O'Grady says. "He was a very romantic guy. His girlfriends can attest to that more than I can. He really romanced the day. John made the best out of all things. This was the guy who didn't need money to make him happy. He was happy."

After college, Larson settled in the East Village, O'Grady in the Lower East Side. It was the mid-'80s and AIDS was cutting a swath through their neighborhoods. O'Grady took Larson to a Friends in Deed support group meeting, just like the one depicted in "Rent." It was a frightening time, he remembers.

"What a shock, an abrupt change. Everything that Jon and I grew up with in life could be cured by a call to mom or dad. It was either money or maybe a trip to the doctor or advice from home. But when you run into a disease, an addiction or HIV status and all that stuff, it's very different. So scary. That was a big about-face for people who grew up with unfettered optimism."

Larson, O'Grady says, responded to that despair. "In writing `Rent,' he cast himself as an observer. Becoming a composer and librettist, he took that role. But he had also acted. He had put himself out there. I think he knew he was better as the documenter, the observer and the writer. ... But what resonated with me when I saw (the movie) was that his music is still so good."

In truths that she learned,

or in times that he cried.

In bridges he burned,

or the way that she died.

Julie Larson says filming "Rent," and its New York premiere, were bittersweet.

"I'm going through all emotions at once," she says. "It's amazing to be back around the cast. I was on the shoot the entire time. My kids were there a lot, my dad was there all the time, my mom would come and go because it was painful sometimes."

Larson says the popularity of "Rent" inspires some fans to feel it belongs to them.

"When you're an artist, you want to have impact on people. And fortunately `Rent' has had such an impact on people that then they'll take ownership of it. They feel like they know my brother. There are pieces of all of it that are true, but it's very strange sometimes."

She makes this distinction between the musical and the movie:

"The show is brilliant and stands on its own and will always as a testament to what Jon and all of the original people who were part of it created. The movie is a new incarnation in a different medium and I think that film can make it more intimate in certain ways.

"In the theater, if there are five things going on at once, (it's a) sort of a cacophony and you don't know where to look. In film, they direct you where to look. And one look on a face can say so much."

Larson has nothing but praise for Columbus.

"Chris was a huge fan of the show and he so wanted to do it justice. … He asked for input from the cast and from us. ... Ultimately, he made his own choices about what would work, but he was so respectful of the original work and the fan base.

"We kept saying `We know there will be changes, we know there will be things that will work on film that wouldn't work on stage and vice versa. And we want you to feel free to make the best possible film version of `Rent' that you can. And not be constricted.'"

It's time now to sing out,
tho the story never ends
let's celebrate remember
a year in the life of friends.
Remember the love!
Remember the love!
Remember the love!

Julie Larson is convinced that, had her brother lived, he would have continued to write meaningful plays.

"He loved plain entertainment sometimes, there's no question," she says, "but he really felt that he was meant to write things that had relevant meaning and that you could say something with your art. And if you created controversy, that was a good thing. He would probably still be trying to address the social issues he felt needed addressing."

O'Grady just misses his friend.

"I knew he was talented," he says. "But I was more concerned with him being my friend. I always believed in his talent, but people are people and when you're that close to them, maybe you don't see their genius."

He tells this story:

After Jon died, a friend of mine said, `What was he like?' and I said, `He was an ordinary guy who just wanted to watch some Met games.' He was a huge Mets fan. And I said, `He wanted cable TV to watch the Met games. And he wanted things to go well with his girlfriend. And he wanted a car that didn't break down all the time. But most importantly, he wanted his music to be heard.

"Then my friend corrected me and said, `You're wrong. There was nothing ordinary about him.' And I was like, `Well there was nothing ordinary about all his friends, too. They were all a little off.' "

Seasons of love!

Seasons of love.

His sister says that had Jonathan Larson lived to see what his little Off-Broadway rock opera had become, "he would have loved every single second of it."

For the record, there are 31,536,000 seconds in a year.