Julie Larson on Brother Jonathan's Legacy as 'RENT' Celebrates its 25th Birthday

by Christopher Ehlers

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday October 16, 2021
Originally published on October 14, 2021

Julie and Jonathan Larson
Julie and Jonathan Larson  (Source:Julie Larson)

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the musical that defined a generation—and forever changed musical theater—"RENT" is touring the country, once again bringing Jonathan Larson's message of love, acceptance, empathy, and individuality from coast to coast. Sadly, however, this tour is allegedly the "farewell tour." Let's just hope that Cher and "RENT" share the same definition of "farewell."

This is about as close as it gets to essential viewing, both for those who have never seen "RENT" before and also for those, like Jonathan Larson's sister, Julie, who have seen it so many times they've lost count.

The tragedy of "RENT" has always been that Jonathan never got to see how the world responded to his masterpiece: he died of an aneurysm on the day that "RENT" began previews off-Broadway. An Emmy-nominated producer in her own right, Julie Larson has always been "RENT's" biggest fan, and she has worked tirelessly to keep it and Jonathan's light in the world.

Here, Edge chats with Julie about all things "RENT," plus the upcoming film "tick...tick...BOOM!," based on Larsen's 2001 off-Broadway musical from 2001, that premieres on Netflix this November. The adaptation is directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and stars Andrew Garfield, who Larsen in this semi-autobiographical musical.

The cast of the 25th Anniversary Farewell tour of "RENT"  (Source: Amy Boyle)

EDGE: The reason that this tour is so special is that it allows a whole new generation to experience this definitive production. I'm sure you've seen a lot more productions of "RENT" than I have, but Michael Greif's original staging is insurmountable. Why do you think that is?

Julie Larson: I agree that Michael's original production is something very special, but I'm not sure I can articulate it. The original show seemed to tap into the zeitgeist of the moment. I think Michael's raw, organic, exuberant staging became an integral part of what's become such an iconic show.

EDGE: I have to ask this question, though I'm afraid of the answer. Like so many others, I signed the famous wall backstage at the Nederlander. Please tell me it wasn't all painted over.

Julie Larson: Unfortunately, I believe the wall has been painted. We did, however, try to document as much of the wall as we could before the show closed.

Coleman Cummings and Cody Jenkins in the 25th anniversary farewell tour of "RENT"  (Source: Amy Boyle)

EDGE: Jonathan shared so much with you as he was creating "RENT." At what point did you say to yourself, "this might really be something remarkable?"

Julie Larson: I was always one of my brother's biggest cheerleaders. I loved watching him perform when he was still acting, as he had a huge presence on stage. I loved watching the little films he made. I think we always believed he had something special, whether he was performing or composing, but I'm not sure that any of us, including my brother, were confident that his work would ever be appreciated and recognized by the world at large.

EDGE: You have said that Jonathan used to call you late at night and ask for your input on what he was working on. Tell us about one of your opinions or recommendations that made it into the show.

Julie Larson: I was a pretty easy audience and loved most of what he shared with me. My mom was the one who was brutally honest with her thoughts. I could generally tell when Jonathan wanted my opinion and when he just wanted to share and have me listen, but once in a while he would ask me to be a sounding board. I recall seeing the 1994 staged reading of "RENT" at New York Theatre Workshop. There was a lot that was wonderful in it, but I told him I thought he was trying to pack too much into the one show and it wasn't really formed yet. He just needed to focus on exactly what he was trying to say.

Andrew Garfield in "Tick...Tick... BOOM!"  (Source: IMDb)

EDGE: What can you tell us about the "tick...tick...BOOM!" movie?

Julie Larson: I can say that Lin-Manuel Miranda and the entire cast and crew have created a beautiful movie and Andrew Garfield is remarkable. This film was a labor of love from everyone, even before the pandemic. The fact that we were able to complete the movie at all (thanks to lots of care and protocols), is a triumph in and of itself. I hope people go see "tick...tick...BOOM!" and love and appreciate it the way we do.

EDGE: Do you think Jonathan would be surprised to know that a tiny, autobiographical musical he wrote would one day be a major movie?

Julie Larson: My brother had big dreams and a belief in himself, so I think there was a part of him that wouldn't be surprised at all. He might even feel vindicated from all the naysayers and "nos" he received. At the same time, I think he'd be overwhelmed and honored. When Jonathan was pleased or knew he'd done well, he'd have a huge "cat that caught the canary" grin on his face and I can imagine with the "RENT" Tour back up and the "tick..." movie coming out, he would be sporting that huge grin.

Joshua Tavares and Shafiq Hicks in the 25th anniversary farewell production of 'RENT"  (Source: Amy Boyle)

EDGE: Both "RENT" and Jonathan's ideas were so ahead of their time. 25 years later, what does "RENT" mean in 2021?

Julie Larson: I think the core messages of "RENT" are timeless and universal. The themes of community, inclusion, compassion, youthful energy and exploration, empathy, being present in your life, understanding that our time can be brief, and LOVE, above all else, translates time and place. As we all begin to emerge from the last couple of years, I think many of us are recalculating what's important and "RENT" speaks to all of those things.

EDGE: Finish the sentence. "RENT" is...

Julie Larson: "RENT" is a beautiful and lasting part of my brother's legacy.

"RENT: The 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour" continues at the Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through October 17. For upcoming dates on the tour, visit the tour's website.

Watch the trailer to "tick... tick... BOOM!":