11 Things You Should Know About Rent

Andrew H. Walker // Getty Images
Andrew H. Walker // Getty Images

Fox's live performance of Rent, the Broadway musical that ushered in a new age of pop-rock music on the Great White Way, has finally arrived. The rock opera’s uplifting message still strikes a chord with audiences everywhere. Before you rock out to the live version, study up on these facts about the original play.

1. It's loosely based on the 1896 opera La Boheme.

The story of Rent began with playwright Billy Aronson, who moved to Manhattan's Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in 1983. Homelessness was a huge issue in the city at that time, as was the emergence of AIDS, which would affect 1096 new victims by year's end. One night, Aronson caught a performance of La Boheme. The opera, written by the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, is a four-act masterpiece about a group of penniless, starving artists in 19th-century Paris. The four main characters share a crowded living space which sometimes gets so cold that they must burn their own works for warmth. To make matters worse, their city has fallen prey to a raging tuberculosis epidemic. Still, in their strife, the artists find camaraderie.

"I remember walking home … and noticing the contrast between the luscious world of the opera and the world I lived in," Aronson told Mediander. Soon, he hatched the idea of adapting La Boheme into a musical that would be set in New York during the AIDS crisis. Many plot points in Rent mirror La Boheme, including the relationship between Mimi and Roger (in Puccini’s opera, much of the drama stems from Rodolfo, a poet, and his rocky affair with a poor woman named Mimi, who ultimately dies of tuberculosis) and Angel’s decision to kill an obnoxious dog for money (in La Boheme, one character earns some badly-needed cash by doing away with a pesky parrot).

2. Billy Aronson provided the initial lyrics for three of Rent's most beloved songs.

"I love working with musicals and dance, but I don’t write music," Aronson said. To enlist some help with his La Boheme project, the writer approached some acquaintances at the theater Playwrights Horizons, who put him in touch with composer (and part-time restaurant waiter) Jonathan Larson. Eventually, other projects drove Aronson to leave the show behind. Larson—who felt the show might well become his generation’s answer to Hair—also stopped working on it for a time, but he eventually came back to it, with his ex-collaborator’s blessing. Before the two parted ways, however, Aronson penned the first lyrics to "Santa Fe," "I Should Tell You," and the titular song, "Rent."

Aronson wrote on his website that sometime before the off-Broadway premiere, he asked Larson what was left of his work. Larson responded, “the lyrics for 'Rent' were basically his, the lyrics for 'Santa Fe' were basically mine, and the lyrics for 'I Should Tell You' were half and half.”

3. "Will I?" was inspired by something Jonathan Larson heard at an HIV/AIDS support group meeting.

While working on Rent, Larson regularly attended the meetings of a nonprofit group called Friends In Deed, which was created in 1991 as a support group for New Yorkers with AIDS and other life-threatening ailments. The discussions Larson observed there prompted him to write "Life Support" and "Will I?" According to organization co-founder Cynthia O’Neal, "Jonathan had been sitting in … one night when a young man raised his hand." The man said "I’m not really afraid of dying, and I think I can handle suffering, but the thing I think about all the time is 'Will I lose my dignity?'"

4. To nab a role, Adam Pascal had to break a bad singing habit.

Pascal played Roger Davis, a musician and ex-junkie with HIV. Though he’d never appeared in a musical before trying out for Rent, the performer—like his character—did have an impressive rock and roll background; he’d spent many years in bands, including one that had recently broken up. But things that work well at concerts don’t always cut it on an off-Broadway stage. During the audition, he was asked to sing "Your Eyes," Roger’s tender love ballad. Although the vocalist aced every note, there was one big problem: He couldn’t keep his eyes open. "As a rock singer, I was used to closing my eyes when showing/feeling emotion," Pascal wrote in retrospect. Obviously, that technique was ill-suited for acting. Pascal fixed the issue and landed the role.

5. Producers saw a workshop performance, and offered to fund it before they'd even seen Act II.

An early version of Rent was performed as a staged reading at the New York Theatre Workshop in March 1993. One year later, a new workshop production—complete with a heavily-revised script—was staged. This proto-Rent ran for two weeks; toward the end of its run, producing partners Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum stopped by to see the show. Larson’s musical was still very much a work in progress. "For the first 20 minutes, I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s great energy,’'’ McCollum told Vulture. "Then, 25 minutes in, ‘Light My Candle’ happens." The producers couldn’t believe their ears. "I turned to Jeffrey and said, ‘That’s the best piece of musical-theater storytelling I’ve seen in a long time,’" McCollum recalled. During intermission, the duo found Larson and told him they wanted to do his show. "Well," Larson replied, "do you want to see the second act?"

Seller and McCollum later brought their associate Allen Gordon on board as a third producer. After numerous revisions, Rent was ready for its first official preview.

6. Larson didn't live to see Rent's success.

On January 24, 1996, Rent had its final dress rehearsal at the New York Theatre Workshop, an Off-Broadway venue. By all accounts, the run-through went well, and afterward, Larson sat down for an interview with New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini. When their discussion wrapped up, the composer headed back to his Greenwich Village apartment. The next day, Larson was found dead on the kitchen floor; he had succumbed to a fatal aortic aneurysm. He was only 35 years old.

Rent was set to have its first-ever preview performance that very night. With heavy hearts, the cast decided to take the stage in his memory. It was a performance like no other. The doors were closed to the general public; every available seat was reserved for Larson’s friends and family. Together, the cast decided there’d be no choreography or blocking—instead, everybody would sit down in front of the audience for a full sing-through. But, as the night wore on, the actors grew more energized. "By the time we got to ‘La Vie Boheme,’ we could not contain ourselves," Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who played Angel, said in the documentary No Day But Today—The Story of Rent. For the rest of the evening, the whole company danced and did their blocking with gusto.

7. Rent is in some elite company, awards-wise.

The original Broadway cast of Rent from 1996
The original Broadway cast of Rent in 1996

With the impromptu memorial performance behind them, the cast dove into their first public preview on January 26. That April, Rent made the jump to Broadway, where it would remain for the next 12 years. Altogether, Larson’s passion project nabbed four Tony Awards, including the coveted Best Musical. It also took home the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, something that only eight other musicals (Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello!, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park With George, Next to Normal, and Hamilton) have ever won.

8. It pioneered the Broadway ticket lottery.

For many, it can be tough to catch a show on the Great White Way without breaking the bank—but these days, most Broadway productions offer daily ticket lotteries before a performance, with the winners getting the right to buy choice seats at a bargain price. Rent is credited with inventing this concept.

According to Seller, he and McCollum felt the need to make Rent accessible to those "in their 20s and 30s, artists, Bohemians—the people for whom [Larson] wrote the show." So after the musical moved to Broadway, the producers set up a rush ticket system. At every performance, two rows’ worth of premium seats were sold off for $20 apiece. The process began two hours before the show, and the tickets were distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Soon enough, huge lines of hardcore fans (known as "Rentheads") clamoring for rush seats started forming outside the theater. To beat the frenzy, many diehards even took to pitching tents and camping out on the street. Naturally, this raised some concerns. "We became worried that kids were going to get hurt and get into trouble in the middle of the night with what was still a pretty large contingent of low-lifes around there," Seller said. The show ended up replacing its ticket rush with Broadway’s very first ticket lottery system. Since then, this sort of thing has become an industry standard, although modern shows tend to conduct their lottos digitally.

9. The original cast sang "Seasons of Love" at the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

On day one of the convention—August 26, 1996—the ensemble serenaded First Lady Hillary Clinton and an admiring Chicago crowd with Rent’s most famous number. A year later, the first family celebrated Chelsea Clinton’s 17th birthday by taking her to a Broadway performance of Rent. The 42nd Commander-in-Chief later described the musical as "really powerful. It has a real grip on the people."

10. Martin Scorsese was considered as a possible director for the 2005 movie adaptation.

As Seller, who co-produced the film, told The Washington Post, "Scorsese admired the piece but didn’t know what to do with it." In the end, it was Chris Columbus of Mrs. Doubtfire fame who assumed the director’s chair.

11. The cast of Hamilton celebrated Rent's 20th anniversary with their own rendition of "Seasons of Love."

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first experience with this paradigm-shifting musical came at age 17, when he was taken to see it on his birthday. For the future star, it was a life-changing event. Miranda said that Larson’s music immediately triggered "a revelation—that you could write about now, and you could have musicals that really felt contemporary."

In 2016, the cast of Hamilton celebrated the 20th anniversary of Rent by performing a version of "Season of Love."

An earlier version of this article ran in 2016.

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

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