11 Things You Should Know About Rent

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

Fox recently announced that it will air a live performance of Rent, the Broadway musical that ushered in a new age of pop-rock music on the Great White Way. The rock opera’s uplifting message still strikes a chord with audiences everywhere. While we're waiting for the live version, study up on these facts.

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. 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 theatre 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 writes 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 LARSON HEARD AT AN HIV/AIDS SUPPORT GROUP MEETING.

While working on Rent, Larson regularly attended the meetings of a non-profit 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. WHEN PRODUCERS JEFFREY SELLER AND KEVIN MCCOLLUM SAW A WORKSHOP PERFORMANCE OF RENT, THEY OFFERED TO FUND IT BEFORE THEY’D EVEN WATCHED 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 Seller and 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.

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. TO CELEBRATE 20 YEARS OF RENT, THE CAST OF HAMILTON FILMED THEMSELVES SINGING "SEASONS OF LOVE" LAST YEAR.

The footage was shot by castmember Javier Munoz. Speaking of Hamilton, the hit show’s creator is apparently quite the Renthead. 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."

Netflix Is Testing Commercials, and Subscribers Aren't Happy

iStock
iStock

Save the occasional "Are you still watching?" message popping up between episodes, it's possible to watch an entire Netflix series in one sitting with little to no distractions. Now, the streaming service is testing something that could upend that: As CNN reports, Netflix has quietly started sprinkling advertisements into its programming, something the subscription-based service has been able to avoid up to this point.

The promotional content Netflix is experimenting with differs from conventional cable commercials in some fundamental ways. The promos won't be advertising third-party brands, Netflix promises: Rather, they'll exclusively show off Netflix original content, like seriesGlow and Stranger Things (though one Reddit user did report seeing an ad for Better Call Saul, which Netflix licenses from AMC). And instead of inserting ads throughout the program, as some non-subscription streaming services do, Netflix will only include them at the end of some episodes with a "skip" button similar to the one that allows viewers to bypass a show's opening credits. And each promo subscribers see will be personalized based on their viewing habits, hopefully turning them on to new shows and not just annoying them in the middle of their binge-watching sessions.

Despite these assurances from Netflix, viewers aren't happy. Many customers have taken to social media threatening to cancel their service if the promos become the norm, which likely may not happen: They've only been shown to a select number of test viewers so far, and based on user response, Netflix may decide to pull the plug on the experiment.

The good news is that as long as the ads are still in the test phase, you can choose to opt out of them. Just go to Netflix.com/DoNotTest and toggle off the switch next to the words "Include me in tests and previews." Now you're ready to resume your binge-watching marathon without interruption.

[h/t CNN]

10 Things You Might Not Know About Columbo

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

For more than 40 years, Peter Falk entered living rooms around the world as Lieutenant Columbo, an unconventional L.A. homicide detective known for his ruffled raincoat and trademark cigar. The actor would go on to win four Emmys for the role, while the series itself remains a benchmark for television crime dramas. But if series creators William Link and Richard Levinson went with their initial choice, the iconic role of Columbo would have gone to a syrupy-smooth crooner rather than the inelegant Falk. Get familiar with one of TV's most unique heroes with facts about Columbo.

1. BING CROSBY WAS ORIGINALLY EYED FOR THE ROLE.

Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link's first choice to play their low-key detective was crooner Bing Crosby. Der Bingle loved the script and the character, but he feared that a TV series commitment would interfere with his true passion—golf. It was probably providential that Crosby turned the role down, since his death in 1977 occurred while the series was still a solid hit on NBC. 

2. PETER FALK WAS AN UNEXPECTED SEX SYMBOL.

Peter Falk in 'Columbo'
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Character actor Lee J. Cobb was also considered for the role, until Peter Falk phoned co-creator William Link. Falk had gotten a copy of the script from his agents at William Morris and told Link that he’d “kill to play that cop.” Link and Levinson knew the actor back from their days of working in New York, and even though he was the opposite of everything they’d originally pictured for Lt. Columbo, they had to admit that Falk had a certain likeability that translated to both men and women. Falk was described by a certain female demographic as “sexy,” and males liked him because he was an unthreatening, humble, blue-collar underdog who was smarter than the wealthy perps he encountered.

3. FALK WAS A GOVERNMENT WORKER BEFORE BECOMING AN ACTOR.

Peter Falk wasn’t too far removed from the character he played. In real life he tended to be rumpled and disheveled and was forever misplacing things (he was famous for losing his car keys and having to be driven home from the studio by someone else). He was also intelligent, having earned a master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University, which led to him working for the State of Connecticut’s Budget Bureau as an efficiency expert until the acting bug bit him. He was also used to being underestimated due to his appearance; he’d lost his right eye to cancer at age three, and many of his drama teachers in college warned him of his limited chances in film due to his cockeyed stare. Indeed, after a screen test at Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn dismissed him by saying, “For the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.”

4. COLUMBO'S DOG WASN'T A WELCOME SIGHT AT FIRST.

Columbo's dog
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When Columbo was renewed for a second season, NBC brass had a request: they wanted the lieutenant to have a sidekick. Perhaps a young rookie detective just learning the ropes. Link and Levinson were resistant to the idea, but the network was pressuring them. They conferred with Steven Bochco, who was writing the script for the season opener, “Etude in Black,” and together they hatched the idea of giving Lt. Columbo a dog as a “partner.” Falk was against the idea at first; he felt that between the raincoat, cigar, and Peugeot his character had enough gimmicks. But when he met the lethargic, drooling Basset Hound that had been plucked from a pound, Falk knew it was perfect for Columbo's dog.

The original dog passed away in between the end of the original NBC run of the series and its renewal on ABC, so a replacement was necessary. The new pup was visibly younger than the original dog, and as a result spent more time in the makeup chair to make him look older.

5. FALK'S REAL-LIFE WIFE PLAYED A ROLE IN THE SERIES.

Falk first met Shera Danese, the woman who would become his second wife, on the set of his 1976 film Mikey & Nicky. The movie was being filmed in Danese’s hometown of Philadelphia, and the aspiring actress had landed work as an extra. They were married in 1977, and she was able to pad out her resume by appearing on several episodes of Columbo. Her first few appearances were limited to small walk-on parts—secretaries, sexy assistants, etc. By the time the series was resurrected on ABC in the early 1990s, she was awarded larger roles.

She originally auditioned for the role of the titular rock star in 1991’s “Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star,” but her husband adamantly refused, since the role included a scene of her in bed making love to a much younger man. She instead played the role of a co-conspiring attorney, and was also allowed to sing the song that was the major hit for the murdered star.

6. THE CHARACTER'S TRADEMARK RAINCOAT CAME FROM FALK'S CLOSET.

The initial wardrobe proposed for Columbo struck Peter Falk as completely wrong for the character. To get closer to what he wanted for Columbo, the actor went into his closet and found a beat-up coat he had bought years earlier when caught in a rainstorm on 57th Street. And he ordered one of the blue suits chosen for him to be dyed brown. The drab outfit would become one of the trademarks of the character for decades.

7. STEVEN SPIELBERG GOT AN EARLY BREAK ON COLUMBO.

“Murder by the Book” was the second Columbo episode filmed, but it was the first one to air after the show was picked up as a series. Filming was delayed for a month, though, when Falk refused to sign off on this “kid”—a 25-year-old named Steven Spielberg—to direct the episode. Finally he watched a few of Spielberg’s previous credits (all of them TV episodes) and was impressed by his work on the short-lived NBC series called The Psychiatrist. Once filming was underway, Falk was impressed by many of the techniques employed by the young director, such as filming a street scene with a long lens from a building across the road. “That wasn’t common 20 years ago,” Falk said. He went on to tell producers Link and Levinson that “this guy is too good for Columbo."

8. COLUMBO'S FIRST NAME WOUND UP THE SUBJECT OF A LAWSUIT.

Fred L. Worth, author of several books of trivia facts, had a sneaking feeling that other folks were using his meticulously researched facts without crediting him. He set a “copyright trap” and mentioned in one of his books that Lt. Columbo’s first name was “Philip,” although he had completely fabricated that so-called fact. Sure enough, a 1984 edition of the Trivial Pursuit board game listed the “Philip” Columbo name as an answer on one of their cards, which led to a $300 million lawsuit filed by Mr. Worth.

The board game creators admitted in court that they’d garnered their Columbo fact from Worth’s book, but the judge ultimately determined that it was not an actionable offense. By the way, years later when Columbo was available in syndicated reruns and HD TV was an option, alert viewers were able to freeze-frame a scene where the rumpled lieutenant extended his badge for identification purposes in the season one episode “Dead Weight” and determine that his first name was, in fact, “Frank.”

9. THE SERIES DIDN'T FOLLOW A STANDARD MYSTERY FORMAT.

The premise of Columbo was the “inverted mystery,” or a “HowCatchEm” instead of a “WhoDunIt.” Every episode began with the actual crime being played out in full view of the audience, meaning viewers already knew “WhodunIt.” What they wanted to know is how Lt. Columbo would slowly zero in on the perpetrator. This sort of story was particularly challenging for the series’s writers, and they sometimes found inspiration in the most unlikely places. Like the Yellow Pages, for example. One of Peter Falk’s personal favorite episodes, “Now You See Him,” had its genesis when the writers were flipping through the telephone book looking for a possible profession for a Columbo murderer (keep in mind that all of Columbo’s victims and perps were of the Beverly Hills elite variety, not your typical Starsky and Hutch-type thug).

A page listing professional magicians caught their eye, and that led to a classic episode featuring the ever-suave Jack Cassidy playing the role of the former SS Nazi officer who worked as a nightclub magician. When the Jewish nightclub owner recognized him and threatened to expose him, well, you can guess what happened. But the challenge is to guess how Lt. Columbo ultimately caught him. 

10. THERE WAS A SPINOFF THAT KIND OF WAS BUT THEN WASN'T.

The 1979 TV series entitled Mrs. Columbo was not technically related to the original Peter Falk series. In fact, Levinson and Link opposed the entire concept of the series; it was NBC honcho Fred Silverman who gave the OK to use the Columbo name and imply that Kate Mulgrew was the widowed/divorced wife (the series changed names and backstories several times during its short run) of the famed homicide detective. The “real” Mrs. Columbo was never mentioned by her first name during the original series, but actor Peter Falk possibly slipped and revealed that her name was “Rose” when he appeared at this Dean Martin Roast saluting Frank Sinatra and asked for an autograph.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios