The other day, I went on a walk through the woods with my dog. I stopped every now and then for my dog to sniff or bark at something, and then I decided to turn back. As I was walking, my dog stopped, and I caught her looking at something. I was over it at this point, but when I went to see what she was looking at, to my surprise… it was a dead squirrel. It wasn’t incredibly gruesome; in fact, I don’t think it was hit by a car. It was just lying there. We kept moving but I couldn’t help but wonder what happened. Maybe it was sick or maybe it got startled or maybe it simply was just old. It came over me that I would never know how the squirrel died. Then I realized I’d never know what the squirrel was like alive either. The only reason I noticed it was because it was dead. I have often found that this is sometimes how life goes. Everything is more important in life, once the subject is dead.
My favorite composer, Jonathan Larson, wrote many musicals that I adore, the main one being Rent, which is the show he is best known for. Like the squirrel, however, Larson’s brilliance was only noticed once he had passed away. Larson died the night before Rent’s off-Broadway premiere which devastated the cast and crew that had all worked so hard. Soon the entire Broadway community heard about the tragedy and were quick to find out what the musical was about.
The show is a rock musical roughly based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème. Rock musicals were very rare at this time but on top of this, it was the subject matter of the show that took people by surprise. The musical follows a group of artists who are trying to make it in New York City battling tough career choices, relationships, death, and HIV/AIDS. The subject of HIV/AIDS was one that had never been in the form of a musical before and Larson was inspired by the life of his own friends who had dealt or died with the disease. People became curious and Rent soon became sold out every night, causing it to move to Broadway which changed the way theatre could be done forever.
The show is an artistic portrayal of Larson’s mind and how he viewed humanity. The show’s loveable characters and heart wrenching events and circumstances move audiences to tears because, although Larson addresses awful matters, everything is seen to have love and peace within it. The characters’ love for each other saves one another in their time of need, resulting in most of the people with AIDS to still have happiness within their own lives. When they lose Angel in the show, it almost destroys the group because the grief is so hard on them. However, they sing “Seasons of Love” which talks about how people should measure life in love instead of focusing on the pain. The message of love and peace is very captivating even today. At the time of the release, America had been battling against the outbreak of HIV/AIDS, so it was a sore subject matter. The government wasn’t doing much to help those in need and most people with the disease lived in fear just like most of Larson’s friends did before they passed. Viewing this battle with such positivity and light touched millions. Larson was very much a person who loved all people, and instead of seeing the group of characters in the show representing some of the worst stereotypes of New York City lower class citizens, he sees artists who spread love. In fact, he views all of humanity as having art within them.
It’s often that humans find themselves being put into a situation out of luck. The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten by Julian Baggini talks about moral luck and if our luck determines whether we become good or bad people. The idea is that luck can define success and failure, and that then decides the subject’s fate. Baggini talks about if someone is born into bad luck, for example poor or less fortunate, by the time they can make their own choices, they are already going to be set up more for evil rather than good. He refers to this as constitutive luck. Regular luck, however, can define if someone made a seemingly right moral choice or wrong, shown through the example of two men leaving their wife, one returning successful (morally right) and one returning unsuccessful (morally wrong).
When it comes to Larson, his bad luck resulted in him being portrayed as a good person. It is agreeable that it is terrible luck for Larson to die right before his show took off, but it is uncertain if the show would be as successful if he was still alive or not. Personally, I believe that the show would be because it was unique for its time, however, we can never be certain. It is quite possible that if Larson was still alive, he could have changed part of the play and the audience might not have liked it and it could have flopped. However, this isn’t the case, but it is interesting that it seems to be the luck of his death and the show that made him such a successful name. If we look at his life on a grander scheme, Larson dedicated his entire life after college to his writings and plays causing him to give up relationships and opportunities for what he thought was right. It is less clear if his luck in this situation resulted in him being successful or not. Larson never got to see the day that his art took off as the bad luck of his passing interfered: however, his family would gain from the success of the musical. In this sense, it was a morally right decision.
Art can be incredibly beautiful, so it is no surprise as to why this show was a success, even if it was due to luck. Philosophy Sketches by Alexander E. Hooke discusses statues in Baltimore, some being ones that represent the past, good and bad. The beautiful thing about art is that people reflect on it and learn like Hooke addresses; art is meant to be in the public not hidden away. Hooke claims that the people who want to take down certain statues think that the average person is too “simple-minded” to think and truly learn from historical art causing it to not be suitable to remain. Now this is simply Hooke’s opinion, but it is true that most people who go to theatre productions are theatre lovers; however, this doesn’t mean they are more open-minded than any other citizen. When it comes to Rent, the meaning behind the art is very prevalent; however, citizens can still reflect deeply on it too. Larson’s art as mentioned earlier, reflects the American AIDS outbreak which harmed many Americans and showed flaws in the American health care system. When the audience now watches the show, they can reflect on the tragedies at this time but also realize that people with disease are still human and experience many of the beauties of life. This touches audience members as most of them have been affected or know someone who has been affected by disease at a point in their life which has caused them to grieve. That is the beauty of Rent. It embraces the pain and beauty of loss throughout America.
Rent is the direct result of death. Larson’s friends died and were dying, so he wrote a show about them, also incorporating information and subjects from others battling disease in this scary period of America. Larson’s friends meant a lot to him when they were alive, but it is ironic that the mass popularity is attracted to the show due to the fact it is the product of death in America. Larson’s passing only furthered the media’s interest in the show. Often when an artist dies, that is when they become famous, and their art takes off. For example, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Jeff Buckley, and more. When people die, everything they made becomes more valuable as they can never create anything ever again and this is seen time and time throughout history. I wonder if I have ever been guilty of this; I am sure I have.
Assume life is valuable, hence why once it is taken away, people notice. People are attracted to the idea of art from the dead because there is beauty in finding what they had to say, which is often deep within the art itself. Granted, the squirrel was most likely not an artist. It probably lived a typical squirrel life up in a tree; however, my dog still noticed its value after its passing, causing me to then reflect on what a life after death really leaves behind. This is similar to the way people act with Jonathan Larson. Sadly, I will never meet Larson in person. His music and writings were there for me when I needed them, and I wish I could thank him for that. I, however, will continue to connect with him through his music and shows, as I’m sure many theatre lovers do. The great thing about art is that it will always out live the person who created it; I am forever grateful for that.
What a thought provoking article
Very insightful article, Hannah! Bravo!