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"Rent" stars Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp reflect on the groundbreaking musical's 25th anniversary – and how it set the stage for "Hamilton"

There are only a few groundbreaking Broadway musicals that have forever shaped a generation of theater lovers. "Hamilton" is the most recent phenomenon. But "Hamilton" might never have become what it is if "Rent" hadn't come first.

"Lin-Manuel Miranda has said to me personally and publicly how much 'Rent' changed his life and how much it drove him to do what he's doing," original "Rent" cast member Anthony Rapp told CBS News. 

"There aren't that many original shows that stand the test of time like 'Rent' does, and has resonated with generation after generation," said Idina Menzel, who was also part of the original cast and went on to star in "Wicked" and as the voice of Elsa in "Frozen." "And I'm one who can speak to this."

Anthony Rapp and the original cast of "Rent"
Anthony Rapp, at right, and other members of the original cast in a scene from the musical "Rent." Joan Marcus/New York Theatre Workshop

When "Rent," which is now celebrating its 25th anniversary, first debuted back in 1996, the fresh sound of its pop/rock music style show tunes transformed people into "Rent Heads," a term coined for diehard fans. The credit goes to director Michael Greif and Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for the musical. 

Jonathan Larson
Jonathan Larson, composer and lyricist of the musical "Rent." Matthew O'Grady

Tragically, Larson never got to see a single day of "Rent's" transformative success, including its Tony Award or Pulitzer Prize. He died on January 25, 1996, at the age of 35, of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm (believed to have been from Marfan syndrome). It was the same day the very first off-Broadway performance of "Rent" was scheduled at the New York Theatre Workshop. But as the saying goes, "the show must go on." So, in tribute to Larson, the stunned cast assembled for a sing-through that night instead of performing the full show as rehearsed. 

"He was convinced he had the chance to change the face of musical theater," Rapp, who played the struggling filmmaker Mark, said of Larson's legacy. "He wanted to tell stories that would shake up the world. He believed in the power and possibility of artists to make a difference."

And he did. Millions of people around the world have fallen in love with the words and music that Jonathan Larson created. After Broadway, "Rent" was turned into a film and a live TV event. The songs from "Rent" have become classics. Most recently, "Seasons of Love" was performed as part of President Joe Biden's inauguration celebration. 

"Rent," loosely based on Puccini's 1896 opera "La Bohème," tells the story of a group of struggling artists and bohemians trying to thrive in Manhattan's East Village in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Audiences were transfixed, and New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley hailed it as an "exhilarating, landmark rock opera." The show quickly transferred from a 150-seat theater in the East Village to the 1,232-seat Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street in Times Square. "Rent" officially opened on Broadway April 29, 1996.

When "Rent" became the hottest ticket in town, the first rush lottery was created so fans could score $20 seats. It's what gave Miranda the idea to offer $10 #Ham4Ham lottery tickets to "Hamilton" fans when his show sold out, too.

"I feel like I kind of got to be an audience member of 'Rent' retroactively by watching 'Hamilton' — feeling that incredible power and excitement," recalled Rapp. "This is what people tell me they felt when they saw 'Rent' for the first time and it made me even prouder."

"Proud" is the word Menzel used, too, of being a part of history. "It was just so complicated, because with all the sadness and the loss came many accolades and positive attention," she said. "Every day that we experienced success and adulation was a day we didn't have to share with [Larson]. So it felt unworthy in a lot of ways."

"Rent" New York City Premiere - Inside Arrivals
Idina Menzel at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City for the "Rent" film premiere in 2005. James Devaney/WireImage via Getty Images

The cast of "Rent" featured a diverse group of fresh faces including Taye Diggs, Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Jessie L. Martin. Rapp said its colorblind casting "was unusual for its time, for sure. Had we been around during social media times, we would have had a similar kind of social media impact that 'Hamilton' had." 

"Jonathan Larson changed my life by believing in me and seeing the talents in me," Menzel told CBS News. "There isn't a time when I go on stage where I'm not reminded of that. I always sing something from the show whenever I'm in concert so that I can constantly give back and be thankful to where it came from."

Before "Rent," Idina Menzel says she was a "struggling, budding songwriter, singer, actress trying to get a record deal" and making a living by singing at weddings on Long Island.  "I owe it to [Larson] and Michael Greif for hiring me and giving me a job that allowed me to leave that behind." The show was her big break, her first professional role, earning her a Tony Award nomination for her portrayal of Maureen.

In honor of the musical's 25th anniversary, Menzel and Rapp along with many others from the cast are reuniting for a special virtual gala fundraiser for the beloved New York Theatre Workshop. The event on Tuesday, March 2, will feature songs from "Rent" and additional performances by Broadway stars including Christopher Jackson ("Hamilton"), Ben Platt ("Dear Evan Hansen"), Ali Stroker ("Oklahoma!") and Billy Porter ("Pose"). Plus, there will be special appearances by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Annaleigh Ashford ("B Positive"), Brandon Victor Dixon ("Jesus Christ Superstar") and Rapp's CBS All Access/Paramount+ "Star Trek" co-star, Wilson Cruz. 

25 Years of RENT: Measured in Love by New York Theatre Workshop on YouTube

For Rapp, who was part of "Rent" since its earliest inception back in 1994, each anniversary and milestone is "always a terrible reminder of [Larson's] loss. It's really sad to be reminded that he didn't get to see what happened. It feels like yesterday in many ways, and it also feels like a really long time ago."

Rapp believes Larson would have continued to find new stories to tell that would make a difference and "shine a light." In that spirit, the gala will feature new music from composers The Bengsons, The Lazours, Rona Siddiqui and Joe Iconis. Had Larson lived longer, who knows what other treasures he might have produced. There was a period of time when he wrote a song a day, according to Rapp. 

Later this year, the world will hear more about Jonathan Larson when "Tick, Tick...Boom!", the autobiographical musical he wrote before "Rent," premieres as a feature film on Netflix. The film stars Andrew Garfield in the role of Jon and marks Lin-Manuel Miranda's directorial debut. 

"The direct line from 'Rent' to 'Hamilton,' from Jonathan to Lin-Manuel, is as direct as can be. So it makes perfect sense that he's the one helming this," Rapp said. 

"'Rent' has autobiographical elements," Rapp explained, mentioning some of the characters. "You can see Jonathan in Mark, you can see Jonathan in Roger and you can see Jonathan in Angel. But "Tick, Tick...Boom!" is Jonathan."

"Tick, Tick...Boom!" may be the diary of Larson's "prolific" life at the time, but Rapp said firmly: "'Rent' is his masterpiece."

For tickets to "25 Years of Rent: Measured in Love" on Tuesday, March 2, at 8 p.m. ET, visit NYTW.org. 


Leigh Scheps is a Broadway contributor for CBS News and senior reporter with Inside Edition Digital.

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