Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Watch This DVD: Rent, Disk 2

Have you ever had a goal for yourself? I mean a really high goal. A dream. The kind where maybe even you sometimes wonder if you can achieve it? How long do you stick with it before giving up and doing something else?

Setting the bar high for yourself is important in any career, but often times for engineers, some technological breakthrough that nobody thinks will work is at the center of such things. To achieve those goals, you have to believe in that dream. A lot. Rent creator Jonathan Larson, who I'm betting you've never heard of, is the poster child for holding onto a dream, showing a level perseverance that most people don't have (myself included).


The plot of Rent is a modern update Puccini's opera La boheme that replaces Paris' 1800s era tuberculosis epidemic with AIDS in New York City's East Village near the end of the 20th century. While you may be tempted to cure insomnia with that sentence, if you give Disk 2 of movie edition (Netflix, Amazon) a chance, you will be inspired by Larson's commitment to his goals and struck by his bittersweet success as told by the documentary about his life.

I am a converted "Broadway person" by virtue of being married to one since 1994. She watches the NFL with me, I spent many Sunday matinées at the Pantages, which has become the de facto home for US touring theatre companies in Los Angeles, where we recently moved from. As such, I got exposed to a lot of things that I otherwise would not have in this branch of the arts. Some of them are as boring as can be, but many are moving in a way that other art forms simply cannot be. Rent tells a complicated story through a ensemble of deep characters and varied musical styles. Most of the original cast went onto bigger and better things, notably Jessie L. Martin of Law & Order fame and Taye Diggs, about whom my wife always says, "Now there's an attractive man."

While nearly all of those folks returned for the movie version in 2005 (which didn't translate well to the screen and did poorly at the box office), the more interesting entry found on the DVD set is the story behind the story on Disk 2.

Jonathan Larson took a job at a diner waiting tables (with Martin) when he graduated from college intent on fulfilling his dream of writing Broadway musicals. He made just enough to get by while spending most of his time writing in an East Village apartment that probably should have been condemned. His pre-Rent successes were few, but he was happy pursuing what he thought he was meant to do.

There's nothing terribly unique about that part of his story. Lots of New York City artists meander along this path. What is unique is how long he did it and how his story ended. After hundreds of rejection letters, do you have enough spirit and faith in your abilities to carry on? How long do you keep the dream alive before turning your attention to a more "normal" life? 3 years? 5? 7?

In Larson's case, the answer was 14 years. I don't know about you, but I feel ready to chuck things like this blog on a pretty regular basis and I'm not sure I've ever believed in anything enough to spend a decade and a half of people telling me I suck at it while living in a crappy apartment where the bathtub was in the kitchen. But in Larson's story, he did exactly that and kept on chugging away at his dream.

It is here where the bittersweet part of his story begins. In a sequence of events that you couldn't make up and have anybody believe you, Larson was finally able to find an off-Broadway theater that was interested in his material. He worked many months fine-tuning the piece that eventually became Rent in the form we now know it. Then, tragedy struck.

On January 25, 1996 after the final rehearsal with the full cast prior to the preview of the finished show the next day, Jonathan Larson collapsed of a heart attack and died at the age of 35. His death was likely caused by Marfan Syndrome and the preview went on as planned since those close to him were convinced he would have wanted it to.

Rent became a success beyond anything Larson could have imagined. Posthumously, his work won the Obie, the Tony, and even the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is the third-longest-running musical currently on Broadway and has had productions all over the world in as many languages as you can think of.

All because a guy believed in what he was doing when nobody else did. No matter what, he just kept going. The next time you feel like giving up on something, think about how Jonathan Larson never did and didn't get to live long enough to see the fruits of his labor.

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posted by Pete Johnson @ 12:37 AM   0 comments links to this post

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