Billy Aronson: The Inspiration for Rent
by Tommy Hahn
It’s the summer of 1989—where are you at this point in your life?
I came to New York in ’83 after drama school. I went to drama school right after college, so I was pretty young to be a playwright. Came to New York, got a place in Hell’s Kitchen that was so tiny—I didn’t even have my own room. The guy I shared with had his own bedroom in the back that didn’t have a window and I was in what was kind of the living room—about the only place you could live—had a little TV in it and I slept in a fold out couch. It was so tiny that when I was home at night and I was doing my writing and my roommate was there, there was no place to go—I mean it was too small for both of us to be there—unless I wanted to watch what he was watching. And I worked at night—part time—in a big, corporate law firm to make ends meet. There were lots of actors and writers and painters there. I would write every day.
I’d never known much about opera, but my parents both loved it. One night, I just wanted to get out and for really cheap you get standing room at The Met—it’s this huge theatre so you’re way at the back. I loved to be in this huge space. I think La Boheme was actually the first thing I saw at The Met. I started going regularly—a couple of times a week—just to get space to clear out my head.
As a playwright, what prompted you to create a musical based on Puccini’s La Boheme?
La Boheme was the first one I fell in love with because it’s about young artists who were very poor, of course. Walking home from the opera, I used to do a lot of thinking. I loved Boheme so much, I guess, because it’s romantic—it’s great love music—and I could relate to the artists. I thought it was so beautiful—the artists as poor as they are, they still have love. What hit me as I was walking home on the West Side coming back from The Lincoln Center was the contrast between the world outside the opera house and inside and the way that those artists’ lives were portrayed. They express themselves with this glorious, luscious music that conveys their feelings so beautifully. I never found love that way! It’s much more awkward. More importantly the way the world was in the street in late ’80s, the number of homeless people was just skyrocketing—you couldn’t walk anywhere without being asked for money by these poor folks. Also, we’re becoming aware of the tragedy of AIDS over that decade—which ties to Boheme. It’s terrible now, but it was even more striking then for me because people would get it and it was often a pretty quick death sentence—not just to one person, but to a group of people. A whole theatre company—a dozen people or 15-20 people—would be stricken so quickly and terribly—it was just awful. Also, at that time, I was becoming aware as a young person in New York how important money was to people in my generation. If Boheme is the most romantic of operas, how unromantic life felt for me being a young artist in New York. I wanted to do a music drama of some kind that captured that—a new Boheme that would capture that coarseness and roughness.
How did you and Jonathan come to meet?
Through Playwrights Horizons—a theater that was supportive of my work. They had done musicals by Sondheim, William Finn . . . so they really were strong as far as off-Broadway theatres that did musicals. I went to them and Ira Weitzman, who was in charge of musical theatre there, recommended me to a couple of composers—one of whom was Jonathan. I described my idea and he thought Jonathan might be right for it. They loved Jonathan there.
Can you describe that first meeting?
First we exchanged materials and talked about the idea a little bit over the phone and then we went to his apartment—way west in the West Village—he was on the top floor. He had to throw the key down to you. Then I went up to his place and he felt there wasn’t really room in the apartment to sit and talk so we would go up on his rooftop. You go up a fire escape and on the rooftop there was maybe a beach chair, a crate and a lump. I forget which I chose . . . I think it was the crate and he might have chosen the beach chair and then we chatted. He felt that it was time for our generation’s HAIR. I hadn’t been thinking in those terms. I liked the story of La Boheme. I wasn’t thinking of it as like the way actors turn to the audience and say here’s what our generation is doing. I didn’t think of it as mainly an uplifting thing. Right away he saw that. He also said it should bring the MTV generation back to the theatre. I guess that’s how he was referring to us people in our 20s—MTV was still rather new. He liked that it combined high brow and low brow—high brow because it’s based on opera, but low brow because it’s got rock music. It was an exciting first meeting. It’s sort of amazing to me how much of what he said right in the beginning proved to be true eventually for what RENT would be.
Did you have that thought in your mind that we are on the precipice of something great?
Let me give two answers: One is every time you start something, you can’t start it when you’re not getting paid unless you convince yourself, “My God, this is gonna be so cool!” I think every time I start a play, musical—whatever, I think, “Wow, this will be worth spending a year or two not getting paid.” But did I realistically think it would go to Broadway—no. I loved it when I saw it off-Broadway. I still didn’t think . . . I couldn’t imagine! I just didn’t think a broad spectrum of theatre goers—I mean, you look at the audiences for Broadway . . . I’m 52 and most of them are still a generation older than I am! I still don’t understand it! Of course, now, in retrospect, it makes perfect sense, but at that point, no. I couldn’t have said, in a realistic way, I thought it would’ve been a huge mega moneymaker or an international hit.
How was the collaboration?
Well . . . bumpy, I think I would say. Looking back on it now I can see neither of us really knew how to collaborate—it’s still very difficult for me. There were things about collaboration that both of us were very resistant to. We wanted to do everything exactly our way and I don’t think either of us, at that point, were very good at talking about things. When you look at something somebody does that isn’t what you had in mind, instead of just saying, “I don’t like that”, you have to say “Okay, how can we work with this?” or “how can we start over?” It was very impulsive. There was a lot of touchiness. We didn’t in that first meeting or in any meeting afterwards, really roll up our sleeves—as I now realize you have to do and say, “Okay . . . who enters? What are they talking about when they enter?” In talking with him, Jonathan’s take on characters and his ideas about where RENT would go seemed to me melodramatic. Of course, I think his music makes them work—makes the way they express themselves very vivid and personal and unique and moving etcetera, but on the page for me as I was looking at writing characters, I was more interested in having characters who had trouble articulating their real feelings. I had an outline of four scenes based on the four scenes of the opera. I saw it in four steps and he said, “fine, now go write something.” I—who had never written a lyric or hadn’t done much of that—went home and just jammed.
And what came of your first attempt?
My first attempt, I just wanted to get something out, because he was really anxious. As he would put it, “I wanna have something to work on!” So, he was really anxious to get something and I didn’t like what was coming out at first, so I just cranked something out just to get something out and it wasn’t good and he looked at it and said, yeah, that’s not good. So, I tried again and wrote something weirder the second time—like stream of consciousness coming out of people’s heads—of the first scene of the four . . . and he loved that. It began with the song that is now known as “Rent”, went immediately into the one that is “Santa Fe”, had a few others and ended up with the one that is “I Should Tell You”. They’re furious, it’s Christmas Eve—just like the opera, but they’re raging with this jagged rhythm and letting it pour out of their heads. I just let it come out. It wasn’t gonna be cute, or smooth. They’re freezing, the world hates them, they hate the world, what the hell am I doing with my life—that was the first song. Then this guy stands up and says let’s get the hell out of here. I used to fantasize with my friends, when we were new in town and the world seemed to hate us, and we were working really hard at stupid jobs for no money—why don’t we go someplace warm—we’d fantasize about it. That was “Santa Fe”. Then there was some other stuff then eventually my lead characters meet, fall instantly in love and tell each other everything about their lives. In La Boheme they sing this gorgeous music that’s instantly in harmony. My idea of that lyric for “I Should Tell You” was the awkwardness of revealing yourself—I’m ashamed of myself, I want to tell you who I am, but it’s hard being who I am—it’s hard to open up because the world hates me so much, but I hope you’ll like me . . . and that was “I Should Tell You”. And that was it—and he loved that. He said “it’s ready to go—let’s record a demo”
What was your impression about what you were creating together?
Before we recorded the songs, he played me what he’d written. He had this Casio—the little thing that’s a step above the toy—that’s what he had when he called me over to hear the first three songs—“Rent”, “Santa Fe” and “I Should Tell You”. He played me that in his living room and I remember thinking as he started to play “Rent” (sings opening riff of “Rent”)—you know there’s an irony about that riff and I didn’t quite get that when I first heard it—I thought, “Oh, my God—this is kinda stupid. What am I gonna say when the song ends if I don’t like it?” (Laughs) But it did grow on me. I sort of got it—they’re angry, that’s what that melody is about. It’s just on a Casio—it’s much better on guitar. And then “Santa Fe”, I thought, “Wow, this is really cool!” Then by “I Should Tell You” it just blew me away. The way it captures the painful danger of love—how beautiful and painful and mysterious it is—and lonely. You’re in love and it’s lonely and it’s wonderful at the same time—I can’t put it into words. I thought, “This is better than anything he’s shown me in Superbia. ”Those were good songs—Superbia was good rock n’ roll, but it wasn’t as complex as the stuff he’d written already. So, I was just thrilled . . . I was just thrilled by it.
After a few months, you both stepped away from RENT to pursue other projects. What prompted that? What did you do next?
As we talked about it, we had different feelings for the tone and I don’t think either of us knew what to do about our differences. I now know you work on them—you’ve gotta roll up your sleeves and say, “Okay, let me try it your way and see how it sounds”—you learn things from other people. He’d just spent years on Superbia and it wasn’t getting produced and I’d spent years on plays that got readings—a lot of people would say great things, but they don’t get produced. And those are things that we love—with every cell in our being. If there’s something you’re not sure about—you’re not sure you’re going to work well together, you don’t really have a language to talk to each other like good friends do. So why pour your life into it, you know?
You know, it’s funny . . . it wasn’t hard for me, I just thought, “well, I’m gonna work on something else now”. Jonathan wanted to take it in a different direction and when he finally called me up and asked would it be okay if he went ahead on his own, I had no trouble saying sure. The agreement we had was that he could have those three songs or any part of what we’d written together and do whatever he wanted with them, as long as he gave me credit (Original Concept and Additional Lyrics) and compensation. Obviously, I didn’t think it was going to be a Pulitzer Prize winning, Tony Award winning, globally triumphant, seventh longest running show ever on Broadway! (laughs) I would have loved to have been involved in that, but I’m very happy with how that worked out.
As the production started to come together and start to grow, did you follow the progress?
In a couple of different instances he sent me scripts and tapes. I remember when I first got a longer tape, I could see he was continuing to grow and he was really inspired and he’s taking it in a different direction. I never felt like, “You’re writing in my handwriting—STOP! You’ve stolen my soul!” It was never like that. It’s a show by Jonathan Larson. I have no ambivalence about that. I’m honored to have my lyrics in three songs, delighted to have my name in the credits—very proud of that, but it really is his show. So, I sort of admired it from afar. I didn’t give lots of criticism, but I’d say, “Yeah, I love it.” I might have suggested one or two things, but mainly I was just a cheerleader after that.
The year before it opened at NYTW there was a workshop of the show. It was noisy and messy and way too long, but it was great! You could just tell that it was going to be great.
Then a year later, right before the Off-Broadway production began previews, I asked Jonathan how it was going and he said, “It’s great.” I mean with confidence. Usually, if somebody asks how your play is going during those last rehearsals you say “well, we’re hanging in there” or “I hope we’ll get it”—it’s a scary time. But he said it with such assurance. He said get your ticket—it’s gonna be great. That was the last time I spoke to him. He always thought he was going to transform the American musical theatre. If anyone knew that it was going to be what it became, it was Jonathan.
When I went to see it Off-Broadway, Jonathan had already passed away. It was so sad—you’re thinking, “my God, Jonathan did this amazing thing and he can’t see it”. I went to see it with my wife who had heard the songs on the tapes before, but hadn’t seen any of it. It was a very complex experience. I still think it’s better in an intimate setting—maybe everything is—so I loved it.
What was it like to sit in the house for Opening Night on Broadway?
Yeah, that was different. Broadway was much more joyous for me—not as sad. I guess I’d worked through that feeling of grief a bit at the first one. It was a little strange because the event was so glamorous. I hadn’t been to a Broadway opening before. So many famous people dressed in sparkly stuff—when the characters are all wearing black and it’s about people who don’t have sparkly stuff! The house was pumped—totally pumped. There was cheering as soon as the actors came on stage. They just cheered and cheered—I think it was standing ovation. It was quite a thrill. I just could sit back and enjoy the show which I felt was terrific.
. . . and hearing your words up there?
I felt kinda proud. Hardly anybody in the theatre realized which words I’d written or even cared, but it was still really cool to be contributing in that way.
What do you find is so unique about RENT?
I think RENT captures something quite vivid and true about being young at a certain time that I love. It captures something about friendship, really. That’s what it’s about in the end. He used music to capture something powerful about friendship, in an unsentimental way.
Why do so many people relate to it?
I think because it’s hopeful and honest and it’s about how hard youth is—I would have said “in our day” but apparently people relate to it now—how hard it is being young and idealistic and an artist . . . and it celebrates friendship. The music celebrates friendship really well. Jonathan had a big heart and he wore it on his sleeve—and his music does.