In the years since his sudden death—which infamously occurred on the morning of Rent‘s first preview off-Broadway—stories about composer Jonathan Larson have reached almost mythic proportions. Later this year, actor Andrew Garfield will play a version of the playwright on-screen in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of Larson’s autobiographical musical, Tick, Tick… Boom!. But if you want to better understand why musical theater aficionados are so invested in Larson—and why his 1996 musical still impacts so many people, 25 years later—then tune in to Revolution Rent, a new documentary airing on HBO on June 15 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
The documentary is something of a passion project for co-director Andy Señor Jr., who once played the role of Angel the drag queen in both Broadway and West End productions of Rent in the ’90s. (Wilson Jermaine Heredia played the role in the original production, and in the 2005 movie.) In 2015, he returned to the show as the director, tasked with staging the show in his parents’ homeland, Cuba—the country’s first Broadway musical in over 50 years. Revolution Rent, directed by Andy Señor Jr. and Victor Patrick Alvarez, follows Señor on that journey.
Some of the typical theater drama ensues: Señor looking pained as less-than-great singers audition; Señor scolding his cast for failing to show up to rehearsal; cast members insisting they are all part of one giant human body. But there’s the not-so-typical drama, too—like Señor’s family vehement disapproval of him returning to a country they fled from, or the actor who plays Joanne’s apparent homophobia when she insists the actor playing Maureen “not kiss or touch her.” She later seems to get more comfortable with the idea of being at least a little physical with her on-stage girlfriend, but it’s a reminder that Larson’s play—featuring an ensemble cast of gay, lesbian, and queer characters living under the shadow of the AIDS epidemic—is still revolutionary in some parts of the world.
The film is at its best when it draws parallels between Larson’s characters—poor, young bohemian artists living in a terrible apartment without heat—and the actors in the show. In the most striking sequence, we visit the homes of the cast. Almost all of them are living in run-down apartments. One ensemble member, Arianna, tries to make coffee for the documentary crew, and discovers her water isn’t working. These tours are paired with archival footage of Larson’s actual apartment, which he used as the basis for the apartment of Rent. It’s clear that Larson’s story resonates with these Cuban actors, perhaps even more than it does with anyone currently living in Manhattan’s East Village.
Señor leans into the parallels. In the song “What You Own,” in which Mark and Roger lament the hardships of living in capitalist America, he asks his actors to change the lyrics from “America” to “Cuba.” And it’s clear that Señor feels a sense of connection to Larson—a drive to do right by him— though he never knew the composer personally. He pushes his actors relentlessly in order to get the show ready to open by December 24, because Larson always wanted to open the show on Christmas Eve. During the cast’s group dinner before their show opens, he asks everyone to share something they are thankful for, citing the fact that the exercise was something Larson used to do with his friends.
It’s not a perfect documentary. A narrative involving Señor’s mother returning to Cuba feels rushed and underdeveloped, and if you’re not a Rent-head, you might not find much else to latch on to. But for Rent fans, it’s a moving opportunity to witness the lasting impact of Larson’s work. And on the year of the musical’s 25th anniversary, a few months before Tick, Tick… Boom! streams on Netflix in late 2021, it’s a reminder that couldn’t come at a better time.
Watch Revolution Rent on HBO Max