In 1996 Jonathan Larson's musical, “RENT" exploded onto the scene. There was a tragic & well known launch of the show; Larson died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm at age 35 on the morning before the show began previews at New York Theater Workshop; Rave reviews, a transfer to Broadway, posthumous Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Larson, and a 12-year run of over 5,100 performances on Broadway followed. Larson, who had been developing the show for 7 years, semi-autobiographically placed himself and his East Village artist friends in the story - struggling young people working mindless jobs to support their artistic dreams, while coping with drug addictions, poverty, sexual identity confusion and the AIDS epidemic - “Rent" was a re-envisioned East Village rock opera of Puccini’s opera, La Boheme.
One of the most fulfilling aspects about choosing a life in the Theater & Music is that through the creation of shows, our co-workers & friends often become like our families. In the 1980s & 1990s, when the NY Theatre community was faced with significantly challenging phases of the AIDS crisis, we were witnessing death after death of the members of our “families”. Fortunately, in seeking solace from the pain & confusion involved, some remarkable and beautiful things were born.
In 1994, Michael McElroy, two years prior to our intro to “Rent”, had formed a Choir whose purpose at that time was to perform an annual concert benefitting Broadway Cares Equity Fights Aids. The goals were to raise not only funds for Broadway Cares Equity Fights Aids (BCEFA), but raise awareness of what was actually happening in the wake of the epidemic. It provided a “voice” bringing healing to the community. For the choirs members & audiences it was an example of how the healing power of music can nurture catharsis, understanding, appreciation & resolve.
The connections? "Rent" was the first musical to bring real attention to people living in the shadow of AIDS. It significantly changed the sound of contemporary musical theatre, and in many ways became the backbone of what brought the "MTV generation”, as Larson called it, and subsequently younger audiences, to the Musical Theater. It not only gave a voice to experiences that hadn’t been addressed in such a way, it allowed a cathartic expression and a celebration of those who’d lost their lives in the past decades. Michael McElroy, the founder and director of Broadway Inspirational Voices, was the second, and then years later, the last actor to play the role of Tom Collins in the Broadway production of “Rent”. He went on to receive a Tony nomination for the Deaf West revival of Big River. As an arranger, in 2005 Michael was nominated for a Grammy award for his work on the Broadway Inspirational Voices holiday cd “Great Joy! A Gospel Christmas” & is currently head of Vocal Performance in the New Studio on Broadway at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.
Living on. Since 1997 The Jonathan Larson Grant has provided resources & opportunities to some of the industry's most exciting new writers in Musical Theater . To quote Heather Hitchens, president of the American Theatre Wing, which administers the grants, "The Jonathan Larson Grants give us the opportunity each year to support exciting new theater makers and invest in the changing landscape of the American musical, one writer at a time”. There are no strings attached to the grants, which are given to emerging composers, lyricists and book writers, to continue Larson’s dream of "infusing musical theatre with a contemporary, joyful, urban vitality.” Today, McElroy's choir, known as Broadway Inspirational Voices (BIV), is a diverse not-for-profit choir of Broadway artists united to change lives through the power of music and service.
On March 21st, the 2016 Jonathan Larson Grants were awarded to four new recipients - Michael McElroy & members of Broadway Inspirational Voices were there to lovingly perform "Finale B" from “Rent”.
It is clear that Jonathan Larson's unique vision to change the landscape of the American Musical lives on in so many vital ways. It is beautiful and alive in new generations of writers, theater goers and music makers - as it is similarly in the continuing vision of Michael McElroy & the mission of BIV ~ fostering understanding, positive change, tolerance, compassion, and actively using our gifts to heal and soothe the epidemics of today.