Robert Levithan thought he was headed for his deathbed, but 15 years later he’s still cherishing life.
“Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?”
The moment those lines are sung in RENT, I am back there, back in a time when we had no idea how we were going to get through it all. Every character in RENT who has HIV/AIDS is expecting to die within a few years at most, perhaps in months or weeks.
A few nights ago, I attended the opening night of the new off-Broadway revival of RENT. When its original production opened in 1996, I was a few months into anti-viral treatment for AIDS, 18 months away from nearly dying of AIDS-related Pneumonia. When I was recovering at my home in Santa Fe from that health crisis, my father’s dear friend Al Larson came up to visit from Albuquerque, where he lived in retirement. I remember the look of pain on his face. It was very hard for him to see his friend’s son so clearly ill, perhaps, dying.
Although my life-expectancy then was only a couple of years, I did recover from that opportunistic infection, moved back to New York City, won a lottery for early access to the first workable “cocktail,” and therefore, when Jonathan Larson, the composer and author of RENT, Al’s son, died suddenly at 35 from an undiagnosed aneurism, just days before the first production of his show opened, it was my father who comforted his friend on the loss of a son.
Now, 16 years later, Al and I are both still here. When we meet again after the play, as we have several times over the years, I see joy in my apparent (and actual) good health, and a bittersweet pang. How did this happen? Jonathan: so long dead. Me: very much alive. Ironic?
I was the designated die-er in my extended family. We often think we know who is going next; our minds organize around expected outcomes. But again and again, as with Jonathan and me, we are proved wrong. Who dies when is part of the ultimate mystery.
My brilliant niece was also at the opening. (One of RENT’s producers is also one of her clients.) She was 16 when she first saw a preview of the play. Since then, she has grown up and built a full and rich life that brings me such joy to observe and share. She witnessed my illness and Jonathan’s death. A few years ago, she was my date for RENT’s 10th-anniversary gala. That night we were stunned to feel the passage of that decade. She was now also an adult, and we were sharing something extraordinary, but it was also something that was once impossible to believe. We do not take this good fortune for granted. We know that it could have been a different path and that through a combination of luck, love and, yes, perhaps karma, I and many others are here.
For me, the party after the off-Broadway opening was a “This is your life, Robert Levithan” snapshot of the last 15 years. The circles and layers can come together: the Larsons, my niece, Cynthia O’Neal (the founder of Friends In Deed, the crisis center I work with and upon which the Life Support group in the show is based), clients, performers and friends. We’re all connected through this masterwork of exquisite pain and beauty. The privilege of being part of this rich community—the privilege of being alive!
—Photo Darin Barry/Flickr