More than 27 years after the love of her life created one of the most iconic, beloved rock musicals ever, Janet Charleston saw the show in her hometown for the first time.
A 64-year-old native of Rock Island, Charleston watched a dress rehearsal of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” with her father Friday, March 17, at Quad City Music Guild, Moline. She dated Larson from 1989 to 1993 and then 1994 until his death in the early morning hours of Jan. 25, 1996 (at age 35 of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm), the day of its first off-Broadway preview in New York.
“It was beautiful. The show is about love,” Charleston told the cast and crew after their full run Friday, a week before its formal opening March 24. “You did it so beautifully; the voices are incredible. I’ve seen it so many times, but I’d never seen it in my hometown. I’ve lived in New York City my whole adult life and that’s where I lived with Jonathan, and he never came here with me.”
“You’re doing a wonderful job; I wish I could come many times,” she said. “You got it.”
A member of the Rock Island High School class of 1976, she went to junior high and high school with Valeree Pieper, a Music Guild veteran who’s in the “Rent” cast and arranged the special visit.
She and Charleston took dance class together as young girls, with Diane Each, in Each’s Rock Island house. Charleston continued with her through high school.
She was in a couple musicals at Rocky, including “Once Upon a Mattress.”
“She is so easygoing, just chill about everything,” Pieper said Friday of her friend. “I need a little more of that in my life.”
Charleston said Larson poured a lot of their lives into the “Rent” story (itself based on the classic 1896 opera “La Bohème”), and many of his personality traits come through in the male leads, Mark and Roger, who are both struggling artists. People in the “Rent” support group bear the names of people he knew.
Larson based the lead Mimi somewhat on her – Charleston is a dancer, but never was an exotic dancer like Mimi, and Mimi shares other aspects of her personality with Janet.
Charleston studied two years at Black Hawk College (majoring in biology) and got her bachelor’s in a multi-disciplinary study from University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana). called Dance Kinesiology and Therapy.
U of I didn’t have Dance Kinesiology nor Dance Therapy, but she proposed the major based on the courses Charleston took (including anatomy and physiology, sociology and psychology, and dance)., She returned to Illinois from New York as a professional to get her master’s in dance in 2007.
Charleston has specialized in contemporary/modern dance, and has never performed on Broadway.
She has worked in New York City as a performer, teacher, choreographer and rehearsal director. She danced in the companies of Lucinda Childs and Douglas Dunn, and has also worked with Christopher Williams, David Parker, Kota Yamazaki, RoseAnne Spradlin, and Stephen Koester, among others. She also performed in a world tour of the Robert Wilson/Philip Glass opera, Einstein on the Beach.
Charleston has assisted Dunn as rehearsal director since 2013 and continues to perform solos he made for her. A faculty member of the Cunningham Studio for 12 years, she also teaches at universities, in international programs including SEAD and El Centro Cultural Los Talleres, and was a Fulbright Scholar in Chile.
Living the ‘Rent’ legacy
She started going out with Larson in 1989 (when he was 29), and he composed some music for modern dance. She danced to one piece in 1990.
They broke up in late 1993 and started seeing each other again in 1994. “We couldn’t let go of each other but we didn’t commit to being back where we had been,” Charleston said.
Larson was very self-confident and knew he had something special with “Rent,” she said.
“We weren’t seeing each other regularly during this intensive rehearsal time,” she said. “I feel like he knew during that last dress rehearsal and he had the interview with The New York Times.”
On the night of Jan. 25, 1996 (after his shocking death 10 days before his 36th birthday), the cast at New York Theatre Workshop did a reading and sing-through in memory of Larson. But, as it has been very famously reported, the cast broke out into choreography during the Act I finale, “La Vie Bohème,” and completed its second act with a fully staged show.
Charleston saw that. “It was amazing, it was very strong,” she recalled Friday at Music Guild. “It was intense. I feel like the music and the show carried them.”
“There’s loss in the show; there’s love in the show,” she said. Charleston could not estimate how many times she has seen “Rent.”
It went on to win the Tony for Best Musical, the Pulitzer Prize for drama and ran 12 years on Broadway, the 11th longest-running show in history. “Rent” also has been performed all over the world and was made into a movie in 2005 starring many of the original cast.
“I carry him with me, and this show is so much of us,” Charleston told the cast of Larson. “I have always loved his music.”
Charleston was interviewed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator and star of “Hamilton”) for the making of “Tick, Tick…BOOM,” the 2021 film he directed that told Larson’s story before “Rent.” She said there was some dramatic license in the film, showing “Susan,” Larson’s girlfriend (based on her) in that story.
“I would never not show up to one of Jonathan’s things and he would never not show up to one of mine. We were in this together,” Charleston said. “When he died, he was my intimate person. It’s still so surreal.”
Joe Wren, a cast member, told Charleston how “Rent” has been a life-changing experience for several actors in the cast. “It’s so important to so many people,” he said.
He first got to know the show in college, when he was 20. “Not only was I studying acting and musical theatre at that time, I was the same age as the main characters and believed in and lived that lifestyle,” Wren wrote Saturday on Facebook.
“Last night I was able to get as close as a living person could to asking him questions about his life and the show. We were blessed by the visit of Janet Charleston,” he said. “She was giving and kind and sincere. Also like most of us in that moment, very emotional as we shared why RENT is so important and life confirming for many of us. It was a surreal experience for me to say the very least and another chapter of how important RENT is to my life.”
Abbey Donohoe, who plays Maureen in the show, wrote after: “She graciously came up on the stage with us afterwards and we listened to her share with us & we all hugged and cried & just were a big family. It will go down as one of the coolest theater experiences. Ever.”
“It means a lot to me, what you put into it,” Charleston told the group.
Guild director Jeff Ashcraft said afterward: “What an incredible experience we all shared on Friday. I know it had a profound impact on me…I had no idea that we would get so close to meeting and hearing about one of the people who inspired some of the story and was so intimately connected to its creator. What a blessing!”
Music Guild connection
Charleston’s dad (also named Jon), now 91, played clarinet for Music Guild over several seasons, when Janet was in junior high and high school. She hasn’t seen many Guild shows.
“I’d love to see more; it depends on my work schedule,” Charleston said, noting she usually gets back to the Quad Cities twice a year. She couldn’t see “Rent” performances during its actual run because of her schedule conflicts.
Coming back to the QC illustrates how different her lives are.
“I feel like I have two separate lives, which are quite different,” she said. “My New York friends, most of them have never been here. My QC friends don’t know my life there — it’s strange.”
“It’s very moving to me that, this is being done in my hometown,” Charleston (who has never married) said of Music Guild. “I’m a Midwesterner as well as a New Yorker. I love the friendliness.”
For tickets to the new production of “Rent,” visit the Music Guild website HERE.