The theater was closed temporarily…for the last time.
The stage was dark; in fact, the lights to the entire building had been turned off. People were gone for a little while, gone home to sleep and eat and live. The seats sat in their long and curving rows, all waiting expectantly to be filled again. Everything was shrouded in total darkness, save the glow from a candle that flickered on one of the tables downstage center. Its light threw shadows across the whole stage, so all you could really see of the eight scattered people were fuzzy silhouettes, like a bad cinematic trick.
The five young men traced a line up and across the space: the first was leaning back on the fence that ran past the orchestra pit, while another's legs dangled from the edge of the balcony as he rested his forehead on the railing. One, hidden almost completely in shadow, stood by the rack of coats that had been left onstage, gripping one of the posts that supported the lower half of the Christmas Tree sculpture. The fourth was leaning in the front doorway nearby, holding onto the overhead frame and staring at his feet. And the last stood behind a chair downstage left, his hands quietly laid on the shoulders of the person who was sitting in front of him.
She stirred slightly, and brushed her hair back. The other two women were far apart: one was standing near the upstage section of the orchestra fence, her arm looped around another structural pole, while the other was high up on the short walkway at the back of the stage, pacing like a caged animal. Her movement was the only thing that could clearly be made out in the silent mass of shadows. However, one other thing was clear: they were all waiting for someone.
He came, finally, after what seemed like hours. It wasn't obvious where from; he just seemed to emerge out of the gloomy dark of the seats, hoisting himself onto the stage with his long, lanky arms and legs. The air changed as he straightened and looked at them all: instead of waiting, they were now watching. And listening.
The candle flickered in a nonexistent gust of wind, and for a second it threw light on the new arrival: a thatch of curly hair, a worn dark green shirt, slim, wiry hands…but it bent back before his face came into focus. And it was then that he spoke, in a voice that was deep and warm…and yet somehow hollow.
"How are you doing?"
It was a question, and yet no one answered for the longest time. The woman on the balcony paced faster, her footsteps staccato. Someone cleared their throat.
"They're coming back," the newcomer went on. His voice wavered with suppressed emotion. "My friends…all my friends and my family, and everyone else. They'll all be watching tonight."
"We'll give them something to watch, Jon," said the man leaning in the doorframe, and he suddenly strode forward, his tall, broad frame outlined by candlelight. He reached and embraced Jon, pulling him into a tight hug. Jon gripped his shirt and squeezed him back.
"Thanks," he said, his voice muffled. The taller man nodded into his shoulder and let go, stepping back and grasping Jon's upper arms.
"Twelve years, man…it's been a hell of a ride," he said, grinning. His statement was punctuated by the sound of a scraping chair as the woman who was sitting stood abruptly, running to Jon and flinging her arms around him. Collins dodged her and moved back, no longer smiling.
"I don't think—I can't—please don't make me do this," she whimpered, her face pressed into his chest. Jon lowered his face into her wild hair and kissed her head.
"You were never good at goodbyes, were you?" he said softly. She shook her head and clung to him. "You have to trust me, Mimi. This isn't just an ending, it's—"
"What? A beginning?" came suddenly from the balcony. The woman there was gripping the railing, staring down at the stage with fierce intensity. "Is that what it is? Funny, because I thought it was our lives getting ripped apart."
She hopped the railing and flew down the stairs, storming over to Jon and practically shoving Mimi aside. Her brown curls bounced angrily, and her face burned with pain. "Jon, we're all that's left. You hear what they say, and you've seen how it is: nothing's the same, your world and our world is almost totally gone and now WE leave? What the fuck is happening?!" She shouted the last sentence, her hands tugging at her hair like a crazy person. The others moved forward slightly, murmuring. Jon took the force of her attack, his shoulders rigid with the same pain.
"Time," he whispered softly, his voice cutting through the silence that had lingered after her outburst. "It's time, honey, there's nothing anyone can do. Things have to end, it doesn't wipe them off the face of the earth. Do you have any idea how much they all love you; how much it hurts them that you're going? That's what I wrote you all about, love. That never disappears with time, not all the way. You're still my Maureen," he said gently, brushing her hair back, "and their Maureen, and what could ever change that?"
She was the one hugging him next, sobbing like a little kid as he held her tight. All the others moved closer still, surrounding her and John, their hands reaching out to touch her shoulders and hair and arms. John hushed her, rubbing her back.
"I'm sorry," she managed to say, "I'm so sorry, Jon."
"Me too," he said, and his voice was wet. "I'm sorry too."
She finally let go, and he took her face in his hands, thumbs running over her cheeks. He had written her with a purpose: she was everything he had loved about the world he had lived in, the fiery joy and creativity combined with fickle love and trust in friends. She had always known him, always called him on the shit he pulled.
They all did. All of them, his characters, his family, his creations. They stood around him now, eight faces dimly lit by the brightly burning candle. Suddenly he realized there were only seven faces: one person still stood in the shadows by the coat rack, still as a piece of the set.
"Angel?" Jon called, his voice hoarse. The others turned to stare as she slowly moved into the haze of light, the colors of her clothes dancing like the candle flame. Her face and eyes were wet, and her gaze was piercing as she stared towards her creator.
"Tonight is the end. It's been twelve years, and we can't thank you enough," she said without a trace of uncertainty. Her voice rang out through the theater, clear and gentle. "All of us are yours forever, Jonathan. You've given us our lives, and we've done our best to make you proud. And tonight, when we live for the last time…we honor you."
And they split away, moving back to create a half-circle on the stage. The candle burned brighter and brighter, and by its light new figures could be seen, walking in from the wings with purpose and courage. Soon there were fifteen on the stage, fifteen faces that had graced the stage twelve years ago, and they faced the man who had given his life for the message they shared. Jon stared back, his mouth open slightly.
One stepped forward, his eyes burning as fiercely as the candle. And he spoke in the voice of the man who brought him to life almost two decade ago:
"We dedicate this and every performance of RENT to our friend Jonathan Larson."
And then all hell broke loose. For a great humming suddenly swept through the theater, and as Jonathan he knew and didn't believe what was before him: a sea of people, his characters, all the different faces and bodies that had portrayed them throughout the years, fifteen people lived a thousand different ways by a thousand different men and women. And all of them there, one last time, to show their love to the man who created them.
The notes began to make sense to Jonathan: they were singing Seasons, the song that he had never stopped being proud of. More voices than he had ever imagined, layering each other, falling, rising, bringing something to it that had never been there before. Jon closed his eyes and tilted his head back, seeing what no one else could see. Hearing his glory one last time.
The soloist on stage started, her tone as pure and deep as it had ever been. Jon kept his eyes shut as it passed to the second soloist, who sang with such strength that his voice seemed to turn solid in the air. And then it was everyone again, clapping, swaying, moving to the rhythm of Jonathan's music. And finally, her voice soared out again, piercing through any sadness or pain and lifting everyone to the ceiling, past it, out over the world that Jonathan had captured.
He opened his eyes, and they were full. All around him, the love of twelve years, stronger than the force that had taken him from it. He breathed deeply in the sudden silence, feeling the thousands of eyes on him.
And then they spoke with one voice: the words that had been said anonymously all those years ago, by the one young man who nobody had ever seen again but who had been there that night, the voice of that audience and a million others.
"Thank you, Jonathan Larson."
Jon took one more deep breath: he gave a small bow; then he turned and, without looking back, walked into the wings and out of the light.
Tonight, Broadway is dark. Tonight, there is one last blaze of glory before the sun sets.
It can never be said enough, and it can never be meant strongly enough:
NO DAY BUT TODAY.