Tale of the Floppy Disks: How Jonathan Larson Created ‘Rent’By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
At 6:44 pm on Feb. 4, 1992, a little-known composer and playwright named Jonathan Larson hit “save” for the first time on a Microsoft Word file containing the lyrics to a half dozen songs loosely tied together with fragments of a story that over the next four years would grow into the mega-hit musical “Rent.”
The legend of that show is well known: Larson’s sudden death of an aortic aneurysm at age 35 on the morning of the show’s Off-Broadway opening; the rave reviews, followed by posthumous Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Larson; and a 12-year, 5,124-performance run on Broadway.
But now, almost exactly 20 years to the day after Larson made that initial “save” — or 10,520,000 minutes, as one of the musical’s best known songs might tabulate it — Doug Reside, the digital curator for performing arts at the New York Public Library, will give a public talk arguing that there is another way to tabulate Larson’s creativity: by minutely analyzing the bits and bytes he left behind left behind on 189 floppy disks.
When Mr. Reside, a lifelong theater and computer geek as well as a trained medievalist, first encountered Larson’s disks at the Library of Congress (which had acquired Larson’s papers after his death), they had been catalogued but not studied. They were “really sitting in shoeboxes,” Mr. Reside recalled.
Mr. Reside’s first step, after drafting a study plan and getting the necessary permissions, was to make bit-for-bit copies of all the files. He then hunted down vintage software and tools like the Basilisk II emulator, which allowed him to see the files exactly as Larson had seen them, right down to the chunky fonts and irritating pop–up error messages.
“If you’re interested in the genesis of the text, it’s important to see not just the earlier versions but the mechanisms by which those earlier versions were created,” Mr. Reside said.
Larson was “a little advanced” technologically, Mr. Reside said, despite his ambivalence about the Big Brother-ish aspects of technology. (He wrote an unproduced musicalization of George Orwell’s “1984,” Mr. Reside noted, and some parts of “Rent” suggest concern with the way machines dehumanize relationships.)
Most notably, he was an avid early adopter of the digital composition software Performer, which made it easy to orchestrate — and repeatedly reorchestrate — his music himself.
If “Rent” had been composed 10 years earlier, before such software was available, “it might have been a radically different show,” Mr. Reside said.
In addition to some 40 unique drafts of the script and hundreds of related files, the disks also contain a rich record of Larson’s daily life: letters (but no email: he apparently had no Internet connection), invoices, guest lists for his annual holiday “Peasant Feast,” schedules from his day job waiting tables at the Moondance Diner, calculations for how he was going to split the electric bill with his roommates.
“Larson did seem to use the computer as we do today, as a source of all his personal information,” Mr. Reside said. “But he was limited by how long it took to start up and how much space he had.” (In 1992, the typical PC had only about 2 percent of the processing power as today’s iPhones.)
The dozens of saved drafts suggest that Larson was mindful of documenting his creative process, Mr. Reside said. But some files also reveal interim changes Larson may not have realized were being recorded for posterity.
When viewed through a program called Text Wrangler, each Microsoft Word file shows the last 14 changes Larson made within the document, which appear at the end as an eye-glazing string of numbers specifying the location of each altered character. (Before a kindly soul at Microsoft provided the file formatting description, Mr. Reside had to decode all the number strings manually.)
To Mr. Reside, such an unexpected trove of time-stamped revisions suggests the potential richness of nonpaper manuscripts. “Born-digital materials allow access to these kinds of revisions, and the timing, much more than paper drafts would have,” he said.
To the casual observer, however, they also raise the possibility of total information overload. For example, Mr. Reside noted that with access to a writer’s Google Docs account, a researcher could conceivably track nearly every keystroke ever made within a document.
But the bigger worry for future scholars, Mr. Reside said, is gaining access to disks and hard drives before physical decay and rapidly obsolescing technology renders them inaccessible. Even in the Larson archive, which became available to scholars far sooner than it might have if Larson hadn’t died so young, there are seven disks Mr. Reside has been unable to read at all.
As it happens, however, Mr. Reside thinks he may have discovered Larson’s final textual fiddle, made sometime between 10:34 AM and 12:38 PM on Jan. 15, 1996, 10 days before his death.
The tweak — a line in the song “We’re Okay” was changed from “Steve, go home/No you cut the Styrofoam” to “Steve, You’re Great/No you cut the paper plate” — may seem trivial. But the fact that Larson saved it in a whole new file rather than just copying over the old one is telling, Mr. Reside argued.
“I can’t actually believe that was the last little thing he had to change, since it was so insignificant,” Mr. Reside said. “But he was very much a perfectionist about his work.”
“’How Do You Document Real Life’: A Tale of “Rent,” Jonathan Larson’s Floppy Disks and Digital Forensics,” Feb. 3, 12—1:15, Margaret Liebman Berger Forum, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street.