NBC recently signed Neil Patrick Harris to star in a 10-episode prime-time variety show, scheduled to debut this fall. Praising Harris’s “incredible talent,” the producers proudly dubbed it the “ultimate variety show.” In 1963 CBS president Jim Aubrey hyped an even bigger candidate, The Judy Garland Show, to his network affiliates. When you sign a star like Garland, he boasted, “you know you’ve got something going for you.” But her weekly showcase was canceled after only one season. When Garland taped the last episode, the note another CBS exec left in her dressing room said it all: “You were just great. Thanks a lot. You’re through.” Watch your back, Neil Patrick Harris! Watch your back.

In September 1994, a rock musical about young artists living under the shadow of AIDS, based partly on Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, was seen for the first time in a limited three-week workshop production at the New York Theatre Workshop. It was, to put it bluntly, a mess, with entangled story lines, vacant characters and a plot that seemed oddly more preoccupied (at least at this early stage) with stingy landlords than with love. Its composer, Jonathan Larson, took the next two years to rework it. Rent finally opened off-Broadway to ecstatic reviews in January 1996, before getting rushed three months later to Broadway, where it went on to become one of the greatest critical and commercial triumphs in theater history. It ran for 12 years, won a raft of awards (including the Pulitzer Prize and four Tonys) and featured some of the biggest names in show business, including Taye Diggs, Neil Patrick Harris and Idina Menzel. Larson did not live to see the success of Rent, dying of an aortic aneurysm the night before its off-Broadway debut.

For the 20th anniversary of Rent’s unofficial debut, I spoke with Billy Aronson, the playwright who came up with the original concept for Rent, wrote three of its songs and collaborated on it with Larson in the late 1980s.

The most important night in New York theater is nearly upon us: the Tony Awards, this year hosted by the very capable Hugh Jackman. While the nominees busily attend press events, luncheons and cocktail parties, all the while giving showstopping performances eight times a week, the rest of us get to revisit a year of sometimes excellent (Hedwig!), sometimes forgettable (Big Fish, anyone?) live theater. Below we pick our favorites to take home the trophy in the ceremony’s top 12 categories.