It’s the signalfor an “AZT break,” and suddenly they realize that they’re bothHIV-positive. Clinch. Love duet. If you don’t think this is romantic, considerthat Jonathan Larson’s sensational musical is inspired by Puccini’s opera”La Boheme,” in which the lovers Mimi and Rodolfo are tragicallyseparated by her death from tuberculosis. Different age, different plague. Larson has updated Puccini’s end-of-19th-century Left Bank bohemians toend-of-20th-century struggling artists in New York’s East Village.
His rousing,moving, scathingly funny show, performed by a cast of youthful unknowns withexplosive talent and staggering energy, has brought a shocking jolt of creativejuice to Broadway. A far greater shock was the sudden death of 35-year-oldLarson from an aortic aneurysm just before his show opened. His death justbefore the breakthrough success is the stuff of both tragedy and tabloids. Suchis our culture.
Now Larson’s work, along with “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in’Da Funk,” the tap-dance musical starring the marvelous young dancer SavionGlover, is mounting a commando assault on Broadway from the downtown redoubts ofoff-Broadway. Both are now encamped amid the revivals (“The King andI”) and movie adaptations (“Big”) that have made Broadway such acreatively fallow field in recent seasons. And both are oriented to an audienceyounger than Broadway usually attracts. If both, or either, settle in for asuccessful run, the door may open for new talent to reinvigorate the oncedominant American musical theater.
“RENT” so far has the sweet smellof success, marked no only by it’s $6 million advance sale (solid, but noguarantee) but also by the swarm of celebrities who have clamored for tickets:Michelle Pfeifer, Sylvester Stallone, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson,Ralph Fiennes. . . name your own biggie. Last week, on opening night, 21 TV crews,many from overseas, swarmed the Nederlander Theatre to shoot the 15 youthfulcast members in euphoric shock under salvos of cheers. Supermogul David Geffenof the new DreamWorks team paid just under a million dollars to record theoriginal-cast album.
Pop artitsts who’ve expressed interest in recording songsfrom the 33-number score include Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton and Boyz II Men. A bidding scrimmage has started for the movie rights among such Hollywoodheavies as Warner Brothers, Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films, Fox 2000 and Columbia. The asking price is $3 million, but bonuses for length of run, the PulitzerPrize (which “RENT” has already won), various Tony and critics’ awardscould jack the price up to $3. 75 million. Despite these stupefying numbers, theyoung producers, Jeffrey Seller, 31, and Kevin McCollum, 34, and theirassociate, moneyman Allan S.
Gordon, know that they’re not home free. “There’s no such thing in New York,” says Seller. “Our companyhas mostly done tours. If you sell 8,000 seats a week in Cleveland, you did agreat job. Never having done a Broadway show, the idea that you have to sell450,000 seats a year is daunting.
” Major Broadway players like the ShubertOrganization and Jujamcyn Theaters, which lost out to the Nederlander in thefeverish grab for “RENT,” would love to be daunted like these Broadwaytyros. Rocco Landesman, Jujamcyn’s president, says he’s “crushed” atnot getting “RENT. ” He predicts the show will be a “crossoversuccess; it will attract an ethnically diverse audience, people who are notnormally theatergoers. ” “RENT” has a $67. 50 top ticket price, butthe producers have reserved the first two rows at $20 and are tagging mezzanineseats at a “bargain” $30.
“‘RENT’ has a lot riding on itsshoulders,” says producer Jim Freydberg, whose “Big” has justopened. “I desperately hope it works. If it’s successful, we’re going toget more daring shows on Broadway. If it’s not, we’re going to get morerevivals. ” This is interesting, coming from a competitior whose own show,based on the popular Tom Hanks movie about a 13-year-old boy who wakes up on dayin the body of a 30-year-old man, could be said to represent the less daringsector of Broadway. “If I really wanted to make money I’d go to Wall Streetand invent money,” says Seller.
“I came to Broadway because I wasexcited by the question ‘Can you challenge the mainstream? Can you reinvent themainstream from inside the mainstream?'” Says McCollum: “It would bedisingenuous to say we don’t hope to make money with ‘RENT. ‘ But I’m herebecause I love the living theater. ” As Gordon puts it, “We’re tryingto reinvent how you spend money on Broadway. We have no limos. They don’t wantus at any glitzy restaurants.
” The weird thing is that when these hyped-up,fresh-faced guys say these things, you find yourself believing them. “RENT” completes a fortuitous trilogy begun by “Hair” in1967 and continued by “A Chorus Line” in 1975. These breakthroughmusicals deal with “marginal” Americans – ’60s flower children, theblue-collar gypsy dancers of Broadway, and now in “RENT” the youngpeople who follow a dream of art in a cold time for spirit and body. Larson, whowas a denizen of New York’s down under, evokes in swirling detail the downtownscene that is a paradoxical mix of wasteland and community.
The homeless, theaddicts and alkies move like oracular nomads among the “artistes” (asa homeless woman scornfully calls them), who don’t know where their next rentcheck is coming from, or their next inspiration for a song or a picture, or thenext lethal raid by the specter of AIDS. Yet “RENT” is a thrilling,positive show. In a rich stream of memorable songs, Larson makes true theatermusic from the eclectic energies of today’s pop-rock, gospel, reggae, salsa,even a tango. The “RENT” story began in the summer of 1992, whenLarson, riding his bike down Fourth Street in the East Village, passed the NewYork Theatre Workshop, which was in a mess with a major renovation. “Hestuck his head in the door,” says James Nicola, the artistic director ofNYTW. “He looked in and thought, ‘This is perfect.
‘” What was perfectwas the extraordinary NYTW stage, 40 feet wide and 30 feet deep in a house thathad 150 seats. It’s actually a larger stage than the Nederlander’s. “Jonathan always wanted to walk a fine line between being the iconoclastand the person that descends from the tradition and reinvents it,” saysNicola. “Our space brought together all these things.
It was a greatphysical expression of what he wanted. ” The next day Larson cycled back anddropped off a tape of songs he had written for “RENT,” all sung byhim. “I listened to a couple of songs and immediately knew this was a rareand gifted songwriter,” says Nicola. The four-year process of creating”RENT” had begun. A director, Michael Greif, was brought in, a crucialstep in the shaping of what was more of a collage than a play. “I wasanxious to neutralize Jonathan’s emotionalism and bring in some irony,”says Greif, a 36 year-old who is now the artistic director of the La JollaPlayhouse in California.
“Jonathan was such a wet guy emotionally,”says Greif with a laugh. “He was exuberant, childish in all the good andbad ways. He had this enormous capacity for joy. He’d write a song and say ‘Ilove it!’ And I’d say, ‘Guess what? I don’t.
‘” The process continued,helped by a Richard Rogers Award of $50,000 (for which Stephen Sondheim,Larson’s idol and inspiration, was a judge). At a workshop production seen byBroadway producers, Seller and McCollum were blown away by what they saw andheard. It was a work that took Larson’s “wet” emotionalism and turnedit into a fountain of unchecked melody and rhythm. Although he called”RENT” a rock opera, it has a much wider range than rock, and thescore is not a series of discrete bursts of music. From the title number, afierce outcry is a world where “Strangers, landlords, lovers/Your ownbloodcells betray,” the music sweeps Larson’s characters – the principalsand a wonderful ensemble of shifting figures – into a living tapestry of hope,loss, striving, death and a climactic resurrection. Larson takes Puccini’s youngbohemians and refashions them into Roger (Adam Pascal), a pretty-boy rockerdesperate to write one great song before AIDS kills him; Mimi (DaphneRubin-Vega), a dancer doomed by drugs; Maureen, a performance artist (IdinaMenzel), and her lesbian lover Joanne (Fredi Walker); Angel (Wilson JermaineHeredia), a drag queen also doomed by AIDS, and his lover Tom (Jesse L.
Martin),a computer genius who fears the cyberfuture; Ben (Taye Diggs), the landlord in aworld where lords shouldn’t land; and Mark (Anthony Rapp), a nerdy video artist(and Larson’s surrogate) who narrates all the interweaving stories to theaudience. In songs like Angel and Tom’s “I’ll Cover You,” and Mimi andRoger’s “Without You,” Larson exalts love as the force that binds hischaracters into an extended family who care for each other with all the manyvarieties of love, from sex to friendship to compassion. “Take Me or LeaveMe” is a fiery and funny duet for Maureen and Joanne, each insisting on herfierce individuality. The onstage band led by Tim Weill drives not only theirresistibly singable score but the explosively witty choreography of MarliesYearby, who makes every move a flesh-riff of the life force itself. Like all thebest popular art, “RENT” dares you to feel sentimental, showing howsentimentality can be turned into an exultant sweetness without which life is agrim mechanism. Puccini had his Mimi die.
Larson sends his Mimi to the point ofextinction and brings her back. There are deaths in “RENT,” but Larsonneeded to balance that with a rebirth. His own death before he could really seehow well he had done in an unbearable irony. He left us singing. “RENT” is his song.