There’s a scene in the new musical “RENT” that may be the quintessential romantic moment of the ’90s. Roger, a struggling rock musician, and Mimi, a junkie who’s a dancer at an S/M club, are having a lovers’ quarrel when their beepers go off and each takes out a bottle of pills. It’s the signal for an “AZT break,” and suddenly they realize that they’re both HIV-positive. Clinch. Love duet. If you don’t think this is romantic, consider that Jonathan Larson’s sensational musical is inspired by Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” in which the lovers Mimi and Rodolfo are tragically separated by her death from tuberculosis. Different age, different plague. Larson has updated Puccini’s end-of-19th-century Left Bank bohemians to end-of-20th-century struggling artists in New York’s East Village. His rousing, moving, scathingly funny show, performed by a cast of youthful unknowns with explosive talent and staggering energy, has brought a shocking jolt of creative juice to Broadway.
A far greater shock was the sudden death of 35-year-old Larson from an aortic aneurysm just before his show opened. His death just before the breakthrough success is the stuff of both tragedy and tabloids. Such is 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 Savion Glover, is mounting a commando assault on Broadway from the downtown redoubts of off-Broadway. Both are now encamped amid the revivals (”The King and I”) and movie adaptations (”Big”) that have made Broadway such a creatively fallow field in recent seasons. And both are oriented to an audience younger than Broadway usually attracts. If both, or either, settle in for a successful run, the door may open for new talent to reinvigorate the once dominant American musical theater.
“RENT” so far has the sweet smell of success, marked no only by it’s $6 million advance sale (solid, but no guarantee) 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 youthful cast members in euphoric shock under salvos of cheers. Supermogul David Geffen of the new DreamWorks team paid just under a million dollars to record the original-cast album. Pop artitsts who’ve expressed interest in recording songs from the 33-number score include Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton and Boyz II Men. A bidding scrimmage has started for the movie rights among such Hollywood heavies 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 Pulitzer Prize (which “RENT” has already won), various Tony and critics’ awards could jack the price up to $3.75 million. Despite these stupefying numbers, the young producers, Jeffrey Seller, 31, and Kevin McCollum, 34, and their associate, moneyman Allan S. Gordon, know that they’re not home free. “There’s no such thing in New York,” says Seller. “Our company has mostly done tours. If you sell 8,000 seats a week in Cleveland, you did a great job. Never having done a Broadway show, the idea that you have to sell 450,000 seats a year is daunting.”
Major Broadway players like the Shubert Organization and Jujamcyn Theaters, which lost out to the Nederlander in the feverish grab for “RENT,” would love to be daunted like these Broadway tyros. Rocco Landesman, Jujamcyn’s president, says he’s “crushed” at not getting “RENT.” He predicts the show will be a “crossover success; it will attract an ethnically diverse audience, people who are not normally theatergoers.” “RENT” has a $67.50 top ticket price, but the producers have reserved the first two rows at $20 and are tagging mezzanine seats at a “bargain” $30.
“‘RENT’ has a lot riding on its shoulders,” says producer Jim Freydberg, whose “Big” has just opened. “I desperately hope it works. If it’s successful, we’re going to get more daring shows on Broadway. If it’s not, we’re going to get more revivals.” 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 day in the body of a 30-year-old man, could be said to represent the less daring sector of Broadway.
“If I really wanted to make money I’d go to Wall Street and invent money,” says Seller. “I came to Broadway because I was excited by the question ‘Can you challenge the mainstream? Can you reinvent the mainstream from inside the mainstream?’” Says McCollum: “It would be disingenuous to say we don’t hope to make money with ‘RENT.’ But I’m here because I love the living theater.” As Gordon puts it, “We’re trying to reinvent how you spend money on Broadway. We have no limos. They don’t want us 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” in 1967 and continued by “A Chorus Line” in 1975. These breakthrough musicals deal with “marginal” Americans – ’60s flower children, the blue-collar gypsy dancers of Broadway, and now in “RENT” the young people who follow a dream of art in a cold time for spirit and body. Larson, who was a denizen of New York’s down under, evokes in swirling detail the downtown scene that is a paradoxical mix of wasteland and community. The homeless, the addicts and alkies move like oracular nomads among the “artistes” (as a homeless woman scornfully calls them), who don’t know where their next rent check is coming from, or their next inspiration for a song or a picture, or the next lethal raid by the specter of AIDS. Yet “RENT” is a thrilling, positive show. In a rich stream of memorable songs, Larson makes true theater music from the eclectic energies of today’s pop-rock, gospel, reggae, salsa, even a tango.
The “RENT” story began in the summer of 1992, when Larson, riding his bike down Fourth Street in the East Village, passed the New York Theatre Workshop, which was in a mess with a major renovation. “He stuck his head in the door,” says James Nicola, the artistic director of NYTW. “He looked in and thought, ‘This is perfect.’” What was perfect was the extraordinary NYTW stage, 40 feet wide and 30 feet deep in a house that had 150 seats. It’s actually a larger stage than the Nederlander’s. “Jonathan always wanted to walk a fine line between being the iconoclast and the person that descends from the tradition and reinvents it,” says Nicola. “Our space brought together all these things. It was a great physical expression of what he wanted.”
The next day Larson cycled back and dropped off a tape of songs he had written for “RENT,” all sung by him. “I listened to a couple of songs and immediately knew this was a rare and gifted songwriter,” says Nicola. The four-year process of creating “RENT” had begun. A director, Michael Greif, was brought in, a crucial step in the shaping of what was more of a collage than a play. “I was anxious 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 Jolla Playhouse in California. “Jonathan was such a wet guy emotionally,” says Greif with a laugh. “He was exuberant, childish in all the good and bad ways. He had this enormous capacity for joy. He’d write a song and say ‘I love 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 by Broadway producers, Seller and McCollum were blown away by what they saw and heard.
It was a work that took Larson’s “wet” emotionalism and turned it into a fountain of unchecked melody and rhythm. Although he called “RENT” a rock opera, it has a much wider range than rock, and the score is not a series of discrete bursts of music. From the title number, a fierce outcry is a world where “Strangers, landlords, lovers/Your own bloodcells betray,” the music sweeps Larson’s characters – the principals and a wonderful ensemble of shifting figures – into a living tapestry of hope, loss, striving, death and a climactic resurrection. Larson takes Puccini’s young bohemians and refashions them into Roger (Adam Pascal), a pretty-boy rocker desperate to write one great song before AIDS kills him; Mimi (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a dancer doomed by drugs; Maureen, a performance artist (Idina Menzel), and her lesbian lover Joanne (Fredi Walker); Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), 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 a world where lords shouldn’t land; and Mark (Anthony Rapp), a nerdy video artist (and Larson’s surrogate) who narrates all the interweaving stories to the audience.
In songs like Angel and Tom’s “I’ll Cover You,” and Mimi and Roger’s “Without You,” Larson exalts love as the force that binds his characters into an extended family who care for each other with all the many varieties of love, from sex to friendship to compassion. “Take Me or Leave Me” is a fiery and funny duet for Maureen and Joanne, each insisting on her fierce individuality. The onstage band led by Tim Weill drives not only the irresistibly singable score but the explosively witty choreography of Marlies Yearby, who makes every move a flesh-riff of the life force itself. Like all the best popular art, “RENT” dares you to feel sentimental, showing how sentimentality can be turned into an exultant sweetness without which life is a grim mechanism. Puccini had his Mimi die. Larson sends his Mimi to the point of extinction and brings her back. There are deaths in “RENT,” but Larson needed to balance that with a rebirth. His own death before he could really see how well he had done in an unbearable irony. He left us singing. “RENT” is his song.