Nowadays 'Rent' is a mini-industry.
By Margaret Regan
NOVEMBER 16, 1998: NOWADAYS RENT IS a mini-industry. Going strong on Broadway since its opening two and half years ago, the groundbreaking rock musical has garnered every theatre award from the Pulitzer to the Tony. One of two American touring companies arrives in Tucson Tuesday for a weeklong run at Centennial Hall. Another troupe is in Canada, still another in London, and a third overseas show just opened in Australia. And those are just the English-language productions.
"It is an American story," says John Corker, who manages the farflung Rent empire. But foreign audiences also are clamoring for the end-of-the-millennium story about young artists in America, so the Jonathan Larson story has gone into translation, interspersed with foreign "cultural idioms to make it work" abroad. A Japanese company already is singing the show's bohemian tales of New York's East Village in Japanese, and a German cast is in rehearsals for an all-Deutsch production.
So what accounts for the show's runaway success with mass audiences and critics alike? It is, after all, full of such un-Broadway-like characters as an HIV-infected punk rocker and an activist lesbian performance artist.
For Corker, the secret is creator Larson's "ability to speak directly to the generation from which his characters are drawn. (He conveyed) the voice of alienation and artistic struggle, the fear of loneliness and alienation. The show resonates and it lands."
It's no small irony that Larson's heirs have become rich from his tale of the woebegone artists of Alphabet City, Greenwich Village's easternmost zone, where the streets are littered with glass, and broken-down tenements are squeezed between desolate high-rise public housing blocks. The show's more widely publicized irony is that the 36-year-old Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, died on the eve of the play's first performance, after years of struggle in the New York theatre scene.
Rent, his first success, is an affecting depiction of the Village world he inhabited for a decade and a half after college, a district of marginalized artists, painters and videographers and musicians and performance artists. The impoverished young people of his story are drawn from the real-life waves of artistic refugees from convention who have washed onto New York City's low-rent districts at least since the 1920s. Larson was one of these idealistic Middle American kids who regularly descend on the city's crumbling tenements, foregoing, say, law school, in favor of making cutting-edge art. Larson's particular dream was to write a new kind of Broadway musical, one that would use contemporary music to tell stories about real people.
"His objective was to do a new form of musical theatre," says Corker. "He used to say, 'My generation doesn't go to Broadway.' "
WORKING AS a waiter for 10 years in a SoHo diner, Larson eventually hit on the idea of updating Puccini's opera La Bohéme. That late 19th-century opera, which Larson had first seen in a puppet-show version as a child, romanticized bohemian life in 1830s Paris. Rent would replace La Bohéme's characters with arty counterparts from millennial New York. The opera's poet, Rodolfo, becomes Roger, the punk rocker who's HIV-positive, and Rodolfo's love Mimi, a seamstress fatally ill with consumption, is Rent's Mimi, an S&M dancer with a bad case of AIDS. Larson transformed another Puccini couple into a pair of lesbian activists, and still another into gay lovers. The grasping landlord Benoit becomes Benny. The opera's painter Marcello translates into Mark, a video artist and narrator who is the most Larson-like character.
Larson's gave his last interview to a New York Times reporter after the final dress rehearsal, hours before he died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm, a broken heart vessel. Describing the opera connection, Larson said, "I analyzed the libretto, broke it down beat by beat. Who would these characters be in my world?"
So closely does Rent follow the structure of La Bohéme, that many of its songs, rocking though they are, are specifically linked to the opera's arias. Corker points out the play's recurring answering machine messages, devices that connect the major songs, reprise the opera's "recitif" passages.
"He took the traditional structure of opera and updated it," Corker says. The show is an exuberant rock anthem of 35 songs, performed by seven principles and an ensemble chorus of eight, with four musicians right on stage. The operatic allusions hidden in such bouncy numbers as "Glory" are part of the work's intergenerational appeal, he adds. "The opera connection is another draw for the older audience."
Larson's own early death was completely unexpected, but he had grown up in the age of AIDS and spent his adult life in a neighborhood where young people were regularly felled by the disease. Larson certainly celebrates the life--the clever song "La Vie Bohéme" is an ode "to hand-crafted beers made in local breweries/to yoga, to yogurt, to rice and beans and cheese"--but the modern plague gives the musical a dark cast.
"This is the first musical where AIDS is a fact of life," Corker says, "but it's only one element. It's about being alive and sexual and finding a way for yourself in life."
The show, as its title implies, is also about money. It's about commerce clashing with bohemia, about an economy where artistic imagination reaps the lowest dividends. It's about how unromantic it is to live in poverty for years on end, in noisy, dangerous apartments, artistic dreams notwithstanding. And it's about how some artists fail, and die.
The characters are all renters, on temporary leases in more ways than one. They never get a chance to own a piece of the American dream. That's a pity. Because, as Mark sings, "When you're living in America, at the end of the Millennium, you are what you own."
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