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THEATER: LOWER EAST SIDE STORY

5 minute read
Richard Zoglin

JONATHAN LARSON WAS LOOKING TIRED and pale all week, but it might have been just the stress of preparing for the opening of his new musical, Rent. Twice he went to the hospital, complaining of chest pains and a fever; his trouble was diagnosed as food poisoning, and he was given a battery of tests. He managed to drag himself to the last dress rehearsal, but colleagues were concerned: Larson, who rode his bicycle even on the coldest winter days, came in a taxi. “You could see he was trying to conserve his strength,” says director Michael Greif. The next morning, when Greif arrived at a production meeting, he got the shocking news. Larson, 35, had been found dead in his apartment–the victim, it was later determined, of an aortic aneurism.

The death of a promising theatrical talent is always tragic, but Larson’s legacy makes his all the more painful. Rent, a rock opera based on Puccini’s La Boheme, opened in New York City just three weeks after Larson’s death and got an ecstatic reception. Critics hailed it as the breakthrough musical of the ’90s. Theatergoers began streaming downtown, to the way-off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop; within a week, the show had sold out its entire run, through the end of March. Hollywood studios and record executives began calling, as did Broadway. By late last week, the producers were finishing up negotiations to transfer the show to a Broadway house in mid-April, just in time for the Tony nominations. “Rent belongs in front of as many people for as long as possible,” said co-producer Kevin McCollum. For once, a producer may get his wish.

Rent may not be quite the groundbreaker, or have the melodic richness, of Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar. But it is the most exuberant and original American musical to come along this decade. Larson has updated La Boheme and set it among the artists, addicts, prostitutes and street people of New York City’s East Village. In place of Puccini’s Mimi, dying of tuberculosis, is Larson’s Mimi (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a drug-addicted dancer in an S&M club who is suffering from AIDS. The Rudolfo she falls for is Roger (Adam Pascal), an HIV-positive rock singer who longs for one great song to leave behind.

AIDS is the shadow hovering over all the people in Rent, but the musical doesn’t dwell on illness or turn preachy; it is too busy celebrating life and chronicling its characters’ efforts to squeeze out every last drop of it. Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a gay teacher, hooks up with Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a high-spirited transvestite. Joanne (Fredi Walker), a lesbian attorney, gets together with Maureen (Idina Menzel), a performance artist who has just broken up with Mark (Anthony Rapp), a video filmmaker who acts as the musical’s narrator and guide.

Rent is a bit overloaded with characters and subplots; the central love story, between Mimi and Roger, gets all but lost in the bustle. But the energy and passion of Larson’s music make up for it. A five-piece band on the open, cluttered stage drives an insistent rock beat. The lyrics (there is no spoken dialogue) are resonant but not sanctimonious, with snatches of easy wit. When Roger tells Mimi he has too much baggage for a relationship, she replies, “I’m looking for baggage that goes with mine.” In songs like La Vie Boheme, a rousing celebration of the bohemian life, Larson shows a knack for clever, rolling rhymes that never sound forced: “Compassion, to fashion, to passion when it’s new/To Sontag, to Sondheim, to anything taboo.”

Stephen Sondheim was a mentor to Larson, who grew up in White Plains, New York, and had six musicals (among them Superbia and Tick, Tick…Boom!) produced in downtown workshops and cabarets before Rent. In the summer of 1992 Larson showed an early draft to James C. Nicola, artistic director of the NYTW, which was renovating its performance space. Says Nicola: “He saw the construction, stuck his head in the theater and knew immediately that this was the perfect spot for Rent.” They worked together on the show for two years, then called in Greif, who last year staged Randy Newman’s Faust at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse.

Rent is a surprising pick-me-up for another poverty-stricken season of Broadway musicals, dominated by revivals and reworkings of old movies (Victor/Victoria). It’s Broadway’s dream come true: an audacious, really new musical with crossover appeal and half a dozen starmaking roles (Rubin-Vega’s sexy, strong-voiced Mimi stands out in the excellent cast). All that’s missing is its creator to take a bow–and promise us more. “I sit every night in that theater and think about what was to come that’s now denied to us,” says Nicola. “Thirty years of great theater have been lost.” But Rent, at least, has been found.

–Reported by Georgia Harbison/New York

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