In 1988, noted playwright Billy Aronson had an absurd idea. What if someone took the basic plot of the celebrated Giacomo Puccini opera, La Bohème, and updated it to a modern, hip new audience? About a year later, Aronson started putting out calls for collaborators. It wasn’t long before a good friend, new project developer extraordinaire Ira Weitzman, introduced him to an ambitious, relatively obscure young composer with somewhat wild eyes and an even wilder hairdo. That young composer’s name was Jonathan Larson. Incredibly, the young Mr. Larson had lived a “Bohemian life” himself in the legendary hipster area of New York City called SoHo – and he at first suggested, and eventually ended up pleading, with Billy Aronson to allow him to use the original La Bohème concept and truly make it his semi-autobiographical Magnum Opus. Billy Aronson agreed to step aside from the collaboration – but with the agreement that if the project ever actually did make it to the “Big Stage”, in any of the gargantuan New York Theatre wing’s legendary venues, they would equally share in the spoils of their success.
Nothing is guaranteed in the world of live theatre, and especially so when any discussion of Musicals begin in earnest. Four years later, the work originated at the New York Theatre Workshop as a piece of Reader’s Theatre. From the initial read-through, the quirky, kinky little project had a limited three week run within the Workshop’s Studio Theatre system. For the next three years, Jonathan Larson and his production team cajoled, nurtured, beat, kicked and hammered out a modern take on Puccini’s masterpiece. Their efforts were finally rewarded with an agreement to produce “the new Bohemian musical” through the renowned Nederlander Group.
Little did anyone know that the twisted little musical – rife with open references to latex, cross-dressing, sadomasochism and (sadly) the scourge of the late last millennium: AIDS – would run for over twelve years and become the seventh longest-running show in Broadway history.
Speaking of tragedy, the show’s wonder kid composer, Jonathan Larson, was destined to never see a single Broadway performance of his magnificent show. Just before what would have surely been the most exciting time of his short life, Mr. Larson was making a tea in his modest kitchen at 3:00 am in the morning when he suddenly collapsed. He never regained consciousness, and died, early in the morning on a cold kitchen floor, on January 26th, 1996 – the very evening of the first preview performance of his musical. Jonathan Larson had succumbed to an aortic aneurysm, and he was just 36 years of age.
His show, however, continues to live on. What at first many thought would be a dated and era-constrained modern musical has become a rallying cry for an entire new generation of “new Bohemians”. In every major city in North America and in a good percentage of the ancient old cultural capitals of Europe, you are assured to see more than a few solid black or red T-Shirts proudly expounding the new Bohemian mantras: “No Day But Today” and “Forget Regret or Life is Yours to Miss.” Unless you’ve been living under a bridge somewhere for the past fourteen years, the name of Mr. Larson’s odd little ode to Puccini should, by now, be obvious. We are discussing the triumph that is Jonathan Larson’s RENT.
RENT ended its historic run at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City on September 7, 2008. The central “villain” of the piece – the AIDS pandemic of the early and mid 1990’s – isn’t quite viewed today with the same sense of panic, desperation and despair. The treatment for the disease has developed to the point where those infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS could theoretically live fairly lengthy, longer lives. Make no mistake however: while treatment has advanced leaps and bounds since Jonathan Larson’s late days, AIDS is still very much a death sentence.
In an off and ironic kind of way, the continued existence of RENT continues to breathe, thrive and induce appreciative hysteria in theatre-goers in several cities across the continent despite the sombre overtones of the show’s central malady. The Broadway Touring production – featuring original and revered cast members Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp and Gwen Stewart – has been performing in front of sold-out, rabid and excessively vocal “Rent-Heads” since the final performance at the original New York venue. Mr. Pascal, Mr. Rapp and Miss Stewart have all gone on to steady, enjoyable careers (within the show and apart from it), but there can be no denying the magic that begins the very moment the character of Mark (Anthony Rapp) walks across the stage, starting the proceedings to the strains of a guitar being tuned, is infectious and encompassing. For three-plus hours, audiences are able to turn back the clock to 1996 (none of the original cast appear to have aged a day) and join in the celebration that is a single year in the life of a small collective of down-on-their-luck friends, trying to eek out a living through illness, rampant drug abuse, urban development and shattered relationships in New York’s grungy Alphabet City.
A film version of the show, featuring nearly all of the original Broadway cast, was premiered to luke-warm reviews in 2005 while the Broadway version was still rockin’ and rollin’ enthusiasts in any number of theatres in any number of cities. RENT made a star of the incomparable Idina Menzel (who originated the role of the rubber-catsuit clad Maureen before moving on to much greater acclaim as the misunderstood witch Elphaba in the musical Wicked). The show also spawned the successful careers of Jesse L. Martin (Law and Order) and the powerfully talented Taye Diggs (Chicago). The show’s most recognizable song – Seasons of Love – has been recorded by no less an empresario than Stevie Wonder and still remains the veritable anthem for the downtrodden whose sole asset during those individual darkest times appears to be “hope”.
RENT does, despite the opinions of some of the critics fourteen years ago, remain topical, and timeless. There is no question that a central part of the show’s appeal (beside the music, of course) has to be the underlying raw sensual tension created in the sets and, especially, in the costumery. Sure, there have been other stage productions before that utilized an element of fetish and/or SM as a by-product of the story. As far back as the mid-1960’s, an original production of Oh! Calcutta! featured an entire scene that revolved around a bound and gagged servent girl about to tied to a whipping post and summarily flogged for an imaginary transgression; and simply because it suited the “curiosity” of the narrator of that particular show. A fantastic little piece written by the late Paul Bartel called Eating Raoul (based on his cult film of the same name) ran successfully “off Broadway” for a number of months. That show, starring the talented but sadly nearly forgotten Adrian Zmed (of television’s TJ Hooker fame), even featured a Dominatrix named Donna as a pivotal character in the show’s plot. A few years back, a show called Urinetown had a musical number that involved a trussed-up and securely gagged damsel in distress struggling against her restraints to the strains of an uncomfortable little tune simply called Snuff That Girl.
But, none of those efforts compare in any way to RENT. The tragic moments of Jonathan Larson’s masterpiece feature a high-stepping and plucky little transvestite named Angel, who gamely struts, leaps, sings and incessanty thumps on a ten-gallon plastic pickle tub (her “drum”) at every opportunity. Those familiar with the show are well aware of Angel’s fate – but the moment her tragic destiny is revealed to the audience never fails to illicit torrents of tears from the appreciative crowds gathered to take in the ritual and fetish pageantry that is the pure embodiment of the entire piece itself. Fetishism – 1996 style to be sure but certainly more than relevant in 2010 – is the timeless glue that will forever be the lock-and-stock appeal of RENT as it heads into its fifteenth year of existence. It is worth the price of a ticket alone to see all of the costume designs: from Maureen’s (now) infamous latex catsuit, complete with latex kitty-kat ears, to Angel’s interpretation of “Pussy Galore”, complete with knee-high pink PVC platform Go-Go boots that are a perfect match for her PVC mini-dress. The show’s main female character, Mimi Marquez, early on in the show implores the tortured Roger (Adam Pascal) to “take her out” by stripping off a cumbersome housecoat to reveal what appears to be a painted-on, light-blue “latex” pair of pants accented with a lycra leopard print short tank top and matching high-heeled boots. Her dangerous-girl look is completed with a form-fitting black latex shrug that surely looks as if it will rip itself to pieces the moment she starts to dance, gyrate and “howl at the moon like a cat in heat” as she tries to entice and seduce the love-lorn Roger. The costumes are more than just provocative and sexy: they’re an integral representation of the very attitude that those living a Bohemian existence need to flaunt in order to give their fragile lives a sense of “belonging”, and indeed, a sense of “family”. Similar shows that tried to rely heavily on suggestive costumes, such as the prostitution musical The Life, have come and quickly gone. RENT is, and forever shall be, regarded as simply timeless – and revolutionary.
RENT is scheduled to end its current Broadway Tour run in Sacramento, California, in February, 2010. It is doubtful, however, that the show – by far the best marriage of modern musical theatre, fetishism and simple, pure human frailty ever written – will go quietly into the night, let alone the musical theatre history books. RENT is, now and forever, timeless. The message will continue to resonant to audiences and fans years from now: Forget regret, or Life is yours to miss.
(Photos courtesy of Joan Marcus and the Broadway Touring Production of RENT.)