April 26, 2006
Another Season of Love: The Original Cast Reassembles for a 'Rent' Anniversary
The New York Times
By Anthony Tommasini —
Over the years, as the musical “Rent” has reached milestone after milestone – playing around the world in more than 200 productions from Boise to Little Rock to Reykjavik – the thousands of people who have been affected by this vibrant, gritty and compassionate work may well wonder what its creator, Jonathan Larson, would have thought of it all.
Another milestone came on Monday night. The original Broadway production of “Rent” opened at the Nederlander Theater 10 years ago this Saturday. That production, directed by Michael Greif, was an almost-intact transfer of the initial production at the New York Theater Workshop, which had opened three months earlier.
To celebrate the anniversary the original cast members reassembled, rehearsed for two days and performed the show in a semistaged version at the Nederlander on Monday. The event was a benefit for the New York Theater Workshop, for Friends in Deed (a support organization that gave comfort to several of Mr. Larson's friends dealing with H.I.V. infections.), and for the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation, which was set up by his family after the enormous success of “Rent.”
Before the performance, the co-chairmen of the benefit told the star-studded audience that more than $2 million had been raised. Also addressing the crowd were Senator Charles E. Schumer and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who praised “Rent” as a timeless work exemplifying “culture, community and creativity,” in the mayor's words, and saluted the show's vast contributions to New York's theatrical life.
Once again you could only think, “Would Jonathan ever have imagined all this?” Mr. Larson, who wrote the music, lyrics and books for his stage works, struggled for more than 10 years to get a producer to take a shot at one of his shows. Now he was being posthumously thanked for giving Broadway a creative and economic boost. “Rent” is the seventh longest running show in Broadway history.
I count myself among those who were personally affected by Mr. Larson's work, because of the inadvertent role I played in the last hours of his life. In 1996 an editor at The Times tipped me off to the opening of a rock musical, inspired by “La Bohème,” which transplanted Puccini's struggling bohemians from Paris in the 1830's to the East Village in 1990's. So on Jan. 24 I went to the New York Theater Workshop to see the dress rehearsal of “Rent,” which was scheduled to open in February.
That performance was pretty ragged, with technical glitches and a misbehaving sound system. But I was swept away by the sophistication and exuberance of Mr. Larson's music and the mix of tenderness and cleverness in his lyrics. After the show Mr. Larson and I sat down for an interview in the tiny ticket booth of the theater, the only quiet space we could find amid the post-rehearsal confusion. For almost an hour, this sad-eyed and boyish creator talked about his approach to songwriting, his determination to bring the American musical tradition to the MTV generation, and about friends struggling with H.I.V. infection who had inspired the show.
We shook hands, he went home to his ramshackle walk-up apartment in the West Village, put a kettle on the stove to make some tea, then collapsed and died of an aortic aneurysm. He was 35.
Understandably I have felt a little protective of “Rent” ever since. Four years ago, curious to see how the show was faring, I took in a performance at the Nederlander and was dismayed. The young and handsome cast was full of talent. But the sound system was blaringly loud. The show was pumped up with a rockish brashness that seemed forced, as if the presenters, afraid that the subtlety of Mr. Larson's score would be lost on young audiences, had opted to bludgeon them into submission.
On that last night of his life Mr. Larson spoke of his desire to bridge the world of musical theater, which has championed the artful mingling of words and music, with the world of rock, which feeds on pulsating rhythms and visceral power. He wanted his score to have rockish energy. But lyrics were everything to him, and he wanted the words to be audible, not buried in buzz-saw speaker noise. “The bane of my existence is that I'm relying on electronics, and I'm only as good as my sound board operator,” he told me that night.
My guess is that Mr. Larson would have been pleased by the film version of “Rent” directed by Chris Columbus, released last year. I went to the film with trepidation. To me “Rent” is a triumph of theater. But adapting a musical for film inevitably involves opening it up, as this movie did with street scenes filmed on location in New York. Onstage the death of Angel, the endearing drag queen, is depicted abstractly with billowing sheets and a circle of bereft friends. In the film the scene is made literal, set in an intensive care unit. The filmed “Rent” seems a safer show than Mr. Larson may have intended. Still, every word in every lyric is audible, every voice in the complex choral numbers comes through, and the richness of Mr. Larson's harmonies works its magic.
The producers were worried at first that the original cast — many are in the film — would look too mature. But just as in Puccini's opera, there is no reason the circle of friends in “Rent” cannot be in their early 30's rather than their early 20's. They looked terrific in the film.
The original cast members looked more than terrific when they walked onstage on Monday night to the screeching ovation of the audience and lined up in a row to sing the show's disarming anthem “Seasons of Love.”
Though this performance was not intended for review, I can say that that the cast did itself proud. Understandably, as actors fumbled for lines now and then, the event became as much an affectionate reunion as a straight-ahead performance. But moment after moment brought you back to the early days of “Rent” when the show's honesty and power were so stunning. Adam Pascal, the original Roger, the punk band singer and songwriter at the heart of the show, has lost none of his sexiness and charisma. His voice, at once raw and plaintive, especially when he lets a note swell with earthy vibrato, soared in “Glory,” the ballad that seems like Mr. Larson's premonition of his own death: “One song/ Glory/One Song/Before I go/Glory/ One song to leave behind.”
The crowd broke into frenzy when Daphne Rubin-Vega, as Mimi, the S&M club dancer who falls for Roger, straddled the railing of the stage's upper level to sing the gritty “Out Tonight.” Idina Menzel as Maureen and Taye Diggs as Bennie (who are now married and have both gone on to thriving careers) could not resist bantering during scenes that brought them together. The audience loved it. Anthony Rapp was again the ideal Mark, the loose-limbed and insecure video artist who believes so strongly in his community of friends. Though Jesse L. Martin is by far best known these days for his role as Detective Edward Green on “Law & Order,” he looked elated to be singing and playing the good-hearted Tom Collins, who falls in love with Angel. And the slight-framed yet dynamic Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Angel, again disarmed the audience with his cross-dressing dance number “Today 4 U.”
At the end of the evening the original cast retreated to the rear of the stage and the current cast appeared to sing “Seasons of Love.” They looked like fresh-faced kids playing grown-up roles. Then the stage filled with dozens of actors, all former members of “Rent” casts who joined in the song, until, at the end, everybody hugged everybody. Afterward there was a reception at Cipriani on East 42nd Street, where the original cast members were swamped by autograph-seekers and you could see celebrities like Jon Bon Jovi chatting with the mayor.
For me the original production at the 150-seat New York Theater Workshop will never be topped. The intimacy of the space allowed the performance to have subtlety and clarity, while still packing a rocking wallop. But “Rent” has become something bigger than Jonathan Larson ever imagined.
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