Rent Musical Essay

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.

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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.


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