'Rent' - a musical that updates "La Boheme" to Alphabet City - defines Radical Chic for the '90s. "Rent" entered the realm of legend in January, when its 35-year-old author, Jonathan Larson, died just before the show began previews Off-Off-Broadway. When it opened, it was hailed as a breakthrough in fusing musical theater and rock. It then won a Pulitzer Prize.
Last night, it opened on Broadway, an ironic triumph for a show that purports to disdain the bourgeois values Broadway represents. Equally ironic, Bloomingdale's is opening a "Rent" boutique.
"We're living in America/ At the end of the millennium," one of the songs whines."
"Leave your conscience at the tone . . . You are what you own."
There is a lyric that suggests how Larson's work might have matured. Roger, a video artist, sings about "the 3-D Imax of my mind." First he sings, "That's poetic." Then he reconsiders, "That's pathetic."
A more seasoned Larson might have done this thinking in private. Sadly, we will never know how the budding talent might have developed.
Musically, "Rent" owes more to rock than to musical theater. Its best moments are its harmonically rich choral numbers. "Rent" has been compared with "Hair" as a groundbreaking event. Neither is musically impressive.
Rock itself was novel in the theater in 1968. So was "Hair's" formless amateurism at a time when musical theater was still structured and professional. It had a few great songs that conveyed the mood of the time and, most important, nudity, which made it commercially attractive.
As for Larson's retelling of "La Boheme," it has a basic flaw. Puccini's bohemians were genuinely destitute. Several of Larson's have wealthy parents eager to help them out. Also, our culture no longer shuns bohemia; it sees it as a merchandising handle.
As a theater critic, I get to see transvestites, performance artists and homeless people all the time, so I may be jaded. But are there really pockets of the population for whom such characters are still exciting and exotic?
The cast performs with tremendous energy. Smugness, implicit downtown, is now, understandably, full-blown. In the case of Daphne Rubin-Vega, the S&M performer who is Larson's Mimi, or Idina Menzel, a self-important performance artist, the over-the-top work is appropriate. Menzel and Fredi Walker sing up a storm in a lesbian lovers' quarrel. Adam Pascal is sweet as a struggling songwriter. Wilson Jermaine Heredia is elegant as a transvestite sculptor. About the only actor who gives his character human dignity is Jesse L. Martin, as an HIV-positive teacher.
As an updated "La Boheme," Rent is full of phoniness; as a barometer of the ongoing comedy of middle-class America trashing itself, it's a major landmark.
Yep, with just a little bit of luck, and shrewd marketing, it will prove a major Broadway hit. It still has the fun, passion, vitality and youthfulness that characterized it when it started downtown on its uptown odyssey. I am referring, of course, to that vastly enjoyable musical "Rent."
The Nederlander Theater, inside and particularly outside looks suitably, if intentionally, "distressed" - to use the appropriate decorator's term - or even mildly dilapidated, providing a perfectly site-specific mood for the Broadway accession of this East Village happening.
So with its fanfare of publicity starting poignantly enough with the tragic death of its auteur, 35-year-old Jonathan Larson, and culminating in a Pulitzer Prize, "Rent" opened last night to a veritable drum-roll of expectation.
Everyone, by now, knows that, despite its showy operatic derivation, "Rent" is not the second "La Boheme" - Giacomo Puccini seems to have collared that market - the vital remaining question was, is it a second "Hair"? And I think the answer must be a triumphant affirmative.
By the time "Hair" moved to Broadway from its first, off-Broadway incarnation it had been chopped and changed a great deal, and every change was for the better.
This new soft-rock, rap-pop - with a touch of gospel - musical couldn't be revised that much, for little could be done to Larson's concept, or even more particularly his book, music and lyrics.
The cop-out ending, having the heroine dying one minute but making a miraculous recovery for the finale, the puzzling muddle of the story (mind you, "Hair" was equally disheveled) with all its repetitions, and the general naivete of the characterizations, were flaws off-Broadway and remain flaws on Broadway.
But with comparatively little by way of change, the original director, Michael Greif, has done a great job in giving the show more focus than it had downtown, and it sounded to me as if Tim Weil, responsible for the supervision of the music, has also done a touch of orchestral titivation to this essentially eclectic score.
Again, while the garbage-style scenery by Paul Clay and the eloquently chic and grungy costumes by Angela Wendt all remain basically unchanged, they seem to have been slightly translated for Broadway, particularly Clay's ramshackle beauty of an urban jungle sculpture, which dominates the set.
Still, perhaps, the significant development for this tale of Alphabet-ville Bohemia, with its young people struggling against AIDS, poverty and drugs, has come with - and credit here to Greif as well as simple experience - the deepening performances of its actors.
The most-improved performers of the rainbow-styled cast are Adam Pascal, as the punk-rock hero Roger, who registered little when I first saw him downtown, and his heroine, Mimi, here an HIV-infected drug addict performing in an S&M night spot, Daphne Rubin-Vega, good before but even better now.
It is through and through superbly cast, and its cast members have really grown into their roles, including Idina Menzel, arresting as the Musetta-like performance artist, Anthony Rapp as Mark, the commentating videographer of the story, Fredi Walker as a lesbian lawyer, Jesse L. Martin as the coat-carrying philosopher Tom Collins, Wilson Jermaine Heredia as his transvestite lover Angel, and Taye Diggs as Ben, the ambiguously motivated landlord.
This is a terrific cast, and the casting director, Bernard Telsey, should take a special bow.
Two lines from the show struck me as particularly fascinating. The first line - "I don't own emotion, rent," suggests the show's artistic limitations. And the second - "Dying in America at the end of the millennium," suggests the show's gritty appeal.
And at the end, when all is said and sung, Larson has achieved the hope marked out by his seize-this-day hero Roger. He has created "One song before I go/One song to leave behind."
Two months, one Pulitzer Prize and acres of magazine and newspaper pages later, the waiflike hopes of the American musical are living in fancier digs. Uprooted by a cyclone of critical ecstasy and a hunger for theatrical novelty, they have posed for fashion layouts, inspired a Bloomingdale's ad campaign and will record their songs about life on the edge for David Geffen's Dreamworks label. They even have a producer who is comparing their spirit to that of -- oh, dear -- the movie "Forrest Gump."
"Rent," Jonathan Larson's luminous, youthful musical that started off at the tiny New York Theater Workshop on East Fourth Street in February, opened on Broadway last night at the Nederlander Theater, after previews that drew such paparazzis' dreams as Billy Joel, David Bowie and Ralph Fiennes. And, no, Toto, I don't think we're in the East Village anymore.
Everyone can breathe one quick sigh of relief, however, before lamenting the way of all flash. Anyone who loved "Rent" in its first incarnation is not going to feel like the victim of a Champagne hangover who wakes up next to a creepy stranger.
The vibrant 15 cast members are actually even better, as if they had found fresh reserves of energy in the glow of mainstream starlight. And the ingenuity and dexterity of Mr. Larson's rock-pop score, translated with loving skill by Tim Weill's onstage band, are, in fact, more evident now.
Indeed, great care has obviously been taken to keep this charming, poignant rock opera much as it looked when it was seen by Mr. Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35 on the night of its last dress rehearsal downtown. And therein lies the one, conspicuous problem of the transplanted "Rent." The show remains a sentimental triumph, and it will doubtless have, and deserves, a long and healthy run.
But in the haste to take this contemporary answer to Puccini's "Boheme" to Broadway, no one seems to have thought rationally about reconceiving the show for a larger house (and we're talking about 1,173 seats versus the 150 of the Theater Workshop). Unlike "Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk," which recently moved from the Joseph Papp Public Theater to the Ambassador on Broadway, this "Rent" verges on being lost in space.
Thank heavens for its top-flight cast, which does indeed pump the theater full of emotional adrenaline. But the actors work harder than they should have to. And even at Saturday night's preview, some of their voices were already edged in raggedness, despite the continued use of head mikes.
The philosophy behind the transfer, overseen by the show's director, Michael Greif, seems to have been to create the illusion that "Rent" never really moved at all. Paul Clay's original grungy, deliberately makeshift-looking set, with its white paper lantern of a moon, has simply been scaled up, as if by a Xerox enlarger. The back brick wall of the stage is visible here, too, and the cast still wanders casually into place before the houselights go down, as if to remind us that these are real, funky people up there.
Furthermore, the Nederlander, a theater that has long been dark, has been decorated with all manner of downtown accouterments: its exterior has hand-painted urban murals, and inside there is fake leopard carpeting and the sort of crockery mosaics that can be found on the bases of lamp posts on St. Mark's Place.
But let's not kid ourselves. This is the stuff of theater-as-theme park, and the Nederlander has become East Village Land, much in the way that the Eugene O'Neill Theater, where the revival of "Grease" is running, is 1950's Land. And the top ticket price for "Rent" is a whopping $67.50, a figure that would feed most of its cast in an Avenue B restaurant.
This, however, is simply the unfortunate economic reality of Broadway today. The problem is what's happening onstage, which is almost move for move what it was downtown. Mr. Greif's direction was always a tad wooden, often merely configuring the ensemble like performers in a staged concert. This was less noticeable in a small space: those performers had such intense presences, and they were so close, that they seemed almost to be embracing you.
The eye must travel much further from the orchestra (let alone the balcony) to the stage now. And it needs more to divert it than is being offered. Mr. Larson had spoken in interviews about creating theater for the MTV generation. But MTV videos make lip-synching seem kinetic with changing camera angles, close-ups and cross-cutting; they become the equivalent of choreography and strategic stage lighting, which "Rent" could definitely use more of.
Mr. Larson's music has an infectious pulse that begs to be danced to. And Marlies Yearby, the show's choreographer, brings such wit and verve to the first-act finale (the banquet number, "La Vie Boheme") that you feel frustrated that it's the only thing approaching an ensemble dance number.
That "Rent" still qualifies as a major success, and it does, is almost entirely because of Mr. Larson's clever but deeply felt words and score and the cast and musicians who interpret them. What makes "Rent" so wonderful is not its hipness quotient, but its extraordinary spirit of hopeful defiance and humanity.
Mr. Larson has conceived his show's surrogate family of fringe artists, drag queens and H.I.V.-infected drug users with such rich affection and compassion that it is impossible not to care about them. "Rent" is ultimately as sentimental as "Carousel" or "South Pacific," and the splendid cast members make no apologies about this. They're as gritty-seeming as they should be, but they also beam with the good will and against-the-odds optimism that is at the heart of the American musical.
Adam Pascal as Roger, the H.I.V.-positive songwriter, has an enhanced, effortless-seeming radiance that should quickly turn him into a matinee idol for a new generation. His shimmering sensuality is ideally complemented by the more shadowy eroticism of Daphne Rubin-Vega, whose Mimi gives off a transfixing blend of street swagger and mortal fragility. The couple's moonlit duet, "Light My Candle," and the recurring "I Should Tell You" remain the show's romantic centerpieces.
Anthony Rapp's Mark, the self-styled experimental auteur at war with his own defensive detachment, seems to be pushing a bit hard these days, but he is still the production's energetic engine. Wilson Jermaine Hereida's angelic transvestite, Jesse L. Martin's renegade philosopher and Fredi Walker's lesbian lawyer emerge as fully defined characters you feel you've known all your life. And Idina Menzel, as the performance artist Maureen, brings new, welcome satiric shadings to her character's artistic affectations.
The second act still feels more awkward than the first (and includes some unfortunate lyrics like, "You're living in America; leave your conscience at the tone"). But there's no denying that Mr. Larson discovered a winningly accessible and ground-breaking musical formula that combines rock's drive, pop's memory-grabbing melodiousness and the leitmotifs and harmonic counterpoints of opera. And when the whole ensemble sings of making the most of limited time in "Seasons of Love," the heart still melts and the eyes still mist.
At one point, when Mr. Rapp's Mark, who worries about prostituting his talent after taking a job with a tabloid television show, asks, "How did I get here?" he might be speaking for the entire "Rent" team. The answer, above all, is an original talent and a flame of youth that the mummified world of Broadway musicals so needs. Even without a fully developed support system, that talent continues to blaze at the Nederlander.
After all the hype and hoopla -- the winning of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the countless stories of the young composer/lyricist who died hours before the public got its first look at his masterwork, the frenzy to secure recording and film rights -- it's a pleasure to report that Jonathan Larson's "Rent" has moved uptown, where it's bigger, bolder, louder, sadder, wilder, and every bit as powerful as it was in the East Village.
The final musical entry in the 1995-96 season, "Rent" is the best show in years, if not decades. Larson, on the cusp of 36 when he died of an aortic aneurysm, wrote songs in a wide range of pop idioms, from rock anthems and ballads to gospel to loping Western laments to old-fashioned Broadway show-stoppers. That catholicity has been the hallmark of Broadway's greatest composers from Irving Berlin to Richard Rodgers to Stephen Sondheim; it's worth noting that "Rent" opened within days of a star-driven revival of Sondheim's first show as composer/lyricist, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.""Forum" was a spoof of musical-comedy conventions perfectly at home on Broadway. Though "Rent," the better work, also boasts an anti-Establishment attitude, it, too, will fit right in there.
With Alan Menken -- the best post-Sondheim composer the theater has produced -- long since lost to Disney, the tragedy of Larson's death is a public as well as a private one, for no one else has shown such promise in restoring the theater's preeminence as a source of popular music. "Rent" undoubtedly will be the first musical in years to reach a non-theater audience, as pop artists line up to cover the songs from a score that overflows with great numbers.
In writing about the struggling artists, AIDS sufferers, homeless people and other East Village denizens he lived among, Larson took his inspiration from Puccini's "La Boheme." The central characters are Roger (Adam Pascal), an HIV-infected composer struggling to write one great song before he dies, and his roommate Mark, a filmmaker recording their lives and those of their motley crowd. They are squatters in a building owned by Benny (Taye Diggs), a former classmate who has married money and wants to build a "cyber-studio" there; the musical opens with Benny demanding a year's worth of back rent and the chorus insisting, in the title song, "We're never gonna pay!"
Roger, an ex-junkie, falls in love with a neighbor, Mimi (Daphne Rubin-Vega), also HIV-positive and a user to boot, who supports her habit by dancing in a local S&M club. Their crowd includes Tom (Jesse L. Martin), a former academic who falls in love with Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), and Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel), a performance artist who has taken up with her producer, Joanne (Fredi Walker), and who stars in a Christmastime protest concerning Benny's plan to evict the folks in his building.
The year between one Christmas and another is the show's time frame; a year is also the subject of its greatest song, "Seasons of Love," in which the company lists the many prosaic ways in which the passing of time may be measured , but asks, with a joyous insistence that provides its own answer, "What about love?" A soaring anthem that opens the second act, it's effectively reprised several times. The other keepers in the score are Roger's anguished "One Song Glory," the tender "Light My Candle," which Mimi sings upon meeting him, and the ballad, "I'll Cover You," sung by Tom and Angel and reprised heartbreakingly later.
The ethos of "Rent" is complicated, to say the least. Larson had no wish to be an unknown, unsung artist. But, like the characters presented here, he was suspicious of compromise and contemptuous of those who sell out in an America, as one of the more blatant lyrics has it, where you are what you own. The show is all about taking chances, living on the edge, testing -- best summed up in Mimi's riveting solo, "Out Tonight," a song that celebrates danger and which finds her thirsty for life and literally howling at the moon.
It's also one of two unforgettable showcases for Rubin-Vega, the show's revelation, in a performance at once ferocious, vulnerable, sexy, warm and tough. The other number is "Without You," a classic ballad in which a deserted lover observes that while life goes on, she has died inside. Rubin-Vega sings with the pop inflections -- the sob in the back of the throat, the slightly forced vibrato -- more commonly heard, and more annoying, in shows like "Les Miserables" and "The Phantom of the Opera." Here, however, they seem as intrinsic as the head mikes the actors all wear. And in singling out Rubin-Vega, I mean no slight to the rest of the ensemble, whose members are not only individually effective, but who are sensational in the big choral numbers.
I still think "Rent" goes a bit flabby in the second act, and that Larson was as susceptible as any gifted artist to hawking more wares than he needed to. It's wonderful to have a score with so many songs, but a couple feel tacked on, and the "one great song" Roger finally produces is the weakest number in the score. And while it's nice to hear the ensemble at full throttle, director Michael Greif too often lines them up at the lip of the stage -- more hawking.
Does it matter? Not really. To his credit, Greif and musical director Tim Weil build the show seamlessly, and the energy never dissipates. Paul Clay's raw set, a tangled slash of urban detritus that threatens to burst through the roof, has grown steroidally, with elements reaching out into the house. Blake Burba's lighting is wondrous -- by turns inviting and garishly harsh -- and Angela Wendt's costumes are totally hip. Kurt Fischer's sound design handles the high-decibel action with great clarity.
In a season full of surprises, "Rent" is the pinnacle. Like Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and Sondheim's "Passion,""Rent" proves Broadway's enduring attraction for the most important new work the theater is producing. Unlike those shows, however, "Rent" also promises to be more than a succes d'estime. It's going to earn a lot of money, because everyone will want to savor its pleasures. "Rent" makes the musical theater joyously important again.