It is always difficult to assess a piece with any objectivity when it has received even a modicum of hype, much less the wash of attention given to "Rent", the rock opera derived from the material that brought us Puccini's "La Boheme". One either is swayed by the hype to join the hooting and hollering co-celebrants in the audience or prejudiced against the project, determined to retain some semblance of an independent mind by rejecting the accolades one has heard before. But before "Rent" reached Broadway, and before its sold-out run at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village, it was done in a low-budget, limited-run workshop (also at the NYTW) to test and develop the musical in a relatively safe and nurturing atmosphere before exposing it to the press. A few intrepid theatre-goers were able to witness the process for $16, with more a sense of adventure than specific expectations.
As one of those theatre-goers, I had decidedly mixed reactions to the workshop. Some of it I found wildly exciting; some elements put me off. What I liked best was the score, its quirkiness and musicality; what I liked least was a tone of self-importance that surfaced too often for comfort and kept me distant from some of the characters, particularly the central trio of Mark, Mimi and Roger (based on Marcello, Mimi and Rodolfo). But there were also flashes of genuine wit, and the author actually found not one, but two original approaches to seduction (both performed by Daphne Rubin-Vega, an original herself, as Mimi): the furtive approach of the haunting "Light My Candle" and the dead-on cat-in-heat "Out Tonight," where the word "out" becomes a wolf-like howl to the moon. Mixing animal metaphors, perhaps, but it works.
Seeing it for the second time in the open-to-the-press full Off-Broadway production (still at NYTW), the very first moments (Mark's MC-ing introduction), allowed me to relax. Mark was still a filmmaker, he was still played by Anthony Rapp, but, for whatever reason (I'd need the scripts side by side to be more specific), the tone problem seemed to be have been solved. In the workshop, I had seen self-indulgent "artistes" coming from the burbs and choosing the loft-garret life. So you can't pay the rent? Wait tables like the rest of us! Whatever changes had been made by director Michael Greif, author Jonathan Larson and the cast, the touch was lighter. The wit seemed pervasive rather than incidental, and the re-casting of the would-be songwriter Roger with singer/songwriter Adam Pascal brought his relationships with Mimi and Mark the positive chemistry that had been lacking. I felt I'd be able to spend an evening with these kids. True, the second act wasn't as successfully rehabilitated as the first, but what had been good was still good and what was not was decidedly better.
Some changes disappointed me, though they obviously won't concern anyone seeing the show for the first time. Sarah Knowlton, who played the part of Maureen (read Musetta), in the workshop, sang her protest number "Over the Moon" while accompanying herself on the cello. The contrast of the sober musical self-accompaniment with the nursery rhyme motif seemed a brilliant satire of downtown performance art, a sharply honed dig at the very pretension at times plaguing the production itself. Most likely Idina Menzel, the current Maureen, does not play cello. More importantly, the part seems to have been reconceived, and appropriately so. Maureen is now perhaps closer to Musetta, an infectiously amoral sexpot with brains, and her "Over the Moon" is more rock star than intellectual, and without the cello it can be delivered standing, opening it up, broadening it and allowing her to show off the body that's supposed to drive both men and women to distraction. It remains a brilliantly written number, wonderfully performed by Ms. Menzel in its new incarnation, but I do miss that image of the cello between Maureen's legs as she moos. (The cello drone remains, though now relegated to the orchestra.) The other change that bothered me was the use of Musetta's theme on Roger's guitar, the one acknowledgment to Puccini. Originally played once, in passing, it is now repeated and pointed and even announced. This could very well be the result of the flip side of the workshop process; a subtle touch that too many people "don't get" (only those who've never been to the opera or heard the commercials for the "100 Best Moments in Music" on late-night TV), and the various panels and critiques direct the creators to clarify. I preferred the less obvious approach. Everyone doesn't have to get everything. I also have vague memories of the original Angel (Mark Setlock) being more angelic and his story resultantly more moving, but no one seeing Wilson Jermaine Heredia's charming transvestite will think they're missing a thing. Angel may not be as angelic, but he's certainly entertaining. (And how does he hop up on that table in those platform shoes?) Again, these are minor quibbles and will only bother those who've seen the earlier version and are somewhat resistant to change. Of course it was impossible to separate oneself from the shocking death of Mr. Larson hours after the final dress rehearsal (though a critic has to do so). With so many of the characters in "Rent" suffering from AIDS (the late 20th century answer to "La Boheme's" consumption), one might have guessed that the author died of the same ailment and had indeed written this as his "One Song Glory" (Roger's song). But in fact he died of an aortic aneurysm, his death sudden and unexpected, and "One Song Glory" takes on a new and piercing poignancy.
Now "Rent" has moved to Broadway. Obviously no new changes could be offered by the writer. But the cast fills the larger stage, the ensemble seems more an ensemble (and their singing can be thrilling, and some individual performances seem to have grown during the weeks on East 4th Street). Paul Clay's set is conceptually the same, but bigger and taking some advantage of a bigger budget (the flea market scene now gets T-shirts flown in from above), and the costumes by Angela Wendt still perfectly delineate the characters and are often quite fun. There may be a few more thighs in rubber; the electric blue covering the thighs of Ms. Rubin-Vega as she high-kicks and struts in "Out Tonight" contributes almost as much to the excitement of the number as those wolf howls. Tim Weil's band does full justice to the score, and only space precludes me from singling out more of the cast. [And there's that cryptic credit to the almost forgotten Billy Aronson for "original concept/additional lyrics." With all this hype, one would like to know exactly which lyrics are his.]
There are still problems in the second act, though I find myself more forgiving this third time around. Recitative is always a strange animal; in the second act it is used in confrontation scenes, and easy rhymes spoken with great passion only sound silly. And there's much talk of love. Yet the love in this show seems strangely pragmatic; more sexual and affectionate than soulful. But perhaps that is as it should be. "Rent" is about young people who must live for the moment. Romantic love takes more time, time they don't have. It belongs in Italian opera, not the East Village. So when I was moved at the end as the talented ensemble raises its voice in song, it was not because of the story or stories on stage. What was moving was their committed performance, a generous tribute to the writer who couldn't come to his opening night or know he'd received his Pulitzer Prize or see how his piece had grown, and the irony of the cast counting out the minutes of a lifetime. But who says we have to leave life behind when we go into the theatre?
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