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Life, Death and 'Rent' : Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer winner celebrates the artists and HIV-positive addicts he knew, a 'Hair' cut for the '90s. The show couldn't have gone to Broadway without him. And then it did.

April 14, 1996|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a frequent contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — It was closing night for the new musical "Rent" at the New York Theatre Workshop, a 150-seat East Village theater where the pop opera, loosely based on Puccini's "La Boheme," opened in February. Onstage, friends and creative personnel, including director Michael Greif, mingled with the youthful cast and band in the kind of pizza-and-beer ritual that has been repeated countless times in experimental theater spaces.

But this celebration was distinctly different. For one, television cameras and reporters were present at what had all the giddy earmarks of a bon voyage party. And indeed, this was not just a closing: "Rent" was on its way into previews for its Broadway opening April 29, and, though no one could have known it at the party, it was also on its way to winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama last week, two more stops in what has been one of the most extraordinary journeys in recent theater history.

But amid the celebration, a palpable ghost was in the room.

"This has been an insane experience--it's like having been struck by a bolt of lightning," said 25-year-old Daphne Rubin-Vega, who plays Mimi Marquez, an S/M dancer at the Cat Scratch Club. "I just wish Jonathan were here. He's the one person responsible for all of this, and it sucks that he's not here to enjoy it with us."

The Jonathan on the minds of almost everyone in the room was Jonathan Larson, the 35-year-old author and composer of "Rent." It is his life and the lives of his friends that are reflected in the musical, a raw and exuberant celebration of bohemian East Village artists--drag queens, drug addicts, performance artists and vagrants--living on the edge. The prevalence of violence and HIV in the stories of these characters suffuses the musical with the fragility of life, the theme of Puccini's opera. Indeed early in "Rent," a character sings of writing one song " . . . before I go, one song to leave behind. . . . " All the more affecting, therefore, that on Jan. 25, the day "Rent" was to begin previews at NYTW, Larson died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm.

While Larson had previously shown promise with two comparatively modest shows ("Superbia," "JP Morgan Saves the Nation") and had won prestigious theater grants, he was largely unknown among New York's theater-going public at the time of his death. But that changed dramatically after "Rent" opened on Feb. 13. Glowing reviews hailed Larson's swan song as the " 'Hair' of the '90s" and soon limousines were wending their way past the East Village bodegas and coffeehouses to the tiny theater on East 4th Street. Uptown theater owners began fiercely bidding, courting the show's neophyte producers, and David Geffen or Ahmet Ertegun became the odds-on favorites to produce the show's original cast album.

While there was talk of opening the show in a West Village theater, the heat and momentum made Broadway all but inevitable. Yet questions remain about how well the show will do on Broadway, with its very different demographics. After all, Broadway ticket buyers hardly seem to be hungering for a musical in which four of the seven leads are HIV-positive, the central romantic couple meets over a bag of heroin and vagrants snarl out Christmas carols.

Capitalized at a paltry $3.5 million at the Nederlander Theatre, situated in Broadway's shabbiest area, "Rent" is in minimalist contrast to the glitzy revivals and over-produced musicals of recent years. Even "The Who's Tommy," its closest antecedent, seems grandfatherly compared to this brash Generation X upstart, with its cast of unknowns, some of whom had never done theater before.

"You know, if someone had told me two months ago that this show was moving to Broadway, I'd have said they were nuts," said Adam Pascal, a rock musician making his theater debut in the role of Roger, the tortured songwriter in love with Mimi. "But now it makes a weird kind of sense to me. I think we're going to draw a really bizarre mix of people, some who've never set foot in a theater."


Shortly after "Rent" opened at the NYTW, director Greif sat down at NYTW's offices to chat. As the phones rang persistently from callers asking about tickets, the director looked emotionally wrung out but gratified by the show's success and intrigued by its commercial possibilities.

"I think it's a really important conversation to have, where the new audience for theater is going to come from," Greif said. "How do we get them to find something of value in their lives in the theater?

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