NEW YORK — When "Rent," a rock musical version of Puccini's "La Boheme" opened off-Broadway last February, Jonathan Larson garnered the kind of rave reviews that young, struggling composer-lyricists pray and dream for.
Larson wasn't there to read the reviews--he died of an aortic aneurysm on the night of the final dress rehearsal at the age of 35. His opus depicts the life he knew--the disease- and drug-plagued but joyous Bohemia of New York's East Village, circa 1995. More than one reviewer dubbed the show a watershed event in the history of the American musical and declared Larson the posthumous savior of the form. The press celebrated a fabulous story, more dramatic even than when choreographer Gower Champion died hours before the opening of "42nd Street" 16 years before.
A Pulitzer Prize soon followed, and a phenomenon was born, producing extreme curiosity and understandable skepticism among theater-goers who could not get a ticket to the tiny East Village theater where "Rent" played a sold-out run. Monday night "Rent" opened on Broadway, at the Nederlander Theatre, the most anticipated opening in several years. Anyone who hasn't seen it cannot help but ask: Would this musical be the red-hot ticket it is if Jonathan Larson had lived?
What an incalculably strange and sad question that turns out to be. Muscular, chilling and energizing, "Rent" is as full of death, and the prescience of dying, as any musical has ever been. The show focuses on a group of young people clinging fiercely together while living a difficult, exhilarating existence on the brink of poverty. And, as it turns out, Jonathan Larson is the main character in this wonderful but imperfect show. What would have been merely moving in "Rent" is made almost unbearably bittersweet by the knowledge, apparent in almost every song, that Larson had grappled profoundly with the meaning of life and art in his final years. His death should be irrelevant to his achievement, and yet it is not.
"I'm writing one great song before I go . . . one blaze of glory," sings Roger (Adam Pascal), an HIV-positive songwriter, in an act-one ballad. Soon he meets the similarly infected Mimi (the appealing and vulnerable Daphne Rubin-Vega), and the lovers come together to sing, "There is no future/There is no past/I live each moment as my last." "How do you measure a year?," asks a chorus line of poverty-ridden young people, in a simply beautiful number called "Season of Love." After suggesting the number of minutes and hours in which a year can be calculated, they suggest that you "measure your life in love."
Larson, director Michael Greif, and a fresh and talented cast give us a desolate, kinky and creative world, light-years away from the sanitized and monied fantasy worlds of "Big" and "Victor/Victoria," two of the season's other new musicals. In Larson's version of the Puccini opera, consumption has been replaced by the AIDS virus. Mimi, a diminutive and wild-haired S&M dancer, cements her attraction to rocker Roger not by dropping her key in his apartment but by dropping a little bag of heroin.
Meanwhile, Puccini's Marcello becomes Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp), a pale young filmmaker from Scarsdale who looks a lot like the young Elvis Costello, and is as cool and emotionally post-modern. Mark's ex-love is Maureen, in Idina Menzel's energized performance, a big-voiced and sexually open performance artist who has taken up with Joanne (Fredi Walker), a law student. Colline becomes Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a computer whiz in love with Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), an exceptionally attractive and sweet transvestite who has AIDS.
With one jokey exception, "Rent" does not quote directly from "La Boheme," but its score nevertheless embraces the passion and tenderness of Puccini and straddles the world of rock as well, with its five excellent musicians pumping out the percolating, sometimes soaring melodies onstage. But while the show borrows the musical vocabulary and vocal stylings of rock, it is unlikely anyone would mistake it for actual rock music. It is a hybrid, and it tells its story in terms clearly defined by the musical form.
Its most direct antecedent is in fact the rock musical "Hair," which opened on Broadway on the same night, April 29, in 1968. Like the hippies immortalized in "Hair," the Bohemians of "Rent" wear their youth, poverty and creativity like a cloak around them, shielding them from judgment by the enemy--anyone who has "sold out" and has money. Very much modeled on the song "Sodomy" from "Hair," the terrific act-one closer, "La Vie Boheme," is a list of things celebrated by this Generation X, including Uta and Buddha, Sontag and Sondheim, sodomy ("It's between God and me") and Lenny Bruce. This generation's Vietnam is the AIDS virus and the rampant materialism they see all around them.