Life imitates art often enough that people of the theatre might well be tempted to involve themselves only in romantic comedies with happy endings. But when Jonathan Larson chose to write a rock musical based on a famous opera, it wasn't The Elixir of Love or The Marriage of Figaro that sparked his creative flame. Rather, it was La Bohème — Puccini's immortal vision of love and death amidst a group of struggling young artists in Paris circa 1830, itself an adaptation of a novel by Henry Murger — which served as the model for Rent, winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The central tragedy of the story was replicated when Larson died in his apartment from an aortic aneurysm on Jan. 25, a few hours after the final dress rehearsal of his crowning achievement at the New York Theatre Workshop.
Rent is at once a salute to Bohème and a brilliant reinvention of it. The opera's picturesque Parisian locations of the humble garret, the thronged Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve and a snow-covered inn have given way to a squalid loft and the truly lavish environs of St. Mark's Place. Roger (Rodolfo) isn't a starry-eyed poet spouting verses about castles in the air, but an HIV-positive punk-rocker struggling to write one great song before his time is up. Mimi, no longer a demure creature slowly coughing her life away while embroidering flowers at home, is now a strung-out PWA who dances in an S&M club; she doesn't lose her room key when she comes to Roger's loft to have her candle re-lit, but she does drop a stash of heroin. The lovers' circle of friends still includes an artist, a musician and a woman of easy virtue — though the artist is now a video geek, the musician is a fabulous drag queen, and the vixen has a lesbian lover in tow.
These bracingly unromanticized characters and events are sharply observed — in all their complex humanity — through Larson's extraordinary music and lyrics. His score ranges in style from hard rock to reggae, with bits of gospel, grunge and even tango heard along the way. If "One Song Glory" won't make you forget "Che Gelida Manina," neither will you be able to get this or many another of Larson's songs out of your head.
After the mind-numbing occurrence of Jan. 25, the balance of Rent's creative team — including musical director Tim Weil, director Michael Greif and dramaturg Lynn M. Thomson — were handed the enormous responsibility of polishing Jonathan Larson's imperfect masterpiece. And it appears that Rent was left in good hands. The show was greeted with ecstatic reviews and such enormous box office upon its opening at NYTW that a move to Broadway was announced shortly thereafter (the musical opened at the Nederlander Theatre on April 29).
I spoke with Tim Weil during the final week of Rent's downtown run.
I'm not sure where to begin. The experience of Rent is overwhelming, and even more so in view of what happened.
Tim Weil: It all comes under the heading of "Beyond Understanding." I got a call from our production manager, Sue White, the morning of what was to have been our first preview; she said, "I've got some terrible news." And what popped into my head was that our equipment had been stolen or maybe a platform had collapsed — reality-based things like that, rather than something as unfathomable as Jonathan's death.
Many eloquent pages have already been written on the subject. I thought we might try to focus on the show itself and the fine-tuning that's been done over the past three months.
TW: So much happened so quickly. Jonathan was ready, willing and eager to cut and rewrite during previews, but he wanted to see what Rent looked like on stage before making any changes. Then he died, and with deference to his family and friends and the fragile dynamics of the situation, we were faced with the fact that we had to present the show in the best possible light. We knew we could do a certain amount of editing without betraying Jonathan's conception. And we took a look at earlier drafts of Rent so that, if something had to be added, we could use his own material. None of our own writing was incorporated, by any stretch of the imagination.
We've tried to make the show as clear and concise as possible. There's been some internal cutting: verse of songs and parts of verses. We've mostly been concerned with adjusting flow, rhythm and tempo while maintaining the integrity of the musical structure.
Without giving too much away, it can be said that the final moments of the piece aren't quite so bleak as those of the opera. Would you say that was a purely theatrical choice or a reflection of the author's view?
TW: I think Rent is about living with AIDS and maintaining a certain quality of life, as much as it's about people dying from this horrible plague. Since Jonathan's passing, it's even more clear to me that the show deals with the hope and joy of living each day to its fullest.
To adapt La Bohème as a contemporary musical set in the East Village was a great idea in itself, but Rent was never intended to be a carbon copy of the opera. Jonathan wrote what he know. That's probably why it turned out so well.
Rent opened at the New York Theatre Workshop almost exactly 100 years to the day after the premiere of Bohème. Was that really a coincidence?
TW: Yes, oddly enough. I certainly wasn't aware of it, and neither was Jonathan, until we were well into the rehearsal period.
There's a single, direct musical quotation from the opera: a bit of Musetta's waltz is used as a guitar riff. One of the characters comes right out and identified the source.
TW: Yes. In an earlier draft, when Mimi heard that melody for the first time, she said something like: "Oh, that's the theme from 'Moonstruck'!" I think it would be wonderful if people who've never been to the opera come to see Rent and then say to themselves, "Hey, let's check out La Bohème."
It was a pleasant surprise to find so much humor in Rent. Rock musicals tend to come up short in that area.
TW: Jonathan and I laughed, and l talked a lot about how important it was not to take your place in this world too seriously. It's to his credit that he was able to write rock songs that are often funny and always theatrical. He distilled the elements of various musical styles so well that a beautiful ballad can be followed by a loud, Seattle-sounding rock tune in Rent, and neither song seems out of context.
The fact that Jonathan was so well-versed in both contemporary/rock and show music had a lot to do with his success in melding the forms. Once you get into a hard rock groove, if there aren't great lyrics to carry you through, the sound can become meaningless. But Jonathan was able to take us to a satisfying place. How many other shows can you think of with great theatre music that's authentically rock-oriented?
There are several examples, but none of them recent: Hair and Tommy, Godspell and Pippin. Some of the Lloyd Webber/Rice collaborations. More recently Chess and even Dreamgirls. But that style of expression hasn't yet taken a firm hold on Broadway, so it might be argued that even a show as terrific as Rent will have a limited audience.
TW: I'd like to believe that if a work of art communicates in a direct, clear and appropriate manner, it will speak to all kinds of people. Let's say you don't like Rembrandt; you may think, "The colors are so dark, all these blacks and browns. I prefer the French impressionists." Well, you can still look at a Rembrandt and know that it makes complete sense within its own world. For what it is, it's beautiful. I hope that kind of attitude will help Rent find and keep an audience.
Jonathan wanted his music and lyrics to be of, by and for the people he wrote about. He was able to heighten reality while keeping it all connected to the Eat Village, but Rent isn't limited in that respect. Drug addictions, AIDS, the angst of young people in today's society — these issues aren't specific to Alphabet City. They're universal.
I just hope people come out and the see the show. There's been a tremendous amount of publicity, but for me the best thing about Rent is going to the theatre and doing it every night. Jonathan was very driven and very excited about what he was doing. If audiences feel any part of the joy we all get from performing his work, that would be great.
This article was originally published in the May 1996 issue of Playbill magazine.