PLAYBILL AT RENT'S TENTH ANNIVERSARY: High-Rollers Get Rent-High
By Harry Haun
Rent got off to a scary start April 24, five days shy of its tenth birthday. Somebody let the drawbridge down, and the stage at the Nederlander was consumed with suits. Against all that East Village bohemian bric-a-brac, it looked to all the world like a landlord takeover.
One of the five—and one of the three who produced this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical—was Allan S. Gordon, who introduced the overdressed contingent: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator Charles Schumer and Gordon’s benefit co-chairs, theatrical mogul James L. Nederlander and Loews CEO Jonathan M. Tisch. The latter announced, because of the price hike ($1,000-$25,000), this performance of Rent “raised in excess of $2 million.”
“The only thing that could have spoiled this,” quipped Hizzoner in his opening remarks, “was the producers’ first idea—that Jonathan and I should play guitar together and sing ‘What We Own.’ If we did that, we decided that there would not be an 11th anniversary.
“Tenth anniversaries are so rare on Broadway it’s really quite an accomplishment,” he said, seconding the motion with a little math: “That’s 5,256,000 minutes--and counting.”
“Rent, clearly, is more than a Broadway musical,” the mayor pressed on. “It is a Broadway miracle. It’s really a love song to New York City, and I just think it is so fitting that tonight’s performance will benefit three wonderful nonprofits—all of them dedicated to carrying on Jonathan Larson’s legacy and principle that he held so dear—Culture, Community and Creativity—and, if this doesn’t do it, I don’t know what does.”
Larson, the genius and genesis behind the evening, never lived to see any of his dream come true, dying of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm Jan. 24, 1996, the night of the final dress rehearsal of the show’s Off-Broadway premiere. He was 35. The New York Theatre Workshop, where the musical lifted off shortly after that and played for ten weeks before moving into the Nederlander, is one of the three groups that will carve up the $2 mil. The other two: Friends in Deed and The Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation.
The suits were dismissed with polite applause, the lights were lowered, and the roar of the audience rose—clearly, a crowd revved and primed by what was to come. Doors from the back and sides of the stage then opened, and out streamed the original cast, to Decibel defying screams, for one last historic hurrah. The Fabulous 15 came down stage and sang of the seasons of love, forming a group logo as famous to the ‘90s as the one in A Chorus Line was to the ‘70s. A great performance was had by all, on stage and off.
Larson’s death, just as these 15 were leaving the starting gate, forged friendships-for-life. This was apparent in the exuberant, over-the-moon playing. It was not an evening free of flubs, but even they were fun. Idina Menzel was so busy playfully playing to her real-life hubby, Taye Diggs, that she went up on her lines, and, while she fumbled and the audience laughed, Diggs dug into the script by his chair—but she rallied and got back on track without help. Later, when she was in mid-moon dancing on a table, he gave her fanny an affectionate and unscripted slap. In another couple collision, Adam Pascal came out of one passionate clinch with Daphne Rubin-Vega rather lipstick-smeared, which she attempted to correct while they sang full-throttle to each other. Everyone was operating at such a remarkable level of high-octane bliss that none of this registered as mistakes or indulgences. Indeed, it was fascinating to watch Rubin-Vega working the balcony railing with backbends and difficult gyrations. Ditto Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who can still do a pretty astonishing leap onto a table from squatting position with real elegance and ease.
Six of the original cast reprised their roles in the recent film. (Fredi Walker-Browne felt she was too old for the cameras and Rubin-Vega felt she was too pregnant.) Critics were quick to point up what a difference a decade makes in the no-longer-young cast, but that is not a consideration for the perpetual long-shot of the stage, and those in attendance at this unspoken-farewell performance were seeing, perhaps, the cast’s last full flowering.
The audience included Jon Bon Jovi, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Mike Nichols, Joey Fantone, Luke Perry, Raul Esparza, Wilson Cruz, Heather Randall, Larson’s parents and sister, Lonny Price, Randy Graff, Claudia Shear and Luther Creek.
Anthony Rapp (Mark Cohen, the chronicler with the camcorder) was the first to hit the stage, receiving the brunt of the audience blast, and he was the first to arrive at the after-party, which was held at the swank and spacious 42nd Street branch of Cipriani.
“I wish I knew how to describe it,” he said. “How do you describe an ovation? How do you describe cheering? It’s like 1,200 people, and it’s not just sound. It’s love! It’s joy! It’s electricity! We felt that so many nights, over and over, ten years ago. It never gets old.”
Rapp was going through the most intense experiences of his life a decade ago—the creation of Rent and the loss of his mother—and Simon and Schuster recently published his remembrances of those days. “It’s called `Without You,' which is one of the names of the songs from the show, and the subtitle is `Love, Loss and the Musical Rent.' It did quite well. We’re in our sixth printing now.” Its pub date anticipated Rent’s 10th anniversary.
“It’s been the most important thing I’ve done in my life—for sure!” he said. “My mother was able to come to opening night on Broadway and died after that. She was much on my mind tonight. She sat right up front in the mezzanine. I spent time with that tonight.”
The recurring word in most of the interviews that followed the performance was “surreal.” Aiko Nakasone used it. “Also nerve-wracking,” she hastily added. “I’m so glad that, with theatre magic, it somehow all comes together. We rehearsed a little this weekend but really not a lot. At first, they told us we could use our scripts, and then we got on to the stage today, and—all of a sudden—it just seemed like we were doing the whole show like we did ten years ago. It was very emotional the first time we saw each other in rehearsal—especially today because everyone came in today. And in the performance, when Jesse [L. Martin] starting getting really emotional when he was singing in the ‘Goodbye, Love’ section—that was him saying, ‘Oh, I really love these people.’”
Michael Greif, the show’s original director, pulled the benefit together in a scant three days (excluding days and days of phone calls to synchronize everybody’s schedule). “I love being with those people,” he admitted. “I think they’re a spectacular group. They take their debt very seriously. They all recognize what amazing things the show has done for all of us. We miss Jonathan and feel very lucky to be doing that play ten years later. They love being with each other. It reminds them of a very meaningful time in their lives. That’s why they give so much to it.”
Rubin-Vega found the rehearsals an emotional workout, too. “It was manageable, but it was often very emotional,” she said. “There was such a confluence of emotions going on, but mostly excitement and enthusiasm. It was like coming home again. It felt great!”
One of Rent’s producing triumvirate, Jeffrey Seller, admitted he’s more than a mite amazed by a 10th anniversary. “I am not one to predict the future. I thought if we got three or four years, back then, it would have been sufficient. All I know is that this was a beautiful, emotional evening—to be in the presence of those extraordinary 15 people. They knocked themselves out because they love each other and they hadn’t been together in a long time. That’s what happens to a family when they come back together again for one night.”
His partner, Kevin McCollum, has his own theories why Rent has lasted: “I think it’s because the show is about trying to define yourself in a world of many obstacles. No matter where you are in your life or your career, you’re always having to find your community and realizing that no matter what happens, it’s how you see each other and how you love each other that makes the most difference. That’s what Jonathan’s work celebrates.
“There are always bittersweet moments for us because, with all this success, the fact that Jonathan is not here is always present and is always very humbling, so our job is to make sure we keep producing it in great ways so that America’s youth can keep seeing it and, also so older people can understand the power of the message.”
Matthew Broderick and wife Sarah Jessica Parker were exiting the Cipriani when a reporter asked her who her favorite was. She started out magnanimous (“Well, ev--”), stopped short and got real (“Oh, my brother!”)—all the while pushing the revolving door.
Timothy Britton Parker laughed when relayed the story. “I would expect nothing less,” he smiled. “She is very kind.” It was plain he was happy she witnessed the evening. “It was a very, very special night. I don’t think we’ll ever really duplicate it—for me, in my lifetime—because the tenth anniversary of such a wonderful show, such a historic show, will never happen. And twenty years from now, we won’t be able to sing the parts.”
Heredia, the Tony winner of the cast (he played the AIDS-doomed Angel), loved leaping back into the role. “I was definitely going on automatic pilot tonight—automatic pilot in the sense I was into my muscle memory. I didn’t know how much I remembered, how much was in my system, but it was there. It’s like riding a bicycle, except I had heels on.
“When I walked out there for the first time in drag, I thought, ‘Wow! I don’t know what’s really going to happen, so I shut everything off. I shut all facets of my brain off and just went on automatic. I did exactly what I trained for years to do and what I loved to do.
“You got a lot of rushes tonight. It’s the best natural high that anyone can experience. It’ll be interesting if I can do this ten years from now. I’ll be there with my walker, trying.”
One of the first 15 was missing from the show, but not missing in action. Gilles Chiasson was in California at the bedside of his wife, who gave birth the very day of the concert. How apt that on a day when one life was being remembered another was beginning.
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