There are grimmer tasks than apologizing for dead artists, but still it’s something of a relief to report that “Rent” is the most sensational musical in maybe a decade, one of the rare attempts at marrying rock ‘n’ roll to musical theater — a shotgun union at best — to successfully merge the feral, visceral power of the former and the sentimental, emotional punch of the latter: a dazzling fusion.
That its author, Jonathan Larson, died on Jan. 25, the night of the show’s final dress rehearsal and just days before his 36th birthday, leaves one heartsick, the loss unfathomable. But guess what? None of that diminishes the phenomenal achievement that “Rent” represents.
It’s authentic, the real thing, and it will surely have a life beyond its scheduled New York Theater Workshop run, for despite its rugged downtown sensibility, “Rent” has Broadway and a major film written all over it. Not since the late 1960s and ’70s, when the cauldron that was Joseph Papp’s Public Theater produced the musicals “Hair,” “Stomp”and “Runaways,” has a show so powerfully and exhilaratingly nailed the fears, anxieties, passions, indeed the values, of an embattled, embittered generation.
Inspired by the opera “La Boheme,” “Rent” is set in the section of Manhattan’s Lower East Side known as Alphabet City, which has in recent years hosted an uneasy, sometimes explosive mix of homeless squatters, struggling artists, junkies, drug dealers and, inevitably, entrepreneurs and real estate speculators.
Two roommates — Roger (Adam Pascal), an HIV-infected rocker desperate to finish a song before he gets sick, and Mark (Anthony Rapp), a struggling videographer who becomes the chronicler of his crowd — share crummy flat on the top floor of an abandoned building. In the lot next door, a tent city has sprung up.
On Christmas Eve, a friend who has bought the building and the lot threatens eviction unless they can come up with the rent. In the cacophonous title song, the company renounces the American dream of credit cards and easy cash; facing crisis, they gamely insist, “We won’t pay!”
Roger resists but eventually falls in love with a downstairs neighbor, Mimi (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a high-spirited dancer at an S&M club who is a junkie and dying of AIDS.
A second love story concerns a transvestite, Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), and a teacher, Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin); a third involves Maureen (Idina Menzel), a wildly imaginative performance artist, and her director, Joanne (Fredi Walker).
We are talking serious fringe here: some people struggling to make a contribution, some just to survive, all in hostile environs, a world in which everything is exaggerated by poverty, disease, the threat of extinction. They are running out of time before their time.
“How do you measure a year in the life?” they sing in the haunting anthem “Seasons of Love”: “In daylights, in sunsets/In midnights, in cups of coffee . . . How about love?/Measure in love.”
Bleak as this picture may seem, Larson has painted it with such empathy and conviction — not to mention raucous, raunchy humor — that he honors Puccini and his source, Henri Murger.
“Rent” thunders with life, and it features half a dozen of the most powerful theater songs the contemporary theater has produced, notably Tom’s love song for Angel. “I’ll Cover You”; Maureen’s for Joanne. “Without You”; a thrilling, furions paean to the unconventional life. “La Vie Boheme”; and “Your Eyes,” the song Roger finally comes up with as Mimi lays dying in his apartment.
“Rent” was unfinished when Larson died. It goes flabby and maddeningly ambivalent toward the end, leaving so many loose ends that Michael Greifs production couldn’t possibly resolve them. Moreover, the staging betrays the same pluses and minuses that marked Greifs recent work on another new musical, Randy Newman’s “Faust.” The energy is dazzling and there’s tremendous drive to the work. But there’s also a lack of focus, of sharpness, that a more experienced director might have brought, along with a sense of irony to match the author’s.
Nevertheless, it’s a spectacular production, from Paul Clay’s purposeful wreckage of a set, mercilessly lit by Blake Burba, to the ferocious rock band led by Tim Weil, and it’s delivered by a flawless company clearly on a heartfelt mission.
The show needs to be carefully tended by someone who will protect Larson’s urgent vision while finding a more certain resolution to the events unfolding.
But there is a major work here, and it’s very nearly complete. “No day/But today” are the last lines sung in “Rent.” It’s no small comfort that while Larson is gone, he’s left a show that, more clearly and more defiantly than any other in recent memory, points the American musical toward the future.