After all the hype and hoopla — the winning of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the countless stories of the young composer/lyricist who died hours before the public got its first look at his masterwork, the frenzy to secure recording and film rights — it’s a pleasure to report that Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” has moved uptown, where it’s bigger, bolder, louder, sadder, wilder, and every bit as powerful as it was in the East Village.
The final musical entry in the 1995-96 season, “Rent” is the best show in years, if not decades. Larson, on the cusp of 36 when he died of an aortic aneurysm, wrote songs in a wide range of pop idioms, from rock anthems and ballads to gospel to loping Western laments to old-fashioned Broadway show-stoppers. That catholicity has been the hallmark of Broadway’s greatest composers from Irving Berlin to Richard Rodgers to Stephen Sondheim; it’s worth noting that “Rent” opened within days of a star-driven revival of Sondheim’s first show as composer/lyricist, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.””Forum” was a spoof of musical-comedy conventions perfectly at home on Broadway. Though “Rent,” the better work, also boasts an anti-Establishment attitude, it, too, will fit right in there.
With Alan Menken — the best post-Sondheim composer the theater has produced — long since lost to Disney, the tragedy of Larson’s death is a public as well as a private one, for no one else has shown such promise in restoring the theater’s preeminence as a source of popular music. “Rent” undoubtedly will be the first musical in years to reach a non-theater audience, as pop artists line up to cover the songs from a score that overflows with great numbers.
In writing about the struggling artists, AIDS sufferers, homeless people and other East Village denizens he lived among, Larson took his inspiration from Puccini’s “La Boheme.” The central characters are Roger (Adam Pascal), an HIV-infected composer struggling to write one great song before he dies, and his roommate Mark, a filmmaker recording their lives and those of their motley crowd. They are squatters in a building owned by Benny (Taye Diggs), a former classmate who has married money and wants to build a “cyber-studio” there; the musical opens with Benny demanding a year’s worth of back rent and the chorus insisting, in the title song, “We’re never gonna pay!”
Roger, an ex-junkie, falls in love with a neighbor, Mimi (Daphne Rubin-Vega), also HIV-positive and a user to boot, who supports her habit by dancing in a local S&M club. Their crowd includes Tom (Jesse L. Martin), a former academic who falls in love with Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), and Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel), a performance artist who has taken up with her producer, Joanne (Fredi Walker), and who stars in a Christmastime protest concerning Benny’s plan to evict the folks in his building.
The year between one Christmas and another is the show’s time frame; a year is also the subject of its greatest song, “Seasons of Love,” in which the company lists the many prosaic ways in which the passing of time may be measured , but asks, with a joyous insistence that provides its own answer, “What about love?” A soaring anthem that opens the second act, it’s effectively reprised several times. The other keepers in the score are Roger’s anguished “One Song Glory,” the tender “Light My Candle,” which Mimi sings upon meeting him, and the ballad, “I’ll Cover You,” sung by Tom and Angel and reprised heartbreakingly later.
The ethos of “Rent” is complicated, to say the least. Larson had no wish to be an unknown, unsung artist. But, like the characters presented here, he was suspicious of compromise and contemptuous of those who sell out in an America, as one of the more blatant lyrics has it, where you are what you own. The show is all about taking chances, living on the edge, testing — best summed up in Mimi’s riveting solo, “Out Tonight,” a song that celebrates danger and which finds her thirsty for life and literally howling at the moon.
It’s also one of two unforgettable showcases for Rubin-Vega, the show’s revelation, in a performance at once ferocious, vulnerable, sexy, warm and tough. The other number is “Without You,” a classic ballad in which a deserted lover observes that while life goes on, she has died inside. Rubin-Vega sings with the pop inflections — the sob in the back of the throat, the slightly forced vibrato — more commonly heard, and more annoying, in shows like “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” Here, however, they seem as intrinsic as the head mikes the actors all wear. And in singling out Rubin-Vega, I mean no slight to the rest of the ensemble, whose members are not only individually effective, but who are sensational in the big choral numbers.
I still think “Rent” goes a bit flabby in the second act, and that Larson was as susceptible as any gifted artist to hawking more wares than he needed to. It’s wonderful to have a score with so many songs, but a couple feel tacked on, and the “one great song” Roger finally produces is the weakest number in the score. And while it’s nice to hear the ensemble at full throttle, director Michael Greif too often lines them up at the lip of the stage — more hawking.
Does it matter? Not really. To his credit, Greif and musical director Tim Weil build the show seamlessly, and the energy never dissipates. Paul Clay’s raw set, a tangled slash of urban detritus that threatens to burst through the roof, has grown steroidally, with elements reaching out into the house. Blake Burba’s lighting is wondrous — by turns inviting and garishly harsh — and Angela Wendt’s costumes are totally hip. Kurt Fischer’s sound design handles the high-decibel action with great clarity.
In a season full of surprises, “Rent” is the pinnacle. Like Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Sondheim’s “Passion,””Rent” proves Broadway’s enduring attraction for the most important new work the theater is producing. Unlike those shows, however, “Rent” also promises to be more than a succes d’estime. It’s going to earn a lot of money, because everyone will want to savor its pleasures. “Rent” makes the musical theater joyously important again.