– Musical Essay, Research Paper There’s a scene in the new musical "RENT" that may be the quintessential romantic moment of the ’90s. Roger, a

– Musical Essay, Research Paper

There’s a scene in the new musical "RENT" that may be the

quintessential romantic moment of the ’90s. Roger, a

struggling rock musician, and Mimi, a junkie who’s a

dancer at an S/M club, are having a lovers’ quarrel when

their beepers go off and each takes out a bottle of pills. It’s

the signal for an "AZT break," and suddenly they realize

that they’re both HIV-positive. Clinch. Love duet. If you

don’t think this is romantic, consider that Jonathan Larson’s

sensational musical is inspired by Puccini’s opera "La

Boheme," in which the lovers Mimi and Rodolfo are

tragically separated by her death from tuberculosis.

Different age, different plague. Larson has updated

Puccini’s end-of-19th-century Left Bank bohemians to

end-of-20th-century struggling artists in New York’s East

Village. His rousing, moving, scathingly funny show,

performed by a cast of youthful unknowns with explosive

talent and staggering energy, has brought a shocking jolt of

creative juice to Broadway. A far greater shock was the

sudden death of 35-year-old Larson from an aortic

aneurysm just before his show opened. His death just

before the breakthrough success is the stuff of both tragedy

and tabloids. Such is our culture. Now Larson’s work,

along with "Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk," the

tap-dance musical starring the marvelous young dancer

Savion Glover, is mounting a commando assault on

Broadway from the downtown redoubts of off-Broadway.

Both are now encamped amid the revivals ("The King and

I") and movie adaptations ("Big") that have made

Broadway such a creatively fallow field in recent seasons.

And both are oriented to an audience younger than

Broadway usually attracts. If both, or either, settle in for a

successful run, the door may open for new talent to

reinvigorate the once dominant American musical theater.

"RENT" so far has the sweet smell of success, marked no

only by it’s $6 million advance sale (solid, but no guarantee)

but also by the swarm of celebrities who have clamored for

tickets: Michelle Pfeifer, Sylvester Stallone, Nicole Kidman

and Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Ralph Fiennes…name your

own biggie. Last week, on opening night, 21 TV crews,

many from overseas, swarmed the Nederlander Theatre to

shoot the 15 youthful cast members in euphoric shock

under salvos of cheers. Supermogul David Geffen of the

new DreamWorks team paid just under a million dollars to

record the original-cast album. Pop artitsts who’ve

expressed interest in recording songs from the 33-number

score include Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton and Boyz II

Men. A bidding scrimmage has started for the movie rights

among such Hollywood heavies as Warner Brothers,

Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films, Fox 2000 and Columbia.

The asking price is $3 million, but bonuses for length of run,

the Pulitzer Prize (which "RENT" has already won), various

Tony and critics’ awards could jack the price up to $3.75

million. Despite these stupefying numbers, the young

producers, Jeffrey Seller, 31, and Kevin McCollum, 34,

and their associate, moneyman Allan S. Gordon, know that

they’re not home free. "There’s no such thing in New

York," says Seller. "Our company has mostly done tours. If

you sell 8,000 seats a week in Cleveland, you did a great

job. Never having done a Broadway show, the idea that

you have to sell 450,000 seats a year is daunting." Major

Broadway players like the Shubert Organization and

Jujamcyn Theaters, which lost out to the Nederlander in the

feverish grab for "RENT," would love to be daunted like

these Broadway tyros. Rocco Landesman, Jujamcyn’s

president, says he’s "crushed" at not getting "RENT." He

predicts the show will be a "crossover success; it will

attract an ethnically diverse audience, people who are not

normally theatergoers." "RENT" has a $67.50 top ticket

price, but the producers have reserved the first two rows at

$20 and are tagging mezzanine seats at a "bargain" $30.

"’RENT’ has a lot riding on its shoulders," says producer

Jim Freydberg, whose "Big" has just opened. "I desperately

hope it works. If it’s successful, we’re going to get more

daring shows on Broadway. If it’s not, we’re going to get

more revivals." This is interesting, coming from a

competitior whose own show, based on the popular Tom

Hanks movie about a 13-year-old boy who wakes up on

day in the body of a 30-year-old man, could be said to

represent the less daring sector of Broadway. "If I really

wanted to make money I’d go to Wall Street and invent

money," says Seller. "I came to Broadway because I was

excited by the question ‘Can you challenge the mainstream?

Can you reinvent the mainstream from inside the

mainstream?’" Says McCollum: "It would be disingenuous

to say we don’t hope to make money with ‘RENT.’ But I’m

here because I love the living theater." As Gordon puts it,

"We’re trying to reinvent how you spend money on

Broadway. We have no limos. They don’t want us at any

glitzy restaurants." The weird thing is that when these

hyped-up, fresh-faced guys say these things, you find

yourself believing them. "RENT" completes a fortuitous

trilogy begun by "Hair" in 1967 and continued by "A

Chorus Line" in 1975. These breakthrough musicals deal

with "marginal" Americans – ’60s flower children, the

blue-collar gypsy dancers of Broadway, and now in

"RENT" the young people who follow a dream of art in a

cold time for spirit and body. Larson, who was a denizen

of New York’s down under, evokes in swirling detail the

downtown scene that is a paradoxical mix of wasteland and

community. The homeless, the addicts and alkies move like

oracular nomads among the "artistes" (as a homeless

woman scornfully calls them), who don’t know where their

next rent check is coming from, or their next inspiration for

a song or a picture, or the next lethal raid by the specter of

AIDS. Yet "RENT" is a thrilling, positive show. In a rich

stream of memorable songs, Larson makes true theater

music from the eclectic energies of today’s pop-rock,

gospel, reggae, salsa, even a tango. The "RENT" story

began in the summer of 1992, when Larson, riding his bike

down Fourth Street in the East Village, passed the New

York Theatre Workshop, which was in a mess with a

major renovation. "He stuck his head in the door," says

James Nicola, the artistic director of NYTW. "He looked

in and thought, ‘This is perfect.’" What was perfect was the

extraordinary NYTW stage, 40 feet wide and 30 feet deep

in a house that had 150 seats. It’s actually a larger stage

than the Nederlander’s. "Jonathan always wanted to walk a

fine line between being the iconoclast and the person that

descends from the tradition and reinvents it," says Nicola.

"Our space brought together all these things. It was a great

physical expression of what he wanted." The next day

Larson cycled back and dropped off a tape of songs he

had written for "RENT," all sung by him. "I listened to a

couple of songs and immediately knew this was a rare and

gifted songwriter," says Nicola. The four-year process of

creating "RENT" had begun. A director, Michael Greif,

was brought in, a crucial step in the shaping of what was

more of a collage than a play. "I was anxious to neutralize

Jonathan’s emotionalism and bring in some irony," says

Greif, a 36 year-old who is now the artistic director of the

La Jolla Playhouse in California. "Jonathan was such a wet

guy emotionally," says Greif with a laugh. "He was

exuberant, childish in all the good and bad ways. He had

this enormous capacity for joy. He’d write a song and say ‘I

love it!’ And I’d say, ‘Guess what? I don’t.’" The process

continued, helped by a Richard Rogers Award of $50,000

(for which Stephen Sondheim, Larson’s idol and

inspiration, was a judge). At a workshop production seen

by Broadway producers, Seller and McCollum were

blown away by what they saw and heard. It was a work

that took Larson’s "wet" emotionalism and turned it into a

fountain of unchecked melody and rhythm. Although he

called "RENT" a rock opera, it has a much wider range

than rock, and the score is not a series of discrete bursts of

music. From the title number, a fierce outcry is a world

where "Strangers, landlords, lovers/Your own bloodcells

betray," the music sweeps Larson’s characters – the

principals and a wonderful ensemble of shifting figures -

into a living tapestry of hope, loss, striving, death and a

climactic resurrection. Larson takes Puccini’s young

bohemians and refashions them into Roger (Adam Pascal),

a pretty-boy rocker desperate to write one great song

before AIDS kills him; Mimi (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a

dancer doomed by drugs; Maureen, a performance artist

(Idina Menzel), and her lesbian lover Joanne (Fredi

Walker); Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a drag queen

also doomed by AIDS, and his lover Tom (Jesse L.

Martin), a computer genius who fears the cyberfuture; Ben

(Taye Diggs), the landlord in a world where lords shouldn’t

land; and Mark (Anthony Rapp), a nerdy video artist (and

Larson’s surrogate) who narrates all the interweaving

stories to the audience. In songs like Angel and Tom’s "I’ll

Cover You," and Mimi and Roger’s "Without You," Larson

exalts love as the force that binds his characters into an

extended family who care for each other with all the many

varieties of love, from sex to friendship to compassion.

"Take Me or Leave Me" is a fiery and funny duet for

Maureen and Joanne, each insisting on her fierce

individuality. The onstage band led by Tim Weill drives not

only the irresistibly singable score but the explosively witty

choreography of Marlies Yearby, who makes every move

a flesh-riff of the life force itself. Like all the best popular

art, "RENT" dares you to feel sentimental, showing how

sentimentality can be turned into an exultant sweetness

without which life is a grim mechanism. Puccini had his

Mimi die. Larson sends his Mimi to the point of extinction

and brings her back. There are deaths in "RENT," but

Larson needed to balance that with a rebirth. His own

death before he could really see how well he had done in

an unbearable irony. He left us singing. "RENT" is his song.