Is Jonathan Larson's Rent (1996) the saddest Broadway musical ever?
Not in its fictional plot, which is a deft adaption of Puccini's war horse opera La Boheme, but in its tragic backstage real life plot. Wunderkind Larson, in love with musicals from his childhood and later a protege, of sorts, of Stephen Sondheim, died the morning of its world premiere in 1996 at the New York Theatre Workshop, a prestigious off-Broadway presenter of new works in Manhattan's East Village.
Larson wasn't a complete unknown, having written the autobiographical musical Boho Days, posthumously reworked as tick, tick...BOOM! (2001) and the revue J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation, as well as incidental music for Sesame Street and numerous scores for Books on Tape. With Sondheim's encouragement and letters of introduction, young Larson was headed for glory.
Rent was his crowning achievement. When the musical transferred to Broadway after its cult-like run downtown, the show conquered, winning the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; three Tony Awards for Larson personally (Best Musical, Original Score, Book); three Drama Desk awards (Book of a Musical, Music, Lyrics); the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (Best Musical); the Outer Critics Circle Award (Best Off-Broadway Musical); and three Obie Awards (Music, Lyrics, Book). These were all presented after his death. He would have been 36 years old. There's no telling what he could have achieved had he lived. Certainly, he was Lin-Manuel Miranda years before Hamilton catapulted young Miranda into the history books.
But there's no doubt about Rent's enduring legacy. a cultural icon for many and object of veneration for the rest. It is a masterpiece and a world-wide phenomenon, a free-form flowing ode that lauds young love among the outcast bohemians of the Millennial generation. It may use rock music as its base, but it is clearly indebted to those ageless verities of Broadway's past: superb plotting, inventive lyrics, ear-catching melodies, a sure sense of showbiz style and know-how, and lively characters you truly care about and root for, no matter how drug-addled and personally messed up their lives are. It's about family and connections and “fighting the system” against all odds. These young rebels battle disease and crushing poverty and yet retain their dignity. Love is their shield, their one protection from the harsh reality of trying to claim their dream.
Larson adroitly borrows from Puccini's young bohemians. Over the course of a year, the master's characters lived in squalor, without heat in the numbing cold, and struggled with a recalcitrant landlord over paying their rent. They, too, partied, when they could muster the funds for a rare night out, drank heavily, and suffered such maladies as consumption and pneumonia. Their jealous lovers' spats might break them apart, but love always drew them back together.
Larson's genius lies in updating. He fills his garret with grunge musicians, filmmakers, performance artists, and self-styled philosophy teachers who live in a dilapidated walk-up without heat. They can't pay their rent either. The difference here is that these young turks aren't ever going to pay. They'll con the system with righteous indignation while under the haze of heroin, their health compromised by the contemporary scourge of AIDS. But whatever befalls, they are family. Selling out is beneath contempt.
With an exemplary cast of powerhouse young performers, this 20th anniversary tour, presented by Broadway at the Hobby, is thrillingly alive, its legendary glories intact. Basing their work on Michael Greif's original production, director Evan Ensign and his team (choreographer Marlies Yearby, set designers Paul Clay and Matthew E Maraffi, costumer Angela Wendt, lighting designer Jonathan Spencer, music arranger Tim Weil, and musical director Mark Binns) fill the stage with a stirring vie de boheme that would make Puccini proud.
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And thrilling describes the actors. What voices, what passion. Coleman Cummings with rocker's belting croon as sick musician Roger falls for the seductive blast of Aiyana Smash's smack-addicted Mimi; Cody Jenkins with American Idol tenor wail as filmmaker Mark keeps everyone at bay with his constant camera; Samantha Mbolekwa and Kelsee Sweigard duel as warring sexed-up couple Joanne and Maureen; Shafiq Hicks as gay rock Tom Collins possesses an equally stentorian baritone; Juan Luis Espinal slithers with smooth moves as sellout Benjamin; and Joshua Tavares literally sparkles under her tarnished sequins as trans Angel, the heart of the show. He prances, preens, loves, suffers, and ultimately teaches his friends to live “Today 4 U,” a pristine Larson ballad, one of many that grace this show.
Larson’s evergreen musical is a hymn to life and love in all its forms. It’s a glorious work, full of youthful smartass attitude, promise, crushed hope, and abiding faith in family in whatever form that takes. Broadway at the Hobby weaves a glorious tapestry. A musical dream not to be missed.
*A note. There's trouble in River City. It's big and something I've complained about for years – the Hobby's atrocious sound quality. In this cavernous space which eats sound alive, Larson's celebrated lyrics are muffled and pinched. The sound designer of the show is not to blame. Too many disparate productions have been ruined by garbled, muted, or second-rate sound, which suggests the building's architecture and, perhaps, those gargantuan amplifiers are the culprit. The Board of Directors should insist on fixing this perpetual problem, which has cursed the building since its inception. The wonders of Broadway – and your loyal patrons – are not served by the Hobby's tin ear.
Rent continues through August 11 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit broadwayatthehobbycenter.com or thehobbycenter.org. $30-$205.