by Marty Demarest
It's always tricky to identify the source of an artist's inspiration. But Jonathan Larson was quite clear when discussing how he started his musical Rent: It began when he was a child and his parents took him to see a puppet show of Giacomo Puccini's opera La Boh & egrave;me. Based on the 19th-century novel Sc & egrave;nes de la vie de boh & egrave;me, the opera tells the story of a group of young artists living, loving, dying and dreaming in Paris's Left Bank during the 1830s. With its fast, impassioned romance and swift, tragic death, the story is perfect for opera, enhanced all the more by Puccini's accessible, ravishing music.
Early critics of La Boh & egrave;me, however, weren't so sure. Puccini was an emerging composer, flush with success from his previous opera Manon Lescaut, and both he and his conductor, Arturo Toscanini, were counting on a triumph. But when audiences -- who at the time were used to attending operas about noble heroes and mythical events -- were confronted with an opera in which ordinary people led tragic, destitute lives, they didn't know how to respond. The buzz -- so essential in the snarky world of opera even then -- wasn't good after the first performance. The influential Italian music critic Carlo Bersenzio wrote "just like La Boh & egrave;me barely impresses the emotions of the listener, it will leave few traces in the history of our lyric theatre."
He couldn't have been more wrong. La Boh & egrave;me has gone on to become one of the most beloved works in opera houses around the globe, and it continues to give rise to new film and stage adaptations. And almost exactly 100 years after La Boh & egrave;me premiered in New York (again to critical condemnation), Larson's rock opera spin-off of Puccini's masterpiece opened off-off Broadway. It quickly moved to Broadway, where it is still running, and has gone on to be presented around the world.
What Larson decided to do in Rent was to recreate La Boh & egrave;me, transporting the characters and the scenario to the late 20th century in New York's East Village. Instead of tuberculosis, the characters have AIDS and heroin addictions. And instead of soaring bel canto, the performers sing rock music. But they're still artists, defiantly marginalizing themselves from society at large, while clinging desperately to one another.
Before Rent, Larson's name was only slightly known in Manhattan's theater community for the music he wrote for the bizarre J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation, which was an economic satire staged on Wall Street -- on the street, not in a theater. But he had been working for years on adapting Puccini's opera for a contemporary audience using rock music, presenting his ongoing efforts in small workshops. Larson's mentor, composer Steven Sondheim, described these early works as "really good and really a mess," but Larson was determined to synthesize the world of genuine rock-and-roll with musical theater.
The final version of Rent is still a difficult balance between the lyrical intelligibility of musical theater and the hard-core fidelity of rock, but since it opened in 1996, it has become clear that Larson largely achieved the fusion he was seeking. And so it is a painful irony that the first thing many readers of The New York Times read about Larson was his obituary. At the age of 35, he died of an aortic aneuryism doctors had failed to diagnose. Published several weeks before the glowing review of his show would appear in the same paper's pages, Larson's story recalls the lyrics sung near the beginning of Rent:
Before I go
One song to leave behind
There is no doubt that Larson was a brilliant artist, and that Rent is completely deserving of its place on America's stages. It is a heartfelt show that was crafted by a major talent coming into his own voice.
But it's too easy to say that Rent's success is due entirely to Larson's talent. As one imagines Larson would be quick to point out, Rent emerged from a community loaded with talented artists and driving passions much like the world that it presents onstage; New York's East Village is a hotbed of undiscovered talent, some of it burning without recognition, and some of it flaring up in the wrong places or at the wrong times. Larson's musical, in addition to being very good, happened to be lucky as well.
When Rent found its way onstage in the mid-1990s, Broadway was facing an identity crisis. Long held as one of the gems of American culture, musical theater on the Great White Way was dominated by mega-musical imports like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. Some of the highest-profile American works onstage at the time were revivals and revues: Nathan Lane hitting the boards in a revival of 1962's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Matthew Broderick headlining a resurrected How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. There was muffled talk that the American musical, as embodied by Rogers and Hammerstein, and modernized by Steven Sondheim, was dying. Things were so bad a few years earlier that there had even been half-joking rumors that David Letterman would be eligible for a Tony award since his new theater was located on Broadway.
So when Rent emerged, with its characters wearing thrift-store fashions, inhabiting sets littered with the detritus of late-20th century Manhattan, it was embraced for its defiant Americanism as much as for its craftsmanship. Here was a musical by an outsider American artist about the life one could only lead in America. Further clenching this nationalistic position was Rent's defiant rock music score.
Even though the structures and functions of each musical number were clearly those of musical theater, the scoring wisely soared several times to eardrum-rattling levels. The voices of the principal performers, while still agile enough to traverse Larson's occasionally intricate score, could also wail out genuine rock anthems and scream punk diatribes. What's more, unlike the occasional forays into rock by composers like Andrew Lloyd Weber, Larson's writing wasn't an affectation -- he was a composer who grew up surrounded by rock, in a country that prized the musical style. When he wrote rock, he meant it.
What Larson was also sincere about was Rent's subject matter. Far from merely lifting the story of La Boh & egrave;me and transporting it to Manhattan, Larson tapped into several very real parallels between art and life that might have been more moving for his audience than they were for Puccini's. Chief among these parallels is the specter of death that hangs over the entire show. Even when the characters in Rent are singing with abandon about their lives and their loves, it's clear that death and loss are the driving forces behind their passion. Whether they are extolling the preciousness of time spent with loved ones, or singing the joys of creativity, every character in Rent knows that death looms.
And every audience member in New York, particularly at the time of the show's premiere, shared that knowledge. Even as Rent grew in popularity and became a phenomenon, even as celebrities like Madonna and John Leguizamo filled the auditorium seats, the stage lights still caught the gaunt faces of audience members dying of AIDS, and the uncertain eyes of their friends. In a city where the disease had run rampant, and in a community culled daily of its most talented members, Rent gave voice to the fears and lent words to the confrontation of AIDS. It was a far cry from simply living la vie boh & egrave;me; Rent was an impassioned and honest portrayal of dying in la vie boh & egrave;me. It was a perfect example of the consolations of art, and it drew in an entire wounded city.
Of course, Rent was much more than a return of the "Great American Musical" and a response to the AIDS crisis. While the work was inextricably linked to those things, it was also clearly a work of genius on its own terms. But it was genius re-imagining the work of another genius. It was genius responding to AIDS. And it was genius pushing musical theater forward. Because as time passes, as long as Rent continues to be performed, it will find itself in different circumstances, confronting audiences unfamiliar with Puccini, untouched by AIDS and unconcerned with rock music. And perhaps that is why, as Rent started its schedule of performances and tours around the world, long-time fans breathed a sigh of relief while catching their breath with regret. The single phenomenon of Rent in New York City in 1996 was over, but the unknown progression and maturation of the show was just beginning.