His Heart on Our Sleeves
From the British magazine Gay Times
RENT is the biggest musical to his Broadway this decade, and now it's coming to London. Set in New York's East Village, it tells the story of society's outsiders - intravenous drug users, gay men, lesbians and drag queens - looking for love and struggling with the legacy of Aids. Jonathan Cash talks to original cast member Anthony Rapp, who pays tribute to the show's writer and composer who died on the day of the dress rehearsal.
Since the late 1960s, three musicals have opened on Broadway which have had the critics drooling, the audiences jumping to their feet and academics declaring that a momentous event had occurred in the history of popular theatre.
The first was Hair, 1967's anti-war, hippy, rock opera, best remembered for its full frontal nudity. The second was A Chorus Line, with its ground-breaking, non-narrative style. Then, two years ago, there was Rent.
It was an overnight sensation, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical and even the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is still running on Broadway and has people queuing round the block at every performance hoping for returns.
Now it's our turn to find out what all the fuss is about. The first UK production of Rent opens in London this month with four leading members of the New York cast and the original (and openly gay) director, Michael Greif.
Rent was created by a relatively unknown writer and composer, Jonathan Larson, with deliberate echoes of Puccini's La Boheme.
La Boheme is set during the mid-19th century, in the bohemian Latin Quarter of Paris, and tells the story of the seamstress Mimi and poet Rodolfo, whose love affair is destroyed by Rodolfo's inability to cope with Mimi's terminal tuberculosis. A tragic opera, La Boheme is about the struggle of romance to face up to reality - or, more essentially, the power of love to conquer the fear of death.
Larson transplanted the tale to late-20th century New York, setting it in the similarly artistic, but equally economically depressed, East Village. Mimi and Rodolfo become Mimi and Roger, she an HIV-positive Latina, who works as a dancer in an SM bar, he a musician and former junkie whose previous girlfriend wrote "We've got Aids" on the mirror [??] then slit her wrists.
The music is performed by an on-stage rock band and covers a range of styles, from rock to gospel, folk to contemporary ballad. The eclectic fusion of music mirrors the mixture of people who live within the same neighbourhood. Apart from the two lead lovers, we find two black HIV-positive gay men, and interracial lesbian couple, straight artists, drag queens and drug users. There are no HIV-negative gay men. But if Rent is coloured by difference, it is also about the communality people forge in adversity.
Mimi and Roger sing and dance the night sweats away in a musical that doesn't pretend that HIV and Aids is some sort of metaphor - it's no more or less than a reality; the New York of the 1990s. Period.
Anthony Rapp, one of the New Yorkers making the transition to the West End, a 26-year-old gay actor with a string of theatre and film credits to his name, plays the narrator, Mark Cohen, a film-maker documenting Mimi and Roger's unfolding love story. It is he who tells us that this is about people who want to be "an us for once, instead of a them."
Anthony is slightly built, with short sandy hair and a wispy beard on the end of his chin. With his square rimmed glasses and grungy, camel-coloured jeans, matching jacket and laid-back attitude, it's hard to tell if you're looking at him or his character.
"Mark is a straight guy," Anthony says, "and looks like an artschool nerd. Like the sort you see in the East Village - dressing down, slobbing out. Grungy. There's a whole set of 'em like that down there. Maybe it's actually because of Rent.
"There's a hair salon in New York and they have these cards with photos of people with different looks and one of 'em's the grungy look titled 'The Nerd.' And they've got a picture of me!"
One of the tragedies of Rent, and one reason it made such big headlines when it opened, is that Larson never lived to enjoy its success. After a visit to the hospital complaining of chest pains, he had been given an all-clear from the doctors. But then, a few days later, he suddenly died, at the age of 35, from an aortic aneurysm. It was the evening of the dress rehearsal.
When I ask about Larson's death, Anthony pauses for a moment. I get the feeling he has been asked this many times before, yet his response is as genuine as the pained look in his eyes.
"It was totally shocking. Horrible. But it made it that much more urgent for us to have to tell his story, to honour him and do him justice. We wanted to convey his message, his people and his music to the world.
"Reading reviews, and knowing that we had done well, was a very bitter sweet experience. It was his dream and his vision that had been realised, but it was terrible knowing that he was not there to participate. But he lives on in all of us. Anyone who hears his music gets to know him. Or at least a part of his soul."
Anthony speaks fondly of Larson, describing him, without prompting, but with great passion, as a sadly missed friend. "He was incredibly open, collaborative and sweet. He believed that theatre could create communities. I think a lot of people get involved with theatre because they feel part of a family, and he believed that the process of making theatre was just as important as the end result."
Rent has made such a dramatic impact in part because of its content. Its protagonists are not the kind of people who usually take centre stage in Broadway musicals; never before has a show like this featured so many HIV-positive characters. But had Larson set out to do something radically different, did he intend to shock, or was he simply responding to what was happening around him in the Big Apple?
"Doing something different is what he wanted to do," Anthony asserts. "He felt that musical theatre was irrelevant to our generation. His opinion was that stuff like Les Miserables is all very well, but there's not a lot in it. I mean, there are themes that are universal but there's nothing that we can really relate to - especially young people.
"With Rent, young people see themselves on stage and feel that they can finally relate to something. We get letters all the time saying that kinda thing. That was absolutely Jonathan's goal."
Perhaps one of the reasons why Rent has been so acclaimed - especially by gay men - is in its insistence that illness and death, loss and grief, can only be comprehended, let alone combated, by a community as a whole. Silence may very well equal death, but Rent's message is that isolation definitely equals despair.
"Jonathan was straight and HIV-negative," Anthony says, "but what he wanted to do was to portray a lesbian couple, a gay couple and a straight couple all together onstage. I mean there is one song about two women who are breaking up. There is something so affirming and beautiful about seeing and hearing that. There is also this beautiful love song between two men. It's never been done before."
Larson is quoted as saying that one of the strongest motivations for writing Rent was the devastation Aids caused amongst his own circle of friends. "I just had to do something about it," he said.
I wonder if Jonathan's death added a sentimental slant to the production?
"I don't think so. Before Rent started to happen, he was feeling a little defeated and a little down. He was also angry towards the establishment that was ignoring him. He had this courageous faith and hope, which I guess you could call sentimental, but it was a positive thing 'cos he put his energies into plugging away and plugging away at his project.
"I hoped the critics wouldn't be cynical about it, because it's a show which very much wears its heart on its sleeve. What the characters in the show go through is very emotional. It's not arch or ironic like so much of film and theatre is these days.
"So perhaps Jonathan dying when he did maybe stopped the critics being as cynical as they could have been, but at the same time, people coming to see the show didn't know that he had died. On the night of the dress rehearsal, it wasn't properly finished, yet people were torn apart by it. It is the kind of thing you have to open your heart to."
Back to my RENT-in-London page