High 'Rent' 

Scrappy musical makes it to the big-time...and comes to Nashville

Scrappy musical makes it to the big-time...and comes to Nashville

By Lisa A. DuBois

Rent

Presented by TPAC’s Broadway Series

Jan. 26-Feb. 7 at TPAC’s Jackson Hall, 505 Deaderick St.

8 p.m. Tues.-Fri.; 2 & 8 p.m. Sat.; 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sun.

Tickets are $20-$55; available through Ticketmaster, 255-2787

In 1994, producer Kevin McCollum was sitting in a small off-Broadway theater watching a rough-hewn workshop production of a new musical called Rent. At the intermission, he turned to his business partner Jeffrey Seller and said simply, “Let’s get out the checkbook.”

McCollum admits now that maybe he went a little crazy. Without even signing playwright/composer Jonathan Larson to a contract, the producer gave him money to tape the score so Larson could flesh out moments that needed rewrites. Inspired by the vibrancy of the songs and the play’s message, McCollum listened to that underground soundtrack over and over and over.

“[At that time] Rent was very rough, but it had a spirit and energy we could not ignore,” McCollum says. “It captured this spirit of community of young people who are listening to their own voices. These characters were people we wanted to be with. None of them were victims, although they were all struggling with obstacles. It was just a classic love story based on the human ideal that love conquers all.”

The producers’ seed money gave root to what has now become an American juggernaut. In 1996, Rent moved from its humble off-Broadway digs at the 150-seat New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village to the prestigious Nederlander Theater on the Great White Way, where it continues to play to standing-room-only crowds. With three American productions running simultaneously and six others worldwide, Rent remains one of the hottest musicals on the planet. Showered with the Pulitzer Prize for drama, as well as four Tony, six Drama Desk, three Obie, and numerous other awards, it has been credited with reinvigorating the entire musical-theater genre.

“In every city we get standing ovations,” says Julia Santana, who stars as Mimi in the road tour version of Rent, which arrives Tuesday at TPAC for a two-week run. “People laugh, people cry, they scream. At the end of the performance they’re throwing us kisses.”

In three years’ time, Rent has inculcated its own mythology. Obscure playwright Jonathan Larson was waiting tables while patiently following his muse, when he hit upon the idea to update Puccini’s story of La Bohème into a modern-day rock opera. Fascinated by the pulse of New York City’s low-rent Lower East Side, he created a cast of characters who celebrate life in the midst of insurmountable hardships: Roger is an HIV-positive rock musician determined to leave his mark by writing one glorious song before he dies. Mark, the narrator, is a documentary filmmaker whose live-in girlfriend Maureen has left him for a lesbian lawyer, Joanne. Tom Collins is an HIV-positive computer whiz who falls in love with the drag queen Angel. Benny is a landlord, once part of the gang, now transformed into a yuppie after marrying into money. And Mimi is an exotic dancer—and an HIV-positive junkie—who falls in love with Roger.

“A lot of reviewers don’t know how to take the character of Mimi,” Santana observes. “The great reviewers understand that as soon as Mimi steps on the stage, she’s already dying—because she’s searching for her drugs. People see her as a lowlife, a wildcat, a wild child. But the audience is in awe. She’s kindhearted and really caring, and that comes through in the show. She’s trying to live her life without fear. There are lots of people who live in fear without having the same problems Mimi has.”

McCollum says that when Larson realized he was surrounded by these same “good, wonderful people” desperate to contribute despite social manacles, he wondered: “What is the antidote?” The answer Larson came up with was simple: love.

“If you love people who love you, it will work out. That’s the commerce we should all be dealing in,” McCollum explains.

Perhaps because of its universal theme, the show has transcended the hype that permeated its debut. On the day of the final dress rehearsal, Jan. 25, 1996, 10 days before his 36th birthday, Larson suddenly died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. Immediately, this little low-budget world premiere, in newspaper lingo, “jumped sections” from an entertainment story to a news story. The buzz in the jaundiced theater community was that Rent would not have received such enormous critical acclaim had the playwright lived.

This kind of cynicism breaks the heart of McCollum, who continues to grieve over his friend’s death. “It’s painful for those of us who saw Jonathan work that his legacy is reduced to: ‘He died, and that’s why the show is considered good.’ It’s a loss to the world that Jonathan Larson cannot continue to write. He was unique. His contribution to theater is a reflection of our society.”

The play’s burgeoning popularity may serve as the best testimonial to its artistic merits. In every city on the tour, groups of devotees—usually Generation Xers—camp out at the doors of performing arts centers to take advantage of $20 front-row tickets. The Internet is hot with people in chat rooms discussing performances and issues presented in the play. The original cast album is a chart-topper, and augers are pointing to a film version of the show.

“We still don’t understand the impact of where Rent sits in the library of dramatic work and how it will be interpreted over the years,” McCollum muses. “As other directors tackle the material, I’m sure some will make it slicker. And there might be others who make it rawer. Like any story that becomes part of the American culture, it will continue to evolve. Which isn’t a danger—that’s why we tell stories. As long as people are gathering to tell this story, that’s a good thing.”

Cheap Seats

Adhering to a tradition begun in Rent’s nascent days, when creator Jonathan Larson was himself a struggling artist, TPAC is offering $20 orchestra-level tickets for every performance of the show. Interested individuals should arrive at the TPAC box office two hours prior to every Rent performance to receive a number. Within 15 minutes, winning numbers will be announced. Each winning number will enable the holder to purchase, cash only, up to two $20 tickets, until the 36 seats in the front two rows of the orchestra section of Jackson Hall are sold.

“I loved the theater, but when I came to New York I had the time [but not] the money to see a Broadway show,” recalls producer Kevin McCollum. “By going to Broadway with Rent, we’re now in a position to provide an opportunity for many more people to have access to the show by discounting the first two rows of seats.”

Adhering to a tradition begun in Rent’s nascent days, when creator Jonathan Larson was himself a struggling artist, TPAC is offering $20 orchestra-level tickets for every performance of the show. Interested individuals should arrive at the TPAC box office two hours prior to every Rent performance to receive a number. Within 15 minutes, winning numbers will be announced. Each winning number will enable the holder to purchase, cash only, up to two $20 tickets, until the 36 seats in the front two rows of the orchestra section of Jackson Hall are sold.

“I loved the theater, but when I came to New York I had the time [but not] the money to see a Broadway show,” recalls producer Kevin McCollum. “By going to Broadway with Rent, we’re now in a position to provide an opportunity for many more people to have access to the show by discounting the first two rows of seats.”

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