A lot of people think Jonathan Larson, creator of the rock musical Rent, died of AIDS. In fact, Larson suffered from an undiagnosed aortic dissection, which means that a surge of blood eventually separated his aorta from the rest of his heart.
New York state medical investigators said Larson’s docs chalked up their patient’s symptoms to the flu or stress. They concluded that if he’d gotten proper treatment, he probably would have lived.
The fates had another surprise. Larson, who died in 1996 ten days short of his 36th birthday, succumbed to his illness the morning of Rent‘s first off-Broadway preview. Maybe that accounts for some of the fervency behind the show’s move to Broadway that year. Since then, all it’s done is become the universe’s 11th longest-running Broadway musical, grossing $280 million and scoring four Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and a Pulitzer Prize.
The show, which had its West Coast debut at La Jolla Playhouse, has spawned several national tours in its 20 years, the latest Broadway San Diego turn among them. The dancing and the tunes here are as brash and exuberant as ever, and the social issues in the script, like AIDS and capitalist greed, were of obvious importance to Larson. But for all its earnestness, and with all due respect to Larson’s obvious talent, Rent often looks and feels like a concert instead of a musical.
If you like it (and I do, very much), it’s the music that drives Larson’s legacy and your affection. As often as not, the script doesn’t necessarily follow suit.
By now, you probably know that the story’s tightly wound crew of eight face a tough 1989 from their East Village loft. HIV and abject poverty swirl about their lives as they pursue their artistic sides against any odds of success. Filmmaker and our narrator Mark Cohen has buried himself in his camera; musician Roger Davis, Mark’s roommate, is bent on writing one great song before he dies of AIDS. Mimi Marquez, his new girlfriend, is a druggie and an S&M dancer (“It’s a living”), while his ex Maureen Johnson is now with Harvard-educated public interest lawyer Joanne Jefferson.
Ditto computer whiz Tom Collins and drag queen Angel Schunard, both of whom are HIV positive. Benjamin Coffin, their landlord and onetime friend, eschews the group — he married money and now champions everything this motley crew stands against. Even so, this fanciful retelling of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Boheme (1896) ends on a hopeful note as death begets life.
As originally directed by Michael Greif, Rent is a gritty nod to income inequality before the idea ever became fashionable. In the local entry, Evan Ensign magically wrests order out of chaos as the volatile characters indulge their emotional frustrations on any number of whims they choose. If they were a street gang, they’d storm the East Village for booty (the cha-ching kind), and woe betide those who trespass against them.
[The songs] often sacrifice the libretto’s larger plot points in the process.
But Larson didn’t always finish what he started. Druggo Mimi, for example, uses only once, and that’s just to illustrate a tune (“Light My Candle”); songwriter Roger’s angst propels his idealism but tells us nothing of his past (“One Song Glory”); Tom’s thoughts about leaving New York in winter seem rooted in a fleeting moment of escapism and little more (“Santa Fe,” which is decidedly out of place here). The 32 songs illustrate the individual characters’ raisons d’etre, and sometimes they do it beautifully, but they often sacrifice the libretto’s larger plot points in the process.
One perfectly appropriate tune (“Another Day,” my favorite Rent song) is signature to Roger and Mimi (an excellent Kaleb Wells and a very watchable Skyler Volpe), while Danny Harris Kornfeld defines his Mark with a hangdog, nerdy, very interesting mien. Everybody else delivers as they take ownership of the tunes, although they often do so to a fault (Larson’s). Conductor Samuel Bagala’s five tight musicians rock out on Paul Clay’s cluttered delight of a set and dress a lot like costumer Angela Wendt had in mind (think shabby-chic). Jonathan Spencer’s lighting design is OK, but several set areas seem underlit at the wrong times.
In 2005, Rent was made into a motion picture, and the movie’s serious godawfulness put a crimp in the effort to translate big-name Broadway musicals to film. But while Chris Columbus’ direction and Stephen Goldblatt’s cinematography were repetitive and unfocused, the music — that wonderfully urgent tapestry that Larson crafted with such care — was intact, honoring its theatrical foundation. By all means, do see the current live entry for its musical component. Larson has a world of things to say accordingly, and he says it in a way we miss all over again.
Martin Jones Westlin’s e-mail address is [email protected]
This review is based on the opening-night production of Jan. 11. Rent runs through Jan. 15 at the Civic Theatre, 1000 Third Ave. Downtown. $22.00-$90.00. 619-570-1100, broadwaysd.com.