Food of Love, Emotion, Mathematics, Isolation, Rhythm, Power, Feeling, Harmony

It's been such fun going through music rehearsals with the Rent score. I've been in love with this music since I first heard it from the tenth row, dead center, of the Nederlander Theatre in July 1996.

Because it's Rent, we had an incredible turnout at auditions, and so we got to cast the absolute cream of young St. Louis talent. Listening to these folks sing these songs is already a thrill, and I can only imagine how much more amazing they'll all be after a few weeks of blocking and conversation and run-throughs. And blogging.

When I first started seriously playing through the score again and prepping for rehearsals, I noticed there are several little bits that aren't on the cast album. And I always forget about them. I haven't seen Rent in its original version in a long time. I really wasn't planning to work on Rent anytime soon, but now that I am, I'm glad I haven't seen it in a while. Much of it is pretty powerfully imprinted on my brain, but the farther away I get my mind from the original the better, I think.

I wrote about Rent in my book Rebels with Applause, but you can never get as close to a show as when you're working on it. Reading the score really closely as Justin teaches the actors is a real trip. There are so many little things in the vocal lines that are pretty different from what we're all used to on the original cast album. And in every case so far, what Jonathan Larson wrote is cooler and more interesting than what that original cast sang. There are some wonderful blues notes, variations of melody, unexpected turns and intervals. In a lot of cases, the Broadway actors had regularized rhythms or "corrected" Larson's blues notes and "wrong" notes (intentional dissonance).

So we're putting all that stuff back the way Larson wrote it. My bet is that most productions imitate the vocal quirks of the cast album and ignore (or don't notice) what Larson wrote, so some Rent fans may find some cool musical Easter Eggs in our production.

I'm telling our actors that when they're singing solos, I want them to learn exactly what's on the page, understand what Jonathan wrote, what mattered to him in the music, and then as their performances evolve, they can take some liberties and let it be a little freer. A little.

In other words, freer than with a Sondheim score, not as free as Hair or Grease. The score essentially straddles those two worlds.

And it only now occurs to me as I type this that that's exactly what Jonathan Larson was aiming to achieve with Rent and all the later work of his we'll never see – the artistry and intelligence of Sondheim and Prince's concept musicals (just look at Tick... Tick... BOOM!), and the soul and emotion of rock and roll.

Larson wanted to move the art form forward and he did, by re-engaging with musical theatre past, and like other great artists, creating something entirely new from old building blocks. Rent looked back to the dramatic structure of the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, but also to the experimentation of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, and the concept musicals of the 70s.

Like Oklahoma! fifty years earlier, the triumph of Rent was in bringing together what had gone before it, combining many past innovations all into one new work, and doing it with great skill, and more important, great commercial success. Innovations in the art form usually only get carried forward if they show up in hit shows. In fact, Larson’s great achievement and the reason for Rent’s enormous appeal to so many different kinds of people lies precisely in the heady mix of musical theatre traditionalism and innovation.

Larson borrowed from the musicals of the 20s and 30s and the work of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and others, by writing in a genuine pop music style, a style that the audience hears in their everyday lives, a style that instantly makes the language of the musical accessible to the untrained ear. Surely today, no one can escape rock/pop music. It’s in the movies, in commercials, even in dentists’ offices. And like the songwriters of the 20s and 30s did, Larson tells his story in the musical language of the people, something Broadway had rarely done (or at least rarely done well) since the 1950s.

Larson also followed the lead of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s early musicals (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific) by telling a story that directly addresses important social issues and problems. And as in Oklahoma!, Larson’s story is about a threat to the community; in Oklahoma! it’s Jud Fry, in Rent it’s AIDS. He used long-form musical scenes, which were first developed by Hammerstein, in Show Boat with Jerome Kern, and in Oklahoma! and Carousel with Richard Rodgers, a device perfected by Larson’s mentor Stephen Sondheim, most notably in Passion and Sweeney Todd. (And like Sondheim did in Sweeney, Larson even quoted the dies irae, a musical motif from the mass for the dead, in the song “La Vie Boheme.” He also mentioned Sondheim by name in that song.)

Larson also learned from Hammerstein’s example that the truly great writers always write what they believe. Sondheim wrote about psychologically complex, neurotic New Yorkers because that’s what he knows and understands. Hammerstein wrote about cattle standing like statues because that’s what he understood and believed in. And like Hammerstein, Larson wrote with tremendous optimism, an almost embarrassing naivété, and a genuine love of life, because that’s who he was, despite living in the midst of the AIDS pandemic and watching many of his closest friends die. But like Sondheim, Larson also focused more than anything else on the way people connect (and fail to connect), one of the most important themes in Rent and a theme Sondheim returned to in almost every one of his shows.

Larson also followed in the footsteps of West Side Story in depicting the seamy, gritty side of life on the streets of New York, and in the footsteps of William Finn’s Falsettos trilogy in his matter-of-fact treatment of gay characters. Like Grand Hotel and Into the Woods, Larson successfully manipulated numerous storylines, weaving them in and out of each other. He followed Cabaret and Company in their treatment of social issues and their use of commentary songs. And he and director Michael Greif followed the lead of The Fantasticks and A Chorus Line by using virtually no set.

And yet, despite all those influences, Rent is so entirely original, so unlike any other show. Other writers had done many of these things before, but no one had combined all these elements into something so new that spoke so forcefully to the zeitgeist.

After writing six books on the history and evolution of the American musical theatre, I can see all of it in Rent, from the art form's earliest experiments to its most recent. Larson was a true Broadway baby, he knew and loved the old shows deeply, and he contributed so much to our art form in his short life and career. Like Moses, Larson couldn't go with us into the promised land of this new Golden Age, but he left us a great road map, and thanks to his adventuring, we now have Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Murder Ballad, Lizzie, American Idiot, and other amazing shows that can all trace their lineage straight back to Jonathan Larson.

And now we New Liners get to travel down that road and see where it leads us. Rent will take us somewhere different in 2014 from where it took us in 1996, but Jonathan will still be there with us on the ride.

We're only about a third of the way through our process, but it's already been such an incredible experience. I can't wait to share it with our audiences.

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!