La Vie Bohème

Theatre people sometimes ask me why New Line doesn't use a dramaturg. It's because text analysis and background research is my favorite pastime.

I know, I'm a freak. You don't have to tell me.

For every show, I spend our entire rehearsal process reading material related to the show. I read Bukowski's novels while working on Bukowsical. During Next to Normal, I read a memoir about a brain researcher who herself had symptoms very similar to Diana's in the show. During Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, I read several books about Jackson and the politics of the early 1800s. Not only does my reading help me in various ways in our creative process, but it also keeps the show swimming around in my head 24-7 while we work.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

So here's what I'm been reading as we work on Rent.

Years ago, shortly after the show had opened, they published a Rent coffee table book, which included some terrific interviews, bios, great photos, and the entire text of the show. I read this when it first came out in 1997, but I haven't yet returned to it. I don't want the original production to become too prominent in my head as long as I'm still blocking the show. We finish blocking next week, so then I think I'll go back to this book. I remember the interviews all being really interesting, and they might well give me important insights.

I'm also re-reading the novel Rent is based on, Scenes de la Vie de Bohème, re-titled The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter in its English translation. I know everybody thinks Rent is based on the opera La Bohème, but it's not. Several years ago, when I was writing a chapter about Rent for my book Rebels with Applause, I watched a video of the opera and I read the novel; and I'm here to tell you, this musical is way closer to the novel than the opera. In fact, Rent is not much at all like the very gloomy, moody, weepy, joyless opera version.

Jonathan Larson constantly stressed that Rent was a celebration of life. That's definitely what the novel is, but that's not at all what the tear-jerker opera is.

(One word of caution – if you buy a copy of the novel on Amazon, don't buy the hardcover version; the cheap-ass binding falls apart really easily. The softcover doesn't seem to have that problem. Also, the book had been out of print, but this reprint is really cheap. Both the hardcover and softcover editions leave out Chapter II and instead they print the first chapter a second time, under the title of the second chapter. You can find the second chapter online, or buy an older used copy and you won't have that problem.)

I'm also reading Marc Spitz' Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the 90s. This is a really cool, first-hand account of going through almost everything Roger goes through in Rent, including artistic blocks, woman trouble, heroin addiction, running away from New York, etc. It's been really helpful for me to get an intimate look at the real people in this community at exactly the time Rent is set. Plus, it's just a great read.

I'm also reading Anthony Rapp's Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent. I bought this when it first came out in 2006, but I never read it. So now I'm reading it. The most valuable part for me is his chronicle of the rehearsal and shaping process, and the quotes of what Larson and director Michael Greif talked to the actors about.

As an example, Greif told Rapp and Adam Pascal this about the title song:
I want you to think of this less as just as expression of anger and frustration, and more of an attempt to entertain yourself and your friend. You guys are freezing, and you're dancing around to keep yourself warm. You're sort of laughing at your own plight. You're dancing on your grave. . . Also, really ask the question: how are you guys going to pay the rent? Really ask it. Don't just rant and complain about it.

Rapp then writes about the impact of Greif's direction:
He went back to his seat, and Tim played the opening chords. I sang, immediately feeling a lighter touch, and feeling how right that was. The whole song became much more arch and sardonic, less nakedly angry, but without losing the inherent frustration that fueled it.

What's most fun about reading this section is that Rapp also gives us a first draft of the lyric to this song, and it's really angry:
If I throw my body out the window,
Brains all splattered, guts all steaming in the snow,
I wouldn't have to finish shooting video
No one wants to show...

Even though the tone of this early lyric is wrong for Rent, it still shows Larson's craftsmanship. Notice the alteration of all the S's in the second line, in brains, splattered, guts, steaming, and snow; and the use of long O sounds in the last two lines, with video, no, and show; and almost subliminal, all the W sounds, in window, wouldn't, one, and wants.

Rapp also gives us such a wonderful, personal glimpse of who Jonathan Larson was (it almost seems like he was the emotional model for Angel). At one point in the book, Larson has invited the cast to dinner, and he says to them:
I am so grateful to the New York Theatre Workshop, and to all of you who are a part of this show. This is one of the greatest things that's ever happened to me, getting this production together. It's been a very long time coming. I wrote this show about my life. About the lives of my friends. And some of my friends are gone. And I really miss them. I guess I just wanted to say that you all are going to bring my friends to life, and I wanted to thank you for that. I wanted to thank you all for being my new friends.

After hearing of Larson's death, Rapp writes:
I felt wildly crazy and perfectly calm at once. Jonathan's death made bizarre sense; he'd not been well, he'd gotten this show out of him, which was the most important thing he'd ever done, the biggest expression of himself he could ever put out in to the world, and when he was done, he'd died.

There were times when I was reading this book that tears were streaming down my face. It's so powerfully emotional, so nakedly honest, but that's also what Rent is, right?

Many productions of Rent just create a carbon-copy of the original production. I don't think we're in any danger of that with the New Line production, but striking out on our own path makes it doubly important for me to understand this story, these characters, and Larson's intentions for his story.

The various books I'm reading right now help me enormously with all that. And really, the novel is one of the funniest books I've ever read, so it's a real pleasure returning to that. It makes me laugh over the people who don't like Rent because many of the characters are whiny and irresponsible (something I address in another blog post); they should get a load of the characters in the novel, who are far more whiny, irresponsible, lazy, dishonest, amoral, and hilariously selfish. And yet, you still love spending time with them.

Kinda like Zak Farmer.

Our top priority with every show is to tell this story as clearly as possibly. Reading all these books will help me do that. Some theatre people think all you need is the words on the page. I think that's genuinely stupid and lazy. Unless you're doing a show by a really lazy, simple-minded writer, there's going to be more to a show than what's on the surface of the words. And there's a lot more in Rent.

We're almost done blocking Act I. Next rehearsal, we stage "La Vie Boheme." Ack!

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!