I thought some of our actors were gonna have aneurysms over our artistic coitus interruptus. They were so wildly, freakishly psyched about starting (including multiple countdowns on Facebook), and then we all had to sit and wait a week.
But tonight, barring a pop-up tornado, we will begin.
And there are some challenges ahead. First, this is one of those shows that's too famous. I remember when we started working on Grease in 2007, I had to strip away everything we carried with us, all our preconceptions about Grease, before we could really start. Grease had been changed over the years, by the kinder, gentler film version, the clueless, dumbed-down revivals and tours, and bland high school and community theatre productions. My intention was to return the show to its roots, but that required all of us to let go of everything we thought we knew about Grease – including me, who had already done the show twice (directing it once) and had seen the film over a hundred times.
The same is true of Rent. We're all (me included) so used to the way the original cast sang everything on the cast album, but as I've been playing through the score, I see lots of things that the original cast sang differently from what's written. And we'll have to fix some of those things.
Now, this isn't Sweeney Todd and it doesn't require the same kind of precise adherence to the written score. This is rock and roll, and some liberties can be taken. I'd even argue liberties must be taken to sing this rock score with complete authenticity. Rent doesn't allow for the kind of liberties we can take with Rocky Horror or Grease, but there is some room here for our actors to "personalize" their songs.
The other challenge is the original production as a whole. Most community theatre groups who produce Rent stage it almost exactly like the original. The commercial video that was released of the final night on Broadway is wonderful to have, but it poses a danger too.
The reason we haven't produced Rent before now is that I've always worshipped at the shrine of Michael Greif's original staging, having seen the original Broadway production just a few months after it opened. But the revival cured me of that, and now I feel free to meet Rent on its own terms. But that means we're gonna do some things with the staging that are very different from the original, and for those in the cast who know that original staging well (or who've actually done the original staging in some production), it may be a bit scary or at least disorienting.
Tonight when I welcome the cast to our first rehearsal, I'll lay out my approach to the show and I'll remind them that we're not doing the original staging... or the original costumes or anything else. I'm even considering shifting Angel's death slightly later in Act II (without changing any words or music).
I've been doing some cool reading lately – Anthony Rapp's Rent memoir Without You; the original novel the show is based on, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème; and a very cool memoir by a guy who literally lived this life in Alphabet City in the early and mid-1990s, Poseur. It's been really fun, reading these very different books that all converge on Rent. I'm getting some very cool insider info on what Greif told his actors, what Larson intended, etc., but also the heart and soul of these characters. The hero of Poseur goes through many of the things the Rent characters endure, including heroin addiction.
Since we announced that we're doing Rent, the response has been overwhelming. Our presale is already massively record-breaking – we've never sold this many tickets this far in advance. Not even close. But also, I've had some people tell me they just don't like Rent, that the characters are selfish and self-involved. I think these folks miss the point of the story. If all the characters are nice, balanced, enlightened people when our story begins, then there's no story to tell. These characters have to learn something, to go on a journey. They have to Grow Up. Just like Rob in High Fidelity and the Youth in Passing Strange.
Rent is about all the socio-political things many people (including me) have written about. But it's also a six-way hero myth story, as each of our heroes is forced to face the complexities and obstacles of adult life. They each have to learn that childhood, when we get what we want and people take care of us, is over. They have to learn and grow – and face themselves – to become complete adults. That's the throughline of the show and we can't ever lose track of that. Like High Fidelity and Passing Strange, this is a coming-of-age story.
In this hero myth, Angel is the wise wizard figure (and as in most hero myths, the wise wizard is not able to finish the hero's journey with him), and community is their magic amulet that protects them (like Luke's light saber or Dorothy's ruby slippers). They are all each other's traveling companions down this urban yellow brick road. And like some hero myths, they must travel to the "underworld" (figuratively for some of them, literally for others), and then return with newfound wisdom.
Despite the despairing wails from those who think rock and roll ruined musical theatre, who think "They just don't write 'em like they used to," I fully believe that Rent is a masterpiece, easily worthy of the Pulitzer Prize and all the other many honors the show received.
The prep is over. It's time to do this.
No day but today!
Long Live the Musical!