So why hasn't New Line produced Rent before now?
New Line was five years old.
I knew by the end of the title song that I was seeing something truly extraordinary, truly new, truly ground-breaking, intensely American. Later, thinking about it, I realized that Rent was transforming the Rodgers & Hammerstein model for the new millennium. The overall narrative structure and many of the storytelling devices follow the R&H rules. But the score follows the rules of opera, with arias, duets, trios, counterpoint, and recitative. And yet the musical language is 1990s alt pop. Rent's creator Jonathan Larson was reinventing the art form to speak to a new age. And he wasn't the only one.
It was the beginning of a new Golden Age of the American musical theatre and I had just witnessed it.
By the end of that performance, I knew the list of the Great American Musicals had just grown by one. Show Boat, Carousel, West Side Story, Hair, Company, A Chorus Line, and now Rent. Just a few years later, Ragtime would join their ranks. The musical theatre suddenly was not just rejuvenated but on fire! Just in the period between Rent's first readings at New York Theatre Workshop and its Broadway opening, so many other amazing shows first opened, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Passion, Avenue X, Violet (all in 1994), Songs for a New World, Splendora, Faust, Bring on da Noise, Bring on da Funk (all in 1995), and Floyd Collins (1996). It was a new day.
Jonathan Larson had two lifetime agendas. First, to heal the divide between theatre music and popular music. And though he didn't live to see it, he began a trend which is finally blossoming now, and that divide is finally fading away, as we see theatre scores by John Melloncamp, Cyndi Lauper, Bono and the Edge, and coming soon, The Pogues. Theatre music and pop music overlapped a lot in the 1920s and 30s, but the Rodgers & Hammerstein model couldn't accommodate rock and roll. Then in the late 60s and 70s, rock and roll split musical theatre in two. Now all those wounds are being healed, thanks in large part to Jonathan Larson.
Larson's second goal was to write a new Hair, a show that captured his times as fully as Hair captured the end of the sixties, and that captured a community – and by extension, the country – at a pivotal point in our cultural and political history. And he certainly did all that. He probably didn't know his show would become a massive cultural phenomenon, every bit as pervasive and iconic as Hair, and every bit as transformative for his beloved art form. Larson didn't live long, but he single-handedly changed the direction of the American musical theatre. Arguably, Rent began the new Golden Age we're in today.
Without Rent, there's no Next to Normal, American Idiot, or Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson...
But I never wanted to work on Rent myself.
When the rights became available a number of years ago, I thought about it. It's clearly a New Line show, right? But I thought that original production was so perfect, so exactly right, I couldn't imagine the show any other way. But what's the fun in reproducing someone else's staging? I just couldn't bring myself to violate this show, or to copy Michael Greif's staging, and so I didn't want to work on it.
off Broadway revival. I was a little apprehensive. It couldn't possibly be as good as the original, right?
And then it was.
Everything about the revival was different from the original. Every detail, not just the sets and other design elements, but the style of staging, fundamental elements of character, everything. With one exception. "Seasons of Love" was staged exactly as it was in 1996. Which was exactly right.
And yet I found the show every bit as thrilling, as powerful, as raw, as emotionally naked as the original. It was like getting to see Rent for the first time, one more time. Over and over during the show, I found tears running down my cheeks – not during sad parts, but just because the emotion of seeing Rent again was so overwhelming for me. Two-thirds of the audience were singing along, and so after a while, I did too. I can't imagine what that was like for the actors. I bet that'll happen to us too.
One thing that really struck me was how young all the leads were. I mean, young. And that made all the sad parts so much sadder, that these kids have to deal with all this...
It wasn't until after seeing the revival, later that night, that I looked more closely at the Playbill and saw that the revival was directed by the same guy who had directed the original, Michael Greif. How did he do that? How did he stage this complex piece so perfectly, in two totally different ways?
The more I thought about it in the days following, the more I realized Greif had taught me a valuable lesson. There isn't only one way to stage Rent. The original production was brilliant and transcendent, and other approaches can also be brilliant and transcendent, because the material is just that rich. And then I thought, maybe it's time for New Line to do Rent.
As it's been swimming around in my head over the past year, I've accumulated dozens of ideas written on scraps of paper that I need to transfer into my script, and one image really took over my thoughts. A big, raked, circular platform in the middle of the stage, painted like the moon. I honestly don't know where that image came from. Maybe it came subconsciously from Maureen's performance art piece (she will be doing it on this moon platform), but I don't think so. I think it's more about the primal symbolism of the moon – which is different in each religion and mythology. So much of this story happens at night, like a lot of Shakespeare's darker comedies.
Here's a first sketch from our set designer Rob Lippert. The moon platform is twelve feet across.
As I've thought about how I'm gonna stage Rent, it's become more and more clear to me that Rent really is a new Hair. They're not identical, and Rent is far more about narrative, but they share so much. And I realize that everything I learned about Hair, having directed it three times, having talked to members of the original production, and having written a whole book about it, all that will inform our Rent. Larson was too talented and too much of a visionary to just write another Hair. Instead, Rent is a response to Hair across time, a conversation with Hair about theatre and storytelling and music, but also about culture and politics. Like Hair was in 1968, Rent embodies the Culture War, with its racial diversity, its sexual diversity, its criticism of capitalism and other institutions (even MTV!), and its insistence that we only survive together, that community is everything.
They say the great political divide in America today is between those who believe in "big government" and those who believe in "limited government." But that formulation misses the point. We are "government." There are many things we can do better together than on our own – repairing roads, putting out fires, building dams, making sure food and medicine are safe, and so much else. Government is just the act of deciding how we want to live together. The real but unstated debate here is between those who believe we are our brother's keeper and those who believe it's every man for himself. Ironically, those in the latter category still use the roads and bridges the rest of us built. Even more ironically, it's usually those who claim a belief in Jesus that don't believe we have any responsibility for each other's welfare.
Larson believed in community. Larson said that Rent is about celebrating life, even in the face of death. And a celebration takes people.
I've written at the top of the first page in my script, "CELEBRATION OF LIFE." But Rent isn't just about celebrating life and the idea of living fully. It's more specifically about celebrating people, real human connection. That's what all the various subplots are about – connecting, holding on, letting go, and as Angel teaches us, the most important of all, giving.
We thought politics and culture were divisive in the 1990s when Rent debuted, but now that just looks like a rehearsal for the Obama years. We need Rent's healing now more than ever. We need its idealism and joy and big, big heart. In these times of cutting services to the working poor, trying to keep people of color from voting, rolling back women's reproductive rights, and attacks on the social safety net, we need to hear Angel's voice. We need her wisdom. Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, “At so divisive a time in our country’s culture, Rent shows signs of revealing a large, untapped appetite for something better.”
Before he died, Larson wrote this about his show, “In these dangerous times, where it seems the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can all learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day and we should reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life at the end of the millennium.”
His premature death is very sad, but luckily for us, he left us a masterpiece.
Sunday night, the cast of New Line's Rent will go to work on that masterpiece. I can't wait.
Long Live the Musical!