Causing a Commotion

I knew before I even started, that staging Rent's Act I finale, "Le Vie Bohème," was going to be hard. It's not just a song. There's so much going on in there. And it's really long. All the subtle little character and relationship moments have to be given some room to breathe, yet it has to keep up that manic energy, and it has to somehow build for almost ten minutes.

If it doesn't have structure, if it doesn't build, if it doesn't have it's own beginning, middle, climax, and finish, if it doesn't operate like its own one-act play, it won't work as well dramatically as Jonathan Larson intended. This song takes us out to intermission and has to leave us wanting to know more.

One thing I knew, I didn't want to recreate the original choreography, as much as I love it.

So I called my co-director, Dowdy, and I told him I needed him to come over one night and just talk through and work through this song with me. He was happy to help. And he's really good at problem-solving.

One challenge (of my own making, I admit it) right off the bat, is our set. I asked for a giant, twelve-foot diameter, raked platform, painted like the moon, and god bless Rob, he's delivered. This platform is used a few different ways in the show, but here it transitions from Maureen's stage in the empty lot into the table at the Life Cafe. Almost all productions of Rent reproduce that original long table, with all the actors on one side of the table, facing the audience. Not this time. And that presents a challenge.

But as I"ve thought about it, there's also a real, unexpected advantage in this challenge. Rather than Doing a Number for the audience at the end of the act, this time, the audience will be eavesdroppers. They'll be peeking in at a group of friends celebrating the performance, their lives, each other, their community. Almost like we're sitting at the next table over. It will change the nature of the song. It will become less presentational.

And there's the built-in challenge that the song begs for choreography, but everyone's sitting down at a table. My first decision was that the Millerography (that's what we call it when I stage a number instead of Robin) would start with a version of the vocabulary Tommy Tune invented for The Will Rogers Follies. We won't recreate his choreography, but we will use the building blocks he invented. (We did the same thing with "The Ballad of Guiteau" in Assassins.)

From there, I knew the trick would be to start with very minimal movement, and end with complete chaos on stage. And we'd have to build that structure that takes us on that journey. I started putting together a movement vocabulary for the number, various things we could do at the table, with the table, with the chairs. Many of these moves made it into the final product, but some didn't.

Also, before we could really get to work, we had to make a couple dramatic decisions. We have a slightly smaller cast than on or off Broadway, so that changes some things. First, Benny's investor who's with him at the Life Cafe is usually his father-in-law, Mr. Grey. But we had cast the same actor as both Joanne's father, Mr. Jefferson, and as Mr. Grey. As I started to think about how to distinguish the two visually for the audience, it occurred to me that there's no reason Mr. Jefferson couldn't be one of Benny's investors. We know Joanne's family is fairly well-off.

I asked Dowdy and Rob (the actor) what they thought. We talked through the entire scene. If that's Mr. Jefferson, what does he think about seeing his daughter here – and seeing her kiss and fool around with Maureen? How does that alter his line readings? What does Joanne think about it? Ultimately, we decided it really could make sense, maybe even be more interesting (what are the odds Benny would choose his friend Mark's ex-girlfriend's girlfriend's father as an investor?), and it really didn't change anything else. (It required us to change one word in Benny's phone call during "Christmas Bells.")

It also gives Mr. Jefferson a lot more to play. We're pretty sure he's knows about Maureen, since he makes sure to tell Joanne to come to the confirmation hearing alone and not to dress like a lesbian. But maybe the Jeffersons have never met Maureen. So then this new "accidental" encounter at the cafe adds some complexity to Joanne and her father's relationship.

I made a seating chart, placing our sixteen actors around this massive round moon table. I looked at each interaction throughout the entire number and looked at where those actors were seated, to see what their interactions would look like physically. I made one sort of radical choice, placing the song's emcee Mark down-center, with his back to the audience. Normally that would be a no-no, but I'm gambling that it's going to work, and it will reinforce that voyeuristic feeling we're giving this scene. I also seated Joannne and her father next to each other, with Maureen on Joanne's other side (and Mark on her other side) for maximum comic discomfort.

Also, just to keep the stage full for the finale, we decided that the waiter will get pulled into a seat early on, and when Benny and Mr. Jefferson decide to leave, they get pulled into the choreography too and end up finishing the number with the kids. Also Roger and Mimi are supposed to leave at one point, but we keep them at the table. And just for my own amusement, the group reading of the word "Evita" is now done by the entire cast, not just the leads, implying that Angel's story has traveled far and fast in the last few hours.

Still, even with this groundwork, I just couldn't get my head around the whole scene at once. I knew I needed a super-structure to hang the scene on and I needed to talk it out. So I printed out the lyric, one section of the song per page, and Dowdy came over.

We slowly built an architecture. First, small hand movements just keeping the beat, then hand "choreography" (built on Tommy Tune), then head movements, then standing, then standing on the chairs, then standing on the platform, then a few people dancing on the platform, then finally everybody dancing around the platform and pretty much doing whatever they want. Controlled chaos. My favorite.

Then once we had the architecture, we filled in detail. What would the moves be, the patterns, how much repetition should we use, should we use the freezes in the script, etc. And because we were keeping characters onstage who usually aren't, we figured out just when and how the waiter, Benny, Mr. Jefferson, and Joanne would each join the fun.

My initial inclination was to bring everyone down-center at the end in a big posey clump. But Dowdy argued for keeping everyone around the giant table, and he was right. We'd gone out of our way to make this not presentational, and then I was going to slap a presentational end on it. These people should stay around their table because they're just entertaining each other. That scene (like much of Rent) has a Fourth Wall.

At least in our production.

And also, I'm already using a clump like that later, in Act II, for exactly that reason, to turn a Fourth Wall scene into a scene being shared with the audience. I think it will be very cool. So better not to use it here.

After Dowdy and I finished it, I made a cheat sheet for the actors. I do this whenever I've come up with Millerography that's really complex. I set up two columns on the page, with the lyric on the left and staging notes on the right. Even after skipping the interrupting duet scenes, my cheat sheet still ran seven pages.

This helps when I teach the actors the staging, but it helps even more later on, when they're working on it and trying to memorize it.

The night we staged it, Dowdy kept an eye on it all from the front, and I stayed inside the staging to help the actors with what comes next. They picked it up faster than I expected, and even in a somewhat rough form, it was really looking good by the end of the rehearsal. Dowdy and I both felt like it turned out just like we thought it would. We had to make a few minor adjustments as we put it on its feet, but nothing major.

There are two more steps still. First, they all have to memorize it and get comfortable with the moves. Then they'll add personality, character, relationships, and also fill up the "free-style" moments we gave them. That will give our staging the playfulness, the rowdiness, the anarchy, the connection that will make it soar – and that disturbs then envelops Benny and Mr. Jefferson.

This number really does feel different from every other production I've seen. Having some backs to the audience really changes everything. It feels a little like "Hot Lunch Jam" in Fame (which also starts with an awesome bass line!), which may be one of the most believably naturalistic musical numbers I've ever seen. We're just flies on the wall.

Jonathan Larson built this song so that it feels almost improvised. The chorus doesn't sing until Mark gives them the hook, "La Vie Bohème," and then they all sing it in perfect three-part, major-triad harmony, just like we theatre people do all the time in the Real World (you think I'm kidding, but I'm not). Then friends start to join in, with their own jokes, each one entertaining his friends, then the friends try little duets, then there's a Rent rap-off, and then we finish with Mark riffing, while everybody else just keeps singing those great chords they found at the beginning.

This isn't as far distant from reality as some folks might think. I think the reason I always loved "Hot Lunch Jam" is its authenticity. I've actually been in (far less cool) situations like this one. Artsies do shit like that.

I always felt like "La Vie Bohème" in the (brilliant) original production was a great number, but ours will be more a scene. I think it will be clear the way we're doing it, that the central action of the scene is the singing itself, the act of celebrating, the ritual of sitting down at a table together to break bread – and not just backdrop or atmosphere for the inset duet scenes.

This song's statement of powerful, strong community is what will get tested in Act II, what will get rent and restored over the next year of the narrative. I've written here before that this story is a collection of hero myth stories, and I've been trying to figure out what is the "magic amulet" (light saber, ruby slippers, magic seeds) that each of these heroes carries, that saves them. And after working on this song, I realize community is their magic amulet.

Each other.

One time as Dowdy and I were working on this scene, we got stuck. We each kept throwing out ideas, but nothing that grabbed us. Then I stopped us, as I've learned to do over the years, and said, "Wait. What is this song about?" Back to basics. It's about community and connection. Okay. Reset. And then bingo, we solved the problem. That always works. I first learned that trick working on Jacques Brel (baptism by fire). Don't try to come up with what's clever or impressive; look for what communicates best and most clearly to the audience. What does this have to say and how can we best say it?

I'm really proud of what we've done with "La Vie Bohème." I can't wait to share it and see how people react to it. It's not radically different, but it is different.

On to Act II. The hardest part (blocking) is almost over and then the fun part (polishing) begins.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Sept. 2015. Here is a video clip of "La Vie Boheme" in New Line's Rent in its final form.