Connection in an Isolating Age

I started this process loving Rent, but I ended up also being endlessly impressed by it and constantly blown away by the level of craftsmanship and artistry in both the text and the music, much of which most people probably don't even register consciously.

I didn't until now.

The more I watched our show, the more I started noticing the various musical themes Jonathan Larson uses throughout the show (the "I Should Tell You" theme, the "Halloween" accompaniment figure, the "Santa Fe" vamp, "No Day But Today") and the many textual themes that are everywhere (fire, especially as a metaphor for life force; references to Mimi's eyes; the idea of "rent" to connote the temporary nature of life and love; and more than anything, connection).

I used to think that Rent was brilliant but messy, and I assumed that was because Larson died before he could do his final revisions. The original production team used Larson's notes to try to make some of those late changes, but we don't know what else Larson would have changed. But now, having spent three months deep inside Rent, I think my perception of the show was wrong. It's not messy; it's wild. It's rock and roll, in its mindset and attitude. But everything about it is very intentional, very carefully wrought. Larson knew exactly what he was doing.

And it's also an incredibly well structured opera, using all the devices of classical opera, recitative, arias, duets, trios, quartets, etc. The end of "Christmas Bells" – intricately built, full-cast, five-part counterpoint – is as operatic as you can get.

But as brilliant a lyricist and composer as Larson was, his real triumph with Rent was its story and its very conception. Producing the show creates the same kind of bohemian family that the show depicts. It hit me often during the run, as I watched our show, that we're not just telling a story about a family of bohemians; we are a family of bohemians. And that built-in reality supercharges the show's and the audience's emotion.

We were all so happy that the hardcore RentHeads all loved our production so much (and many of them saw it multiple times), even though I know many of them were a tad apprehensive beforehand about what New Line might be doing to their beloved show. Quite a few of those RentHeads told us afterward that they've seen the show 20 (or more) times, but they thought ours was the best.

That's pretty humbling.

But the greatest joy for me was introducing Rent to the many people who had never seen it before but came to see ours. A lot of them had consciously avoided Rent for one reason or another. And I also loved convincing the folks who'd seen Rent and didn't like it, that it really is as brilliant and powerful as we all think it is. We converted a lot of people. Including a bunch of reviewers.

The other joy was watching, night after night, the intricate staging, almost all of it bordering on choreography, that we created for this show, this rowdy, soulful, perpetual motion machine. So many of the coolest moments came from my assistant director Mike Dowdy. He can look at a moment onstage and instantly know what would make it a little richer or a little clearer.

Not since The Wild Party have we climbed a mountain like this. Though it was never my conscious goal, though my only agenda was to tell this story as clearly as possible, our staging was so totally different from the original. I see in our Rent staging the many lessons we learned from The Wild Party. Much of our staging for Rent was expressionistic, suggesting the feel and energy of the streets of New York, or the interior emotions of these characters. It was often visual poetry, visual metaphor, more than literal representation.

And like most of our work over the past decade or so, a lot of our staging was very cinematic. I learned from Michael Bennett and Tommy Tune how to use cinematic language on stage – close-ups, long shots, pans, split-screens, montages, focus pulls – and that vocabulary came in really handy on this show (as it had on Wild Party).

One of my favorite things was what we called "the foot traffic." Upstage, behind the action of several songs, the cast simply walked back and forth across the stage, in a perpetual loop. It felt and looked silly in rehearsal, but my gut told me it would work. And on the set, with the lights and costumes, it became the sidewalks of New York. During "Santa Fe," the foot traffic moved from far upstage, to circling our giant moon, center-stage. It was almost like a film close-up, and it gave the impression that these friends were moving through New York as they talked. In "Without You," the foot traffic returned, but this time slow, heavy, melancholy, mirroring the emotions of Mimi and Roger. And together with the lyric, the endless loop of pedestrians suggested time passing, as the leads emerged slowly downstage out of the generic city life, to return to our focus. The foot traffic device was a leap of faith to be sure, but it worked.

And then there was the moon.

In our first conversation about Rent, I told our scenic designer Rob Lippert the one thing I needed was a giant, raked, circular platform, painted like the moon, dead-center, big enough to seat sixteen people around it. And god bless him, he gave me exactly that, and we put that moon to such good use! It was Maureen's stage, a room where the support group meets, tables at the flea market, the beds of our eight lead characters, the table at the Life Cafe, and a kind of abstract limbo space for interior monologue songs.

Last night during strike several of us were talking about how it will never seem right again to see "La Vie Boheme" at a long straight table. Using our moon as the table changed that song so profoundly, to set it at a round table, with some of the actor's backs to us, with all these friends facing each other during this wild, playful number, performing for each other. I think it added enormous energy to the number, it made it funnier, rowdier, more joyful. It gave the number a surprising sense of reality. From the audience, it felt like we were at the next table, rather than like the Act I finale was being performed for us.

The only thing we did with the show that I thought Rent fans would dislike is we moved Angel's death slightly later. In the script, she dies at the end of "Without You." In our production, it happened (more expressionistically) during her solo verse in "Contact." And we left Angel onstage for the rest of the show, up on the fire escape, watching over her friends, literally an angel in heaven. So many people told me how much they loved that. It made that whole last part of the show so much more intense, more emotional, more beautiful.

As our Rent journey comes to an end, I find myself so grateful to this cast of fearless, honest, fascinating actors. Most of the leads were shocked we cast them in these roles, but they all turned in brilliant, subtle, powerful performances. As I have the privilege of doing every so often, I taught them something about what they're capable of, something they didn't know about themselves. Some of them were scared because they aren't the usual physical types for the roles, but our audiences embraced them all so completely. These characters looked like they lived in the real world, rather than on a Broadway stage or in a Hollywood movie. And though I'm obviously biased, I think the acting in our production was the best, deepest, more authentic acting I've ever seen in Rent. And our often very different characterizations made more sense.

Evan Fornachon as Roger was the heart and soul of the show. We had worked with him only once before, in the ensemble of Cry-Baby. He's only nineteen, but he was so easy to direct, so great to work with, and his performance was nothing short of extraordinary. Not a phony moment anywhere. Rather than a bad boy rocker, this Roger was an artistic introvert (we gave him really long bangs to hide behind), which made his scenes with Mimi so much more vulnerable, so much sweeter. He's one of those actors who's completely open to everything, and though he already knew Rent backwards and forwards, he never hesitated for a moment when we led him down a very different Rent road. One other thing about Evan – every single time you give him a note, he says "Thank you." It's a little thing, but it's really nice. To some extent, that's just Evan, the nicest guy you'll ever meet, but it also tells you that he understands the note, and it shows you his mindset, that he knows we give him notes to help him create his best possible performance. Some actors are defensive and perceive notes as criticism rather than building blocks. All those thank yous were so nice.

Jeremy Hyatt as Mark brought such energy and wry humor to his role as narrator. I learned from the 2011 off Broadway revival, that casting these characters as young as they're written to be (which doesn't usually happen) makes the story much richer and much sadder. (Jeremy just turned 21.) The friendship between Roger and Mark felt so incredibly authentic because Evan and Jeremy really are good friends (which we didn't know when we cast them), and they were utterly fearless in their big fight scene in "Goodbye Love." There's nothing more dramatic onstage than a real knock-down-drag-out fight, and they delivered. It was so sad to see these close friends screaming at each other, lashing out, bringing each other to the verge of tears. Evan and Jeremy both have great voices, but they're also already serious, accomplished actors.

And then there's Anna Skidis who played Mimi. She wasn't sure she was up to this at first, but Dowdy and I never doubted her for a second. She has a huge, gorgeous voice, but she almost always plays the wacky character roles. This role was a wild departure for her, but we knew she had this in her. We knew she was a good enough actor to find and inhabit this complicated woman. And we were right. Anna was brilliant every night, funny, emotional, ironic, damaged, sexy, hopeful...

Now everybody knows Anna isn't just a wacky character actor. What's extra cool is that she's now moving on to a completely different kind of role, as Norma in New Line's Hands on a Hardbody. Also, moving on to Hardbody is another of our new folks, Marshall Jennings who played Tom Collins.

I saw Marshall in a production of Parade and was mightily impressed by him as an actor and singer. From the very first rehearsal, I felt so confident about Marshall. He asked lots of really smart questions, and we could tell from those questions that he was on exactly the right path. He was a different Collins, much funnier, less secure, more emotionally open. I can't imagine a better, more interesting Collins. The relationship between Collins and Luke Steingruby's more Zen-like, more ladylike Angel was so cool, so believable, so sweet, that Collins' eulogy was almost unbearably emotional. And this reading of Angel really supported our choice to make her a literal angel for the second half of Act II.

The triumph of Shawn Bowers' portrayal of Benny was that in our production Benny wasn't a dick (which is what I've usually seen in Rent). He was a basically decent guy (okay, aside from cheating on his wife) who really did not understand his friends' Bohemian worldview, a guy who really was trying to do something he thought would be good for him and his friends. Shawn's Benny seemed not to understand how he and his friends had grown apart. He was more complicated in more interesting ways. And once again, Shawn was totally easy to direct. Any note Dowdy or I ever gave him would be fully integrated into his performance the next time we ran that scene, even if it was just twenty minutes later.

The same was true of Cody LaShea who played Joanne, also new to us. Some actors legitimately need time to merge our notes with their work, but actors like Shawn and Cody, who deliver instantaneously, are such a gift to a director. Cody's Joanne was so real, no artifice, no "acting." And she was always open to anything we asked of her. One of the big surprises of our production was the obvious, palpable love between Maureen (played by the world's most versatile actor Sarah Porter) and Joanne. Because Sarah's Maureen wasn't the ice bitch she usually is, because our Maureen was so funny and so weirdly charming, the audience really loved her, which made the audience invested in Maureen and Joanne's relationship. In so many nonverbal ways, Sarah and Cody gave us a detailed arc of the ups and downs of their relationship, as they both learn how to accept and love each other as they are. At least in our production, this is the relationship that has the best chance of lasting.

And let's be honest, nobody's ever seen an "Over the Moon" like Sarah's. Not only was it brilliant and hilarious, it also made every other version look bland and uninteresting by comparison. The only direction I gave her was two specific moves to match certain words, and then I told her all I needed beyond that was that every choice in the performance was something Maureen had thought about a long time; no matter how bad her choices are, she fully believes in them. I told her she could do anything she wanted and it didn't have to be the same every night. (That's not something I often say to an actor, but I really trust her.) This wasn't an "Over the Moon" designed to get cheap laughs (though Sarah is a brilliant comedian), it was designed to come as organically as possible from the character. And that's what made it so very funny. It really was a revelation. Which I don't think anyone expected.

Our cast as a whole was extraordinary, not only when they were singing, but also in the detailed characters they all created in each scene, even when they were just in the background. This wasn't an ensemble; this was a community. And that brought such life and reality to the story. And our musicians and designers also did extraordinary work. And while I'm at it, it's so nice to have two people in our booth, Kerrie and Gabe, who are really good at their jobs, incredibly nice people, and both planning to stick around for a while!

I also want to offer up a public thank-you to Mike Dowdy. He's been acting with us since 2009, and in 2012 we made him New Line's associate artistic director. He's directed Next to Normal and Rent with me, and for the foreseeable future, he's now going to direct all our shows with me. He's a master problem-solver when I get stuck, but he's also a fount of great ideas. And we're so utterly on the same wave length. Many times during Hell Week, I'd lean over and whisper something to him and he'd laugh because he'd just written down that same note. He and I have exactly the same taste and aesthetic, and I do much better work when he's at my side.

Finally, I wish I could thank Jonathan Larson. I often have the privilege of talking to the writers of the shows we produce, which can be so helpful. But I'll never get to tell Jonathan how deeply we loved working on his show, how much we all owe him, how much we all wish we could have seen what else he would have written.

It's as if Sondheim had died after Company, or as if Kander and Ebb had died after Cabaret.

We can't thank Jonathan, but we can bring his story to furious, joyful, rowdy, beautiful life, and we can share it with the thousands of people who came to see us during the run. We can keep Jonathan alive because he's everywhere in this show. Larson wrote before he died that Rent is about celebrating life, even in the face of death. That's also what life's about. And that's how we keep Jonathan alive.

We celebrate.

We have to say goodbye to the Alphabet City Avant Garde now, but we've all been touched so deeply by this show that these Bohemians will always be with us. Like Hair, working on Rent changes you.

And really, if you don't walk out of the theatre different than when you came in, what's the point? You could just stay home and watch a sitcom. As I've said for a long time (and will keep saying for a long time), people don't go to the theatre (or the movies) for escape; they go for connection, "in an isolating age."

It's so hard to let go of something this wonderful. But a week from tonight, we have our first rehearsal for Hands on a Hardbody. So I have to move on. But I'll never forget this experience.

I love my job, and I love the New Liners.

Long Live the Musical!