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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!