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‘Rent’: Bohemian theatre at its finest

On January 25, 1996, American composer and playwright Jonathan Larson passed away at the age of 35; his untimely death occurred just one day before the Off-Broadway premiere opening of Rent – a seven-year project on which he and playwright Billy Aronson initially collaborated. The musical rock opera became an instant hit, moved to Broadway three months later, and garnered Larson three Tony Awards and the coveted Pulitzer.

Aronson wanted to create “a musical based on Puccini’s La boheme, in which the luscious splendor of Puccini’s world [1800’s Paris] would be replaced with the coarseness and noise of modern [1980’s] New York.” Along with the many parallels to La boheme, Larson included autobiographical arrangements: the play is set in the East Village of Manhattan – just down the street from the apartment he shared with Jennifer Beals’ (The L Word) brother Greg (from whom the character of Roger is loosely based); the fact that Larson lived in poor conditions like no heat, a bathtub in the middle of the kitchen and the inability to ‘buzz’ people into his secure building is reflected in Rent; and one storyline in which Maureen leaves Mark for a woman is based on the fact that Larson’s girlfriend left him for another woman.

Also incorporated into the musical are actual New York establishments and historical events; the riot at the end of the first act is based on “the East Village conflicts of the late ’80s that arose as a result of the city-imposed curfew in Tompkins Square Park.”

Late this spring Pioneer Theatre Company brings Rent back to the Utah stage. The show’s director Karen Azenberg (a long-time friend of Larson) says, “What I love about this piece, and I think was part of Jonathan’s intention, is that the LGBT characters, like all the characters, are human beings.”

“At the end of the day they are all people, who love and lose, laugh and cry, live and die,” Azenberg continues. “Embracing life and your fellow man, and having … for lack of a better term, love in your heart, are the most universal qualities that we might all strive to have define us. That sounds a bit Pollyanna-ish, but for the characters in the play, and in the world of the play, there is a level of acceptance of LGBT people that hopefully allows for the bigger message to come forward.”

(In 2009, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, of which Azenberg is president, adopted a ‘Memorandum of Support’ for marriage equality: “SDC works diligently to ensure equal and fair protection for all of its Members, … unanimously support the members of the LGBT community fighting to secure their constitutional right.”)

Azenberg met Larson when she had the opportunity to work with an organization that was developing work for educational theater. “They were pairing older established composers or lyricists with a younger, up-and-coming collaborator,” she remembers. “This is where I met Jonathan Larson, along with Hal Hackaday. They wrote a play called Blocks that was targeted at pre-teenagers and addressed the “blocks” that get in the way of personal success or confidence in people of that age. It’s a wonderful piece and it was also clear that Jonathan was a huge talent.”

The story of Rent involves a group of young Bohemian artists and musicians struggling to survive under the shadow of HIV/AIDS, during a period in which the infection was most obscure. The two-act show opens on Christmas Eve with Mark, a filmmaker (and narrator of the show) and his roommate Roger – a reformed junkie and musician – shooting a documentary. As the act progresses, other lead characters are introduced: Tom,  a gay philosophy professor; Benny, the apartment building’s landlord; Joanne, a gay lawyer; Maureen, a bisexual performance artist; Angel, a drag queen  street percussionist; and Mimi, an S&M dancer.

Also during the first act, romances evolve between several of the characters, a civil protest is marked, and Mark and Roger are threatened with eviction. During the second act, from New Year’s Eve through spring, jealousies erupt, a life ends and the audience becomes privy to epiphanic life lessons.

“Part of the message of the play is to live for today – now – appreciate everything you have, and experience as you are living it,” explains Azenberg.

Considering that Azenberg knew Larson and “that he never lived to see the incredible success and response to this play, it’s so emotional and heartbreaking, bizarre and foreboding.”

Musically, Azenberg says of Rent,”Jonathan’s score is brilliant. He is really one of the first composers to successfully meld a contemporary rock ‘n’ roll sound and musical theater storytelling into a complete piece of theater. His musical choices were very reflective of the kind of music that each character in the piece would listen to.”

“I think this is a very well-structured play that tells a really touching and universal story, and though this production will not copy the Broadway version in terms of the staging, I very much hope to hold onto the authors’ storytelling intentions,” adds Azenberg.

Rent runs June 10-25, Simmons Pioneer Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, UofU. Tickets now available at 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org.

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