The Dormston Mill Theatre, Sedgley – 2009
Rent is a rock musical, with music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème. It tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York’s Lower East Side in the thriving days of the Bohemian East Village, under the shadow of AIDS.
In 1988, playwright Billy Aronson wanted to create “a musical based on Puccini’s La Bohème, in which the luscious splendour of Puccini’s world would be replaced with the coarseness and noise of modern New York.” In 1989 Jonathan Larson, a 29-year-old composer, began collaborating with Aronson on this project, and the two composed a few songs together, including “Santa Fe”, “Rent”, and “I Should Tell You”. Larson made the suggestion to set the play in the East Village, the artsy avant-garde neighbourhood of Manhattan down the street from his Greenwich Village apartment, and also came up with the show’s ultimate title (a decision that Aronson was unhappy with, at least until Larson pointed out that “rent” also means torn apart). In 1991, he asked Aronson if he could use Aronson’s original concept and make Rent his own. Larson had ambitious expectations for Rent; his ultimate dream was to write a rock opera “to bring musical theatre to the MTV generation.” Aronson and Larson made an agreement that if the show went to Broadway, Aronson would share in the proceeds.
Jonathan Larson focused on composing Rent in the early 1990s, waiting tables at the Moondance Diner to support himself. Over the course of seven years, Larson wrote hundreds of songs and made many drastic changes to the show, which in its final incarnation contained forty-two songs. In the fall of 1992, Larson approached James Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, with a tape and copy of Rent’s script. When Rent had its first staged reading at the New York Theatre Workshop in March 1993, it became evident that despite its very promising material and moving musical numbers, many structural problems needed to be addressed including its cumbersome length and overly complex plot.
As of 1994, the New York Theatre Workshop version of Rent featured songs that never made it to the final version, such as “You’ll Get Over It”, the predecessor of “Tango: Maureen,” featuring Mark and Maureen; “Female to Female A & B,” featuring Maureen and Joanne; and “Real Estate”, a number where Benny tries to convince Mark to become a real estate agent and drop his photography. This workshop version of Rent starred Anthony Rapp as Mark and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Mimi. Larson continued to work on Rent, gradually reworking its flaws and staging more workshop productions.
On January 24, 1996, after the musical’s final dress rehearsal before its off-Broadway opening, Larson enjoyed his first newspaper interview with music critic Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times, attracted by the coincidence that the show was debuting exactly 100 years after Puccini’s opera. Larson would not live to see Rent’s success; he died from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm (believed to have resulted from Marfan syndrome) in the early morning of January 25, 1996, just a few hours after his first and only interview. The first preview of Rent was cancelled and instead, friends and family gathered at the theater where the actors performed a sing-through of Rent in Larson’s memory. The show premiered as planned and quickly gained popularity fuelled by enthusiastic reviews and the recent death of its composer. It proved extremely successful during its off-Broadway run, selling out all its shows at the 150-seat New York Theatre Workshop. Due to such overwhelming popularity and a need for a larger theatre, Rent moved to Broadway’s previously derelict Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street on April 29, 1996.
Director – Peter Davis
Musical Director – Adam Joy
Choreographer – Claire Kramer
Stage Manager – Andy Thacker