Rent the Musical – La Boheme re-imagined for the Aids generation on 20th anniversary UK tour
Rent the Musical, with book, lyrics and music by Jonathan Larson, opened off Broadway in February 1996, running for two months before it transferred to Broadway where it ran for 12 years. Tragically, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm shortly after the dress rehearsal for what would become a hit show, winning four Tony Awards including Best Musical, the Pulitzer prize for drama. The New York Times called it an “exhilarating, landmark rock opera.”
This 20th anniversary UK touring production roared into the Festival Theatre this week, attracting a large fan base, who applaused the energetic cast with a standing ovation.
The show, inspired by Puccini’s romantic opera, La Boheme (1896), about a group of Bohemian artistes in 19th century Paris, with the plot shifted to New York a century later. In a run down loft apartment in the East Village, Manhattan, a group of friends struggle to make a living due to homelessness, unemployment, drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, social and political unrest.
The towering, multi-storey, industrial scaffolding stage set, with flashing Café and Don’t Walk signs, represents the Urban Jungle where life is rough and tough for the junkies, druggies, drop outs and bag ladies, as envisioned by Jonathan Larson:
“In these dangerous times, where it seems the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can all learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day and we should reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life at the end of the millennium.”
Puccini’s characters have been re-imagined for the late 20th century: the poet Rodolfo becomes Roger, the songwriter, Marcello the painter is now Mark the filmmaker. Tom Collins a gay anarchist is based on Colline the philosopher, and Schuanard is now Angel Schunard, a transvestite street drummer. Musetta is Maureen, a bisexual performance artist and Mimi, the poor, TB-stricken seamstress is cast as an exotic, erotic dancer. (Perhaps a fashion designer would have been more apt!).
The narrative opens on Christmas Eve and relates the lives and loves of this group of housemates over the next year, which Mark is capturing on film for a social documentary.
“ December 24th, 9pm, Eastern Standard time, from here on in, I shoot without a script.. first shot Roger, tuning his fender guitar he hasn’t played in a year”.
There’s plenty of drama for Mark to film, first reporting on Roger, who is HIV positive and trying to compose a significant song as his legacy, and their neighbourhood rent strike against the landlord now planning to evict them.
Lying on a mattress upstairs in this squat is Mimi, a tiny doll of a girl, diagnosed HIV positive through drug abuse. Frail and vulnerable from lack of food, desperate for heat and light, she asks Roger to “Light my Candle”, their brief encounter leading to a rocky, romantic affair.
Living an impoverished existance on the edge of society, the friends exist from day to day. In a rousing choral anthem “Seasons of Love,” they reflect on how to measure the 525,600 minutes in a year. “In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife, how do you measure a year in life?
Another theme the musical explores is the discrimination of artists, homosexuals, and others whose lifestyles go “against the grain, going insane”, as described in the song “La Vie Bohème.” There’s some vivacious dancing throughout such as a fabulous Tango sequence with Mark and Joanne strutting their stuff with pin point precision.
However, as this is a through sung musical, there is no dialogue, and the over amplification from the stage band drowns out most of the lyrics. Without the essential narration, it is extremely difficult to follow the plot and to empathise with the characters and their individual dilemmas.
La Bohème oozes with the life affirming notion of love and romance, despite the students’ hard times. In contrast, Rent portrays a permanent dark mood which is angry and negative. Twenty years on since the premiere, the tragic plight of the Aids generation today appears rather dated. What is missing in this rather raucous rock show, is a true sense of emotion. Following the self-destruction of several characters, it’s hard to connect and feel sincerity and truth behind their sad, wasted lives. At its core, there is little heart.
Les Miserables managed to bridge the gap turning the story of The Glums into a richly dramatic, heartfelt musical.
More akin to Puccini’s “Che gelida manina” (Your tiny hand is frozen) is Roger and Mimi’s soulful duet, “Another Day” – “There is no future, There is no past, I live this moment as my last, There’s only us, There’s only this, Forget regret, Or life is yours to miss, No other road, No other way, No day but today”
These lyrics more than any other sum up the underlying theme of Rent, and punch home Jonathan Larson’s prophetic message, Carpe Diem, seize the day.
Rent the Musical, 14 -18 February, 2017 – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh. http://www.edtheatres.com
UK tour dates until 27 May 2017- http://www.rentonstage.co.uk/