Future for rent

 

In one corner of the bar at the bus station, a man dances alone, oblivious both to curious glances and the empty glasses and bottles which crowd the counter in front of him. In another corner, as the buses rattle surreally overhead, two old-timers play dominoes with unruffled calm. New York on a Saturday night is full of stories, and this is one of them. Around the corner at 208 West 41st Street there is another. People are arriving at the Nederlander Theatre for the evening performance of the musical Rent.

So now you're going to ask: "What, exactly, is Rent all about?" Good question - and there are two answers. First, the plaudits. Since its premiere in 1996, Rent has lifted the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, the Obie Award, the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It has been on the cover of Newsweek and credited - by Rolling Stone, no less - with reinventing Broadway. But if you don't much care about any of that, if you just turn up to see the show, what do you get? Well, you get a swirl of unadulterated emotion; a dizzying procession of hummable songs, most of them clever, some of them crass; a bunch of eye-opening dance moves from a lithe, athletic cast; a transvestite, two lesbians and a partridge in a pear tree.

OK, I made the partridge up. But the reason Rent packs such a punch is that it's more than just a feel-good show set on the wrong side of the tracks or a remake of Puccini's La Boheme or a quirky version of Friends in which Joey dies of AIDS and Phoebe gets together with Monica. It's more than a musical which, refusing to stay strictly ballroom, strays into such atonal subject matter as homelessness and alienation. It's more, even, than a collection of brilliant rhymes - "German wine, turpentine, Gertrude Stein . . . To sodomy/ It's between God and me" - which thumb their noses at authority and the relentless march of the mainstream. Rent is, and possibly always will be, the story of its own creation - and here's why.

In the late 1980s, Jonathan Larson, a well-educated young white boy from an affluent New York suburb, precocious talent who had written, directed and starred in his own play by third grade, and began to write musicals in his final year at college, met up with Billy Aronson, an opera-loving Yale-trained playwright. Aronson wanted to rewrite Puccini's "struggling artist" opera for the end of the millennium; Larson wanted to bring the musical theatre into the 20th, or even the 21st, century. The pair couldn't settle on a setting for the work and in 1991, Larson asked Aronson if he could go on with the project by himself. Aronson agreed, and Larson shut himself into his apartment and wrote a show about himself and his friends.

Larson's life was, in itself, the stuff of theatre; a scruffy downtown loft with a bathtub in the kitchen, an illegal wood-burning stove and a dancer girlfriend who sometimes left him for other men and finally left him for another woman. While he was writing Rent, he worked three days a week as a waiter as a SoHo restaurant. Each Sunday night he boiled a pan of pasta and a potful of sauce and mixed them together - his dinners for the week. For breakfast he ate precisely one and a half bricks of Shredded Wheat a day. The idea was to fuel himself like a machine so that he could think about nothing but the show. In the summer of 1992, with a first draft under his belt and some of the songs already on tape, Larson hopped on his bike and went for a spin through New York's East Village, searching for a suitable venue for a production. He fell in with the New York Theatre Workshop and its artistic director Jim Nicola, and there followed a lengthy process of collaboration and reworking designed to mould Larson's chaotic jumble of foot-tapping songs into a coherent stage show whose credo could be summed up in one sentence: "Rent is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century."

By the evening of the final dress rehearsal, the New York Times had discovered that a rock musical based on La Boheme was going to premiere on the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Puccini's opera - a complete fluke on the part of the Rent production team - and excitement about the show was mounting. Larson was feeling unwell; he had a sore chest and a high temperature. But he took a taxi to the theatre, watched the rehearsal, and did an interview with the New York Times. Afterwards, his colleagues told him to take it easy and sleep well. He died in his apartment an hour later, of an aortic aneurysm. He was 35 years old. Next day, nobody knew what to do. Should they cancel, or play on as a tribute to Larson? In the end they decided on a sing-through, and throughout the first act, the cast performed from sitting or standing positions. But as the show progressed, they began to act and dance. The lighting people tiptoed into the lighting booth; the sound manager began to pick up his cues. The audience, largely composed of Larson's friends, family and colleagues, was crying and cheering. Here was a real-life weepie to make La Boheme blush.

As Daphne Rubin-Vega, who created the role of Mimi, puts it: "It let us remember that the bottom line is really about what you do with this experience, because tomorrow isn't promised you. There was no more powerful way of receiving that message than from someone who was completely healthy and died".

Or as David Lipsky puts it in the classy souvenir programme book, The Creation of Rent: "When the actors sing, they are somehow reassembling the personality of Jonathan". Thus it has become difficult, if not impossible, to separate the onstage drama of HIV-positive Roger and junkie Mimi, of movie-man Mark and his ex-girlfriend Maureen (now involved with Joanne), of college lecturer Tom Collins and his guardian Angel, of a chorus of homeless and/or HIV-positive people, from the drama of Larson's untimely death and the fact that he never lived to see the phenomenon his show turned out to be.

Rent still has the feel of a work in progress, and its hyper-emotional atmosphere is underlined by the fact that if you go to see it on Broadway, you may be sitting in the seat Mel Gibson or Janet Jackson or Jodie Foster sat in - and you'll almost certainly be alongside people who've been back to see the show 10 or 15 times. Those who go to see it at the Olympia Theatre from July 19th, in a Hands Turn production directed by Phil Wilmot, with musical direction by Annemarie Lewis Thomas, will perhaps be less aware of Rent's extra-theatrical factors than were we, sitting high up in the balcony of the Nederlander while someone announced from the stage that there would be a collection for the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids charity after the final curtain.

But this sassy roller-coaster of a show, with its theme of urban decay, its painful search for community and identity amid a society driven by celebrity status and dodgy property development, and its unashamedly gooey message of hope, is bound to strike a chord with audiences in Dublin's not-so-fair city. Miss it, as they say, at your peril.

Rent runs from July 19th until September 9th at the Olympia Theatre. Bookings: 016777744