Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 1997
“Let he among us without sin
Be the first to condemn
La vie boheme”
As the East Village artists and bohemians sang their hearts out, not many stepped forward to condemn “Rent”, which glorified La vie boheme, the bohemian life. Loosely based on the Puccini opera, “La Boheme,” the musical was set in Greenwich Village in the ’90s, amid sex, drugs, love, anguish, AIDS, and as always among artists, unpaid rent. As the lyric goes, “We’re not gonna pay/ Last year’s rent/ This year’s rent/ Next year’s rent / ‘Cause everything is rent.”
Well, everything is “Rent” at La Jolla Playhouse this year.
It was a major coup for the theatre to score the West coast premiere, which serves as the centerpiece of the 50/15 anniversary season of the Playhouse (50 years since its inception; 15 since its 1982 revitalization).
But of course, San Diego had a foot in the door. Playhouse artistic director Michael Greif directed the original production of “Rent” at New York Theatre Workshop (which opened February 13, 1996) and shepherded the move to Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre (on April 29, 1996). He won a Tony nomination and an Obie Award for Best Direction. The joyous, scrappy, hip, tough and turbulent rock opera roped in every Best Musical award of the year, including the Tony, Obie, Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics’ Circle and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Not only was it called the “breakthrough musical of the nineties” (Newsweek). It was hailed as the best musical since “A Chorus Line” in the seventies, the most innovative since “Hair” in the sixties, and even “the best new musical since the 1950s” (Wall Street Journal).
The triumph was bittersweet. Jonathan Larson, the much-heralded creator of “Rent’s” book, music and lyrics, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm, ten days before his 36th birthday and two days before the play’s world premiere previews began.
“It was unbelievable sorrow in the midst of great celebration,” says Greif, still obviously feeling the pain. “It was always dual, yin and yang.” But the outcome was singular.
“I feel very happy with the hybrid form we wound up with,” explains Grief, who worked with Larson on the piece for two years. “And I think Jonathan would be happy, too… It’s a musical theater event which tries to be as direct and theatrical as possible… Sure, we had MTV kids in mind. We wed storytelling styles with a rock concert. People sing right out to the audience [wearing or holding microphones]. It was a very deliberate choice.
“But what really makes it work is the characters. They’re extraordinarily compelling and likable. Their needs are set up clearly, urgently and originally. And the audience gives them their heart.
“The 13 to 18 year-old group is the one most affected; they just go mad. They see their own problems [sex, drugs, AIDS, parents, heartbreak], and their enormous ability to fall in love, be crushed and fall in love again. For a lot of the older people, it’s a bit of nostalgia for the time in their lives when they loved that way. People recognize and remember. And the music grabs them… One of the most rewarding parts of all this is getting kids into the theater. Young lives have been changed. But it transcends generations.”
San Diegans of all ages are going gaga. All 70 performances of the original nine-week “Rent” run were sold out within a week. Standing room is still in great demand. In April, two additional weeks of performance were added (total run is July 1-September 14). With all this excitement and activity, and some successful management and creative decisions, the Playhouse projects that by the end of 1997, it will be able to retire the nearly $2 million debt that stood on its books just four years ago. The company entered its anniversary season with a record-breaking 14,000+ subscribers.
Meanwhile, “Rent” is going strong in New York, and the Boston company tours the East and Midwest. The La Jolla production will move to L.A. for an extended stay, and then go on tour. Grief looks forward to a Toronto run in the fall, London in the winter and Australia, probably Fall 1998.
Despite his high national profile, Greif remains loyal and committed to the Playhouse, which won the 1993 Tony Award as Outstanding Regional Theatre. His three-year contract is up in December, but he’s definitely renewing (for an undisclosed term).
“I feel really good about where we’re going [with the Playhouse],” he says. “I’m very happy to say we’ll have more active commissions of new work, and a fat production budget this year because of two musicals, (“Rent” and “Harmony”, the upcoming Barry Manilow/Bruce Sussman world premiere (October 7-November 23), inspired by the true story of The Comedian Harmonists in 1920’s Germany. This season is very lush.”
Right now, Greif is happy to be bringing his New York baby [“Rent”) to his San Diego home. “I think everyone is really looking forward to the benefit of its sitting here and my being able to look after it and check up on it and stay with it.” Spoken like a proud papa.
But then he adds, with a twinkle in his eye, “I always like it to have something of a reckless spirit. Some things need to be wild.”
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.