La Vie Boheme
BY EVELYN McDONNELL
Family is the backbone of American society and the crippler of our culture. It’s the entity that binds us together and to which we cling when we should reach out. Like the characters in the first scene of the musical Rent, who screen out and cringe at a phone call from “dear old Mom and Dad,” we run away from family, even as we seek it.
Jonathan Larson, Rent’s creator, grew up in a tight-knit family that included friends in its suburban embrace. He spent his life expanding that definition of family, until he had created a surrogate network of friends and lovers in New York: a new family he immortalized in his Pulitzer-and-Tony-winning musical. Some of those characters are gay, some have AIDS, some are or were junkies, one’s a drag queen.
This week, nine years after his death at age 36, Larson is doing for the notion of family entertainment what his musical did for family values: challenging and promoting. Chris Columbus’s Hollywood homage to Rent opens nationwide Wednesday with a PG13 rating. The fact Larson’s motley, loving characters have found their way into the boyish hands of the director of Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter movies is the latest twist in Rent’s 16-year road to America’s malls.
“It is a family movie,” says Rosario Dawson, whose star turn as Mimi, an HIV-positive, heroin-addicted, heart-of-gold dancer, is reason enough to drive anyone with a pulse to theaters after turkey. “That’s the exact reason Chris is the perfect person to direct it. These are young people who found family among each other.”
Rent is a tragic story of gritty circumstances. Yet its heartbeat, with which Columbus connects abundantly, is joy. Larson’s brainy rock and pop songs transcend with the energy their creator found in art and friendship.
“While the surface wrapping has changed,” says Julie Larson, Jonathan’s only sibling and the show’s co-producer, “the core themes of Rent are timeless and universal. It’s about being present in your life; about everyone wanting to feel like they have a sense of community and that they belong somewhere and they have worth; about being passionate about what you do, staying true to yourself and living every moment to the fullest.”
UPDATING LA BOHEME
Rent is a film of a musical that updates an opera based on a collection of stories. Playwright Billy Aronson had the original idea: to set La Bohme in the East Village in the ’80s. Giacomo Puccini’s 1895 opera took Henri Murger’s 1848 book Scenes de la Vie Bohme and wove a tragic story of tuberculosis-stricken and penniless artists in Paris.
Aronson’s search for a composer brought him to Larson in ’89. The young, lanky, enthusiastic Sondheim student recognized in these 19th-century archetypes his own struggle as a dedicated, strapped artiste, and the fates of friends diagnosed with HIV. Larson came up with the title, and after two years of on and off writing with Aronson, took over the project.
“One has ideas all the time,” says Aronson, who receives credit and royalties for the show’s original concept. “One never knows how long they’ll last or where they’ll end up. I certainly didn’t think Broadway when I thought La Bohme and homelessness and AIDS and poverty. To have it mainstream is an achievement, especially to have it be true to the spirit of it.”
In an era when alternative and mainstream culture work in oppositional collusion, Larson was a disciple of neither. He liked to introduce himself as the “future of the American musical,” even while waiting tables at a diner. His ideas were weighty for that stagnant and sentimental art form.
“He was always very politically aligned, very astute to issues in the country,” says Matt O’Grady, Larson’s best friend since childhood. “He was a sociologist in his own way.”
Rent became Larson’s passion. The musical went through several workshops and rewrites before landing in the hands of off-Broadway’s New York Theater Workshop and director Michael Greif. When illness sent Larson to the emergency room twice in the weeks before it was to open, he was diagnosed with a bad flu. Friends thought he was stressed and overworked. No one saw the tragedy building in his heart.
On the night of Jan. 24, 1996, after giving the final dress rehearsal a standing ovation, well wishers, including a writer for The New York Times, surrounded Larson in the theater. Presumably with his large ears ringing with praise, Rent’s creator went home to his West Village apartment. He put a kettle on for tea, collapsed to the floor and died.
Rent was set to open for previews that night. Instead, the theater and cast honored Larson’s memory by staging a sing-through for his friends and family. The young cast of mostly unknowns sang despite throats closed in shock. As Larson’s music built, they rose from their seats. By the time they reached the end of the first act, they were dancing on the tables — living, not acting, La Vie Bohme’s jubilant celebration.
“We were really saying the things that we were feeling and feeling the things that we were saying,” says Anthony Rapp, who played Rent narrator Mark that night and in Columbus’s film. “It fused it. It transformed forever in that moment. It’s a part of our being.”
Rent became a sensation, credited with reinvigorating musicals and introducing a new generation to theater, and visa versa. The production quickly moved to Broadway, where it is still playing, creating an army of “Rentheads.” It has won numerous awards, including four Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize.
Studios immediately fought for the film rights. Miramax and Tribeca won. Yet it took almost a decade for Larson’s vision to land on the big screen.
Hollywood worried Rent’s “time had come and gone,” says Julie Larson. Studios feared musicals couldn’t perform at the box office, until Chicago. And they thought audiences didn’t care about AIDs anymore. Spike Lee came on board then left. Scarily, it almost became a TV movie.
Columbus saw Rent shortly after it opened on Broadway and was immediately “obsessed.” His company, 1492 Pictures, sought the rights for years. In ’94, with the financial help of Revolution Studios, he finally acquired the faltering project.
It was a surprising and controversial choice. Columbus has no experience with serious subjects or musicals. Yet he says that, having been a struggling artist in New York, Rent is the film closest to his heart: “This is the only film I’ve been involved with that feels this personal to me . . . I knew this world.”
Julie Larson, a 17-year veteran of film and TV production, says she was immediately impressed by Columbus’s love of Rent and easygoing spirit: “It became very clear that he really understood the material, that he truly was a fan, and that this would be a passion project for him. To a person . . . it was the most collaborative, inclusive, loving environment I’ve ever been in on a set.”
In part, that was because Columbus cast six of Rent’s eight original ensemble members. Jonathan Larson had handpicked these actors with Greif; he shaped material around their quirks and personalities. “Chris understood it wasn’t a star vehicle,&rd Julie says. “The cast was very much an integral part of the original process with Jon. There was this bond and this experience that they and we as a family all went through together that has tied us all together for our lives.”
Some Rent stars have built solid careers, such as Taye Diggs (How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and Jesse L. Martin (Law and Order). For a few, like Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won the Tony for personifying Rent’s great heart as Angel, post-Rent fame has been inexplicably elusive.
Missing are Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi, who was pregnant at the time of filming, and Fredi Walker. Columbus says he and Walker agreed she had “aged out” of the show. At a Rent press conference, Martin said the missing cast members were “devastated” at not being in the film, and it was “devastating” not having them as part of the reconstructed family.
Columbus admits Rent represents his own maturation. As with the Harry Potter films, he tends to err on the side of fidelity. The movie leads with its strengths: Larson’s music and those original voices. Rent opens with the cast assembling onstage to sing the spiritual Seasons of Love.
Columbus expanded parts that Larson never quite finished. But the director didn’t soften harsh or racy subject matter. Lesbians and gays cuddle and make out. Junkies shoot up. Go-go girls shimmy. People die, horribly. Columbus says he was surprised he only had to make minor deletions — some “f-bombs,” a fraction of a second of a needle entering a vein — to earn a PG13 rating. The ratings board told him that they thought the film was important for young people.
The director speaks of Rent as if it were a mission. “I think it’s important everyone see it,” he says. “Our country is at a point now where I feel we’ve taken a giant step backward compared to 1996. Things like diversity and alternative lifestyles and acceptance and tolerance, those are like bad words. This movie makes people think about them again.”
Far from having aged, Rent may be more relevant than ever. The man who first dreamed it up visited the set in San Francisco (the movie was also shot on location in New York and in sound studios.) “Why shouldn’t a sensitive, commercially successful director be doing it?” says Aronson. “The aspect of the show that’s about sweetness and love and friendship and that’s upbeat in the face of a lot of heavy stuff: his personality seemed just right for it. The thought guys are kissing guys and women kissing women in a holiday feature the family sees on Thanksgiving is great.”
O’Grady says if Larson had lived, he would be attacking politics head on, writing songs about the right to choose and gay marriage. “I’m so happy more people are going to be able to hear Jonathan’s message of hope and forgiveness and love,” says the man who inspired the character Angel. “And yet, he’s not here.”
Herald critic Evelyn McDonnell wrote the history of the musical Rent that was published with the libretto.