The Other Side of Summer: RENT

Bay City Players Explore Life on the Edge with a Contemporary & Controversial Tony Award Winning Broadway Classic

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 813   By: Robert E Martin

23rd July, 2015     0

Bay City Players is taking a walk on the wild side this summer with a highly anticipated production of the controversial Tony Award winning contemporary landmark musical RENT, which is currently in production and will enjoy a limited run beginning Friday, August 14th and continuing through Sunday, August 16th.

RENT is a full-blown Rock Musical with music & lyrics composed by the immensely talented and short-lived playwright Jonathan Larson. Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La boheme, it tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in New York City’s East Village in the thriving days of the bohemian atmosphere of Alphabet City back in the days when HIV/AIDS was beginning to cast its dark shadow.

The musical was first seen in a limited three-week workshop production at New York Theatre Workshop in 1994. This same Off-Broadway theatre was also the musical's initial home following its official January 25, 1996 opening. The show's creator, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly of an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, the night before the Off-Broadway premiere. The show went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, and the production was a hit. The musical moved to Broadway's larger Nederlander Theatre on April 29, 1996, where it received critical acclaim and won a Tony Award for Best Musical. The production closed on Broadway in 2008 after enjoying a 12-year run.

Larson's inspiration for RENT came from several different sources. Many of the characters and plot elements are drawn directly from Puccini's 1896 opera La bohème created a century earlier.

La bohème was also about the lives of poor young artists. Tuberculosis, the plague of Puccini's opera, is replaced by HIV/AIDS in RENT.  1800s Paris is replaced by New York's East Village in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

The genesis of RENT is an intriguing tale. In 1988, playwright Billy Aronson wanted to create "a musical based on Puccini's La Bohème, in which the luscious splendor 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", "Splatter" (later re-worked into the song "Rent"), and "I Should Tell You".

Larson suggested setting the play "amid poverty, homelessness, spunky gay life, drag queens and punk" in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, which happened to be down the street from his Greenwich Village apartment. He 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 theater 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 42 songs. In the fall of 1992, Larson approached James Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop, with a tape and copy of the script. When Rent had its first staged reading at 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.

On January 24, 1996, after the musical's final dress rehearsal before its off-Broadway opening, Larson had his first (and only) 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. The first preview of Rent was canceled and instead, friends and family gathered at the theater where the actors performed a sing-through of RENT in Larson's memory.

For director Michael Wisniewski, this ambitious presentation of RENT poses both an exciting and challenging opportunity for all involved; and also marks the first time that Bay City Players have embarked upon any ‘Summer Stock’ productions, which Wisniewski says has been under consideration for awhile.

“Even before our recent theatre renovation we were thinking about doing a show centered around a show that was something we couldn’t really fit into our regular season schedule,” he explains. “Because of the way our membership is comprised coupled with the theme of the show, it’s not for everyone. But for quite a few years we’ve been thinking about doing this in the summer as a sideline to take advantage of kids being home from college, so the opportunity was ripe. RENT is comprised of very much a younger cast of actors.”

According to Wisniewski, RENT is a story that revolves around several central characters that are roommates living in Alphabet City in what used to be a music publishing company. “The characters Mark & Roger are living rent free because the character Benny, who was their former roommate, owns the building. So basically they are living there rent free and all of a sudden he wants one year’s of rent from last year so that he can convert the building into an artists’ studio.”

“A lot happens and transpires throughout the story, which takes you from Christmas Eve one year into New Year’s Eve into Valentine’s Day and Halloween and ends the following year around Christmas Eve,” he continues. “One of the characters meets Angel, who is a drag queen that dies of AIDS; so really this musical looks at the relationships between several central characters, some of them struggling as junkies and all living on the edge.”

“When it debuted in the earlier ‘90s it was controversial when it came out because of these characters and the realism involved. The play deals with so many social issues ranging from homelessness and poverty to drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, all rooted in Alphabet City and done to rock music. But the underlying theme is love, which ties everything together because it deals with love in the context of finding it, losing it, breaking it off, and then rediscovering it.  All of the characters are very strong.”

With a cast of 20 actors, originally the production was performed with 14 ensemble players; but Wisniewski says the audition turnout was so strong, with 40 actors turning up for parts, that he made the decision to move with a larger cast, which consists of core roles being performed by Andrew Fergerson, Jake O’Connor, Brian Bateson, Ryan King, Rachel Atiemo-Obeng, Philip James Horen, Ekia Thomas and Megan Eager.

Loren Kranz will be handling the Musical Direction along with Sara Taylor; and according to Mike, the work is almost like a rock opera. “There is dialogue throughout RENT, so its not a true opera; but you’ve got some really nice love songs, big ensemble numbers, and some incredible scene with some really cool songs.”

In terms of Directorial interpretation, is Mike infusing any of his own sensibilities into the production? “Yes, I am,” he admits. “I really think if Jonathan Larsen had lived to see this production through the show would have evolved. I think he would have taken some aspects of the production and tweaked it a bit more; not that I’m changing anything, but I’m looking at the space that I have to work with and figuring how to work it so things are smooth for the audience. I really hate blackouts and think they stop the action.  But I must say I’m glad we have the new features that our stage now offers, because I’m really going way out on the apron with this production.”

When asked what he feels distinguishes RENT the most, Mike indeed points to the music. “I think the style of music and the range of the score is really spectacular. The music is so diverse and really well written, plus very tough to properly execute. It’s not an easy production.  The show is normally done with a unit set and the musical combo in the back, so you don’t have a conductor in front of the stage. Consequently, the actors have to be very tight on their music and pay attention to when they come in, seeing as they don’t really have any visual cues.”

“The cast absolutely love this show and are incredibly motivated,” adds Mike. “They’re really getting into their characters and becoming very tight as a unit. They are all growing very close and I think many of them will be devastated when this production is over.”

Tickets for Bay City Players’ production of RENT are now on sale by phoning 989-893-5555 or visiting www.baycityplayers.com

 

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