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Life, Death and ‘Rent’ : Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer winner celebrates the artists and HIV-positive addicts he knew, a ‘Hair’ cut for the ‘90s. The show couldn’t have gone to Broadway without him. And then it did.

Patrick Pacheco is a frequent contributor to Calendar

It was closing night for the new musical “Rent” at the New York Theatre Workshop, a 150-seat East Village theater where the pop opera, loosely based on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” opened in February. Onstage, friends and creative personnel, including director Michael Greif, mingled with the youthful cast and band in the kind of pizza-and-beer ritual that has been repeated countless times in experimental theater spaces.

But this celebration was distinctly different. For one, television cameras and reporters were present at what had all the giddy earmarks of a bon voyage party. And indeed, this was not just a closing: “Rent” was on its way into previews for its Broadway opening April 29, and, though no one could have known it at the party, it was also on its way to winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama last week, two more stops in what has been one of the most extraordinary journeys in recent theater history.

But amid the celebration, a palpable ghost was in the room.

“This has been an insane experience--it’s like having been struck by a bolt of lightning,” said 25-year-old Daphne Rubin-Vega, who plays Mimi Marquez, an S/M dancer at the Cat Scratch Club. “I just wish Jonathan were here. He’s the one person responsible for all of this, and it sucks that he’s not here to enjoy it with us.”

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The Jonathan on the minds of almost everyone in the room was Jonathan Larson, the 35-year-old author and composer of “Rent.” It is his life and the lives of his friends that are reflected in the musical, a raw and exuberant celebration of bohemian East Village artists--drag queens, drug addicts, performance artists and vagrants--living on the edge. The prevalence of violence and HIV in the stories of these characters suffuses the musical with the fragility of life, the theme of Puccini’s opera. Indeed early in “Rent,” a character sings of writing one song " . . . before I go, one song to leave behind. . . . " All the more affecting, therefore, that on Jan. 25, the day “Rent” was to begin previews at NYTW, Larson died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm.

While Larson had previously shown promise with two comparatively modest shows (“Superbia,” “JP Morgan Saves the Nation”) and had won prestigious theater grants, he was largely unknown among New York’s theater-going public at the time of his death. But that changed dramatically after “Rent” opened on Feb. 13. Glowing reviews hailed Larson’s swan song as the “ ‘Hair’ of the ‘90s” and soon limousines were wending their way past the East Village bodegas and coffeehouses to the tiny theater on East 4th Street. Uptown theater owners began fiercely bidding, courting the show’s neophyte producers, and David Geffen or Ahmet Ertegun became the odds-on favorites to produce the show’s original cast album.

While there was talk of opening the show in a West Village theater, the heat and momentum made Broadway all but inevitable. Yet questions remain about how well the show will do on Broadway, with its very different demographics. After all, Broadway ticket buyers hardly seem to be hungering for a musical in which four of the seven leads are HIV-positive, the central romantic couple meets over a bag of heroin and vagrants snarl out Christmas carols.

Capitalized at a paltry $3.5 million at the Nederlander Theatre, situated in Broadway’s shabbiest area, “Rent” is in minimalist contrast to the glitzy revivals and over-produced musicals of recent years. Even “The Who’s Tommy,” its closest antecedent, seems grandfatherly compared to this brash Generation X upstart, with its cast of unknowns, some of whom had never done theater before.

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“You know, if someone had told me two months ago that this show was moving to Broadway, I’d have said they were nuts,” said Adam Pascal, a rock musician making his theater debut in the role of Roger, the tortured songwriter in love with Mimi. “But now it makes a weird kind of sense to me. I think we’re going to draw a really bizarre mix of people, some who’ve never set foot in a theater.”

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Shortly after “Rent” opened at the NYTW, director Greif sat down at NYTW’s offices to chat. As the phones rang persistently from callers asking about tickets, the director looked emotionally wrung out but gratified by the show’s success and intrigued by its commercial possibilities.

“I think it’s a really important conversation to have, where the new audience for theater is going to come from,” Greif said. “How do we get them to find something of value in their lives in the theater?

“That’s why I got so excited about ‘Rent,’ ” he added, noting that two years ago, NYTW’s artistic director James C. Nicola and Larson had sent him a tape and script of the show. “Here was an opportunity to express things you generally don’t find expressed in musical theater, yet it was a wonderful hybrid of some very operatic impulses, some very conventional musical theater impulses, and some not very conventional musical theater impulses, such as collage and nonrealistic storytelling. As I read on and listened, the doors of possibility opened.”

Larson’s pop opera began to evolve in the late 1980s, when he seized the concept that some of the themes and plot points of Puccini’s “La Boheme” reflected his own life. Larson had had a relatively privileged upbringing in Westchester, but after graduating from New York’s Adelphi University he waited tables and lived in a shabby TriBeCa apartment with, as Greif put it, “one extension cord going out of the window and a cavalcade of roommates, some of whom were addicts and some of whom were not and some of whom had HIV and some of whom did not.”

In a note, written for the NYTW program, Larson stated his aims: “With this work, I celebrate my friends and the many others who continue to fulfill their dreams and live their lives in the shadow of AIDS. 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.”

When Larson won a Richard Rodgers theater grant in early 1994, a musical workshop of “Rent” became possible. He had already found a champion in NYTW’s Nicola, who suggested Greif as the workshop’s director. Greif, who had just been appointed artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, had very little experience in musical theater aside from having assisted his La Jolla predecessor Des McAnuff on “Big River” in the early ‘80s. (He has since directed Randy Newman’s “Faust” at La Jolla.) But his inexperience played in his favor, said Nicola and Larson.

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“His understanding of how a Broadway musical worked was a good thing,” Nicola explained. “But it didn’t form his style. Michael has a downtown sensibility, a way of telling stories in a way that is very stripped down and simple yet theatrically bold. Jonathan and I both thought this was absolutely the right style for the narrative.”

The workshop in the fall of 1994 was successful enough to become a prelude to a full-scale production at NYTW the following season. By this point, too, two young producers, Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum of the Booking Office, and their older partner Allan Gordon, won the rights for a commercial production. Even with their added capital, the budget for the NYTW production was minimal--$200,000--and sets and costumes were, aptly enough, as threadbare as the show’s have-nots.

Paul Clay’s set, which will be scaled up for Broadway, is largely an impressionistic steel framework and walk-through scaffolding decorated with found objects, one corner of which is taken up by the band. It is left to the actors and some clever lighting to suggest the settings, which include a loft, a performance club and vacant lots.

“We didn’t want it to become over-literal,” Greif said. “As Jonathan was fond of saying, ‘Make something out of nothing,’ and I wanted to celebrate that kind of theater. We didn’t want to get away from that concert-like presentation even if we had a gazillion dollars to spend.”

More problematic to all concerned was how best to focus the narrative, which meandered through the emotional ups and downs of three couples, against a chorus of nudging parents, HIV support groups and local junkies and homeless people. The question was how to balance the primary relationships in “Rent": Roger, the aspiring songwriter, and his relationship with the sultry and self-destructive Mimi; Angel, the life-embracing joyous drag queen (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) who finds a soulmate in Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin); and law student Joanne (Fredi Walker) who steals Maureen, the performance artist (Idina Menzel), away from Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp), the filmmaker who is obsessed with recording his friends’ lives before they are prematurely snuffed out.

“How do you tell all those stories so they’re not just a blob?” asked Greif, adding that two years of debating such questions ended with Larson’s death just before the critical phase of previews began. “Ultimately, the consensus led to the conclusion that it was about the community itself, about people and artists struggling to live with disease in dignity and wholeness and to honor that without being sanctimonious.

“It would’ve been easier if that had not been the focus,” he added. “But that came directly out of Jonathan’s material, and while I wish he’d been around so that I could’ve fought with him about certain things, I’m also sure I would’ve lost those battles. These questions of how you tell the story of a community continue to challenge me. The show has flaws, certainly.”

Whether Greif will have enough time before the show opens on Broadway to smooth out some of those flaws is another question. Producer Jeffrey Seller has dubbed the swift move “Operation Desert Storm” and the onslaught has begun. The ads for the show are simple: the title, stenciled in crooked block letters, and a number to call for tickets. It is a low-key antidote to the avalanche of hype that has set up “Rent” as the musical to beat for the Tony, though it stands to get a run for its money from another unconventional transfer, off-Broadway’s “Bring on Da Noise/Bring on Da Funk,” the tap-rap musical directed by George C. Wolfe at the Ambassador Theatre.

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The media attention and the Pulitzer have not only boosted ticket sales--the show has a respectable $4-million advance--but also increased the heat surrounding the movie sale. Agent Bill Craver of Writers and Artists, who is handling the negotiations, had no comment, but producer McCollum confirmed reports in the trades that Warner Bros. is actively bidding on behalf of Joel Schumacher and that Fox’s Searchlight Division and Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films also have been negotiating. McCollum added that there are more companies expressing an interest.

Greif says he isn’t worried about a possible backlash from either East Villagers who may not recognize themselves on the stage or from a public primed on hype. It’s Jonathan’s friends who are up there, not a ZIP Code, he says.

“On the other hand, Jonathan had a very far-reaching soul,” Greif said. “I don’t think he was writing for White Plains or Scarsdale, but he came from there and that’s part of him. So ‘Rent’ doesn’t affront parents. It tries to be inclusive.”

“I just hope they get the same experience as audiences had here,” said Nicola, hoping that the media spotlight and career ambitions will not swamp the ensemble work of the young cast. “Losing Jonathan at the moment we did is a tremendous strength in the onslaught. I think it keeps everybody with their feet on the ground--that sadness that the person who really deserves most of these accolades is not here. In the face of either scorn or acclaim, for better or worse, we’ve had a real reality check built into this.”

Indeed, on the day Jonathan Larson died, the shocked cast and creative team gathered at the theater in the evening for an impromptu memorial tribute to the composer. He was remembered warmly and wittily by his stricken friends, details of whose lives he had put into “Rent.” Then the cast sang through the score of the musical, with its anthems of longing and regret, love of life and celebration of community.

“I think we all felt Jonathan’s spirit that night, absolutely,” Nicola said. “And he was here with us on opening night and has been every night. I really believe that.”

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“Rent” opens April 29 at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., New York. Previews begin Tuesday. (212) 307-4100.


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