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Renting Fame

July 26, 1998

Broadway's most celebrated musical pit-stops in Ottawa By JOSHUA OSTROFF - Ottawa Sun

The century is winding down. Socialism, a theory based on compassion, has failed miserably. Its selfish cousin, capitalism, is ruling the global roost. Reformers and Republicans want to cut arts funding while Harris, Chretien and the U.S. Congress are busy throttling social programs. Buzzwords like workfare, AIDS and heroin chic are ominously commonplace.

In other words, for the have-nots in '90s North America, it's getting harder and harder to pay the rent.

That is the underlying message of the most celebrated musical this decade, Rent -- starting a month-long run at the National Arts Centre this Thursday as part of Festival Canada '98.

But the creator of Rent, the late Jonathan Larson, did not want to simply inform the audience of how tough life in the '90s can be. He also wanted to impart a stronger message of positivity which would help people get through these tough times.

"The message (Rent) puts out is that it's a very short life and you never know what's going to happen, good or bad," says Chad Richardson -- a rock 'n' roller who plays the musical's narrator, Mark -- during a telephone interview from Toronto where Rent is wrapping up its 35-week run.

"The main thing to do is to treat people well and take advantage of every minute you have here. The big slogan of Rent is: No day but today. It sounds kinda chintzy and stuff, but there's actually a whole lot behind that."

There certainly was for Larson, who died at the age of 35 of an aortic aneurysm mere hours after Rent's final dress rehearsal at the off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop in January 1996.

His sudden death meant that Larson never reaped the bounty of his seven-year labor of love.

Rent relocated to Broadway a few months after Larson's death. Within the year, Rent had earned a Pulitzer Prize for drama, four Tony awards (including best musical, best book of a musical and best score of a musical), six Drama Desk awards, best musical by the New York Drama Critics Circle and the Outer Critics Circle and three Obie awards (phew!).

Rent now has the distinction of being the most honored musical since 1976's A Chorus Line.

Featuring a cast of largely unknown singers with little acting background, Rent is a far cry from the usual big budget Broadway shows like Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon.

"It's hugely different from those shows," says Richardson. "First of all it takes place in our time, which those shows don't. And the people up on stage are people you could see walking on the street. I don't think you're going to see the phantom walking down the street anytime soon."

Rent -- a loose adaptation of Puccinni's La Boheme which revolves around of a group of young, artistic residents of New York's East Village -- is one of the first Broadway musicals to address this decade's hot topics: AIDS, homosexuality, safe sex, suicide, heroin and poverty.

"When you leave the show, you realize that what you just saw could be happening," Richardson pauses and corrects himself, "that it is happening all over the world right now. People are dying of AIDS everywhere."

The musical centres around the lives of Mark, the narrator and an underground filmmaker, his HIV-positive musician roommate Roger and their circle of friends. Various love triangles ensue with their friends including the AIDS-afflicted Tom Collins, the transvestite street drummer Angel, Mimi the heroin-addicted dancer and lesbian lovers, Maureen and Joanne.

What makes the production unique -- its frank portrayal of homosexuality, drug abuse and AIDS -- is also what has raised the most controversy with the traditional theatre-going crowds.

"It has a slightly younger skewer," says the ever-diplomatic Toronto producer, David Mirvish. "It is not universally loved ... but we have had extraordinarily passionate reactions.

"When we're very young, there's hope. But mixed in with that hope is vulnerability. These are people (the musical's characters) who want to stay true to their beliefs and accomplish something. That is what the people outside identify with."

The people Mirvish is talking about include the so-called "Rent-heads" -- young people who see the musical repeatedly and who camp outside the theatre daily to get cheap tickets.

One of the many innovations of this piece is the availability of $20 seats. Rent's focus on the lives of the underclass led the original producers in New York to reserve the first two rows for inexpensive tickets, available only on the day of the performance -- a practice that has continued with the touring production.

"The Toronto fans have just been astounding. Last night, I got into work and there was a bouquet of a dozen roses. It was from a girl who had seen the show the night before," says Richardson.

"She didn't leave her number or anything, she wasn't trying to get in touch with me, she just left a note saying she had come for her birthday and how much the show meant to her. How much our performance had given her."

Richardson believes the response is a result of Rent's currency.

"It's been a long time since anything like Rent has come along. It's been a long time since there's been a show that's spoken to the generation, so to speak," he says.

"People often compare Rent to Hair. I think they do it because it's a show about the time they are living in."

But Mirvish makes it clear that Rent doesn't just spark passion amongst the young. "We also have ardent supporters among 50-, 60-, and 70-year-olds. It's not age but attitude," he says.

The musical itself is relatively simple, a slice of life piece about starving artists dealing with their diseases, addictions and poverty.

"The show is extremely minimalistic. There's no laser or big pyrotechnics or anything. It's as simple as a show could be. There's one set that never changes, the actors and that's it. Yet it still works on Broadway. The show carries itself on the story," says Richardson.

But it also relies on the singing, dancing and acting talents of the cast. When assembling a production of this stature, the safe bet would be to go with established members of the musical theatre community. People who have cut their claws on Cats or stormed the barricades in Les Miserables.

But Rent is a production about risk taking, and the casting process held tight to that philosophy.

The auditions were comprised of a 10-month long Canada-wide open casting call (meaning experience was not necessary) that saw more than 6,000 people try out. The casting directors were looking for "young, street-savvy performers from all cultural backgrounds with raw talent and rock 'n' roll voices."

And that's what they got.

Richardson was a rock singer/songwriter from Newfoundland with two CDs under his belt (most recently The Legend of Brud) when he auditioned for the Toronto production of Rent.

"I had never done anything like musical theater before," responds Richardson, adding he didn't have any acting or dancing experience either.

"They did the same thing for the Broadway company. They had people in the show who had never acted before so (Michael Grief, the original director who also directed the Canadian touring cast) was used to dealing with that.

"I think he may have chosen me because he saw something there I probably didn't see. And during the rehearsal process he kinda pulled it out."

Mirvish is also effusive with his praise of Grief's directing style. He does however, admit: "I get very nervous when I see a young company."

But at the same time, he allowed Grief to work with the youngest cast ever in a Mirvish production.

"They surprised themselves. It is the ability of this particular director to recognize the (hidden) talent these people have. He sometimes took people that maybe wouldn't get it. But if they did, they would be great."

The inexperience of the actors also adds to the gritty and youthful sincerity of the production.

But can a street-wise musical about AIDS in Manhattan translate to the conservative bureaucratic bastion that is Ottawa?

Mirvish, of course, is convinced Rent could play anywhere. He cites critics who said it wouldn't work outside of Manhattan, but its enormous success in Toronto resulted in an extension.