By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It’s been nearly two decades since a young dance-theatre choreographer from New York’s downtown alt-art scene got invited to meet up with a little-known composer to make plans for a revolutionary new rock musical.
It would have a cast of characters who, like their creator, were aspiring outsiders, bohemian artists living hand-to-mouth, struggling to make the rent and keep their dreams afloat.
Who could have known that Jonathan Larson’s Rent, six years in the gestation and inspired by Puccini’s opera La Bohème of exactly a century before, would go on to be hailed as the iconic counter-culture musical of its generation — Hair for the ‘90s as the New York Times called it? That it would move uptown to a Broadway incarnation that would run 12 years, attract a Pulitzer Prize and a fistful of Tony Awards including best musical, become a movie, be seen by the world (in 21 languages)?
Or, for that matter, that a contemporary La Bohème set in New York’s East Village, in a world made feverish and fragile by AIDS, would be in the fourth year of its 20th anniversary tour? Rent arrives on the Jube stage here Tuesday on the Canadian leg of its continuing travels.
That original choreographer enlisted by Larson and director Michael Greif was the much-awarded Marlies Yearby. Warm of voice, she’s on the phone from Louisiana and a visit to her dad, musing on that fateful meeting in the early ‘90s. “Amazing. To think that you take one step in a direction, and your whole life shifts.”
In this thought echoes the lyric from Seasons of Love, Rent’s big Act II show-stopper: “How do you measure a life of a woman or a man.” And it’s especially striking when you consider the tragedy of Larson’s sudden death, at 35, from an aneurysm mere hours after the dress rehearsal the night before the Off-Broadway production started previews. His era-changing triumph was posthumous.
In alternative dance/theatre circles, Yearby, a born-again New Yorker, was known for her championing of new work. Witness the archive of Movin’ Spirits Dance Theater, the company she founded and ran at PS 122 when she arrived in New York from California in 1985. The company’s calling card production at the time was a piece called Vanquished by Voodoo. And “I’d just finished Feathers at the Flame … a piece about the mixing of the blood, the legacy between Native Americans and African-Americans, that led us to a discussion of what is America, and how America crosses so many lines…..”
When it came to Rent, “Jonathan’s dream for the work was that he saw artists of different background s coming together to make his world…. The set was an art installation. Blake (lighting designer Blake Burba) did lighting in clubs. I was downtown alt…. We all came from different places to make this work.”
What sealed the deal, thinks Yearby in retrospect, was her multi-disciplinary zest, and the non-prescriptive way she thought about choreography. When Larson and Grief looked at her work, “they saw people not characters,” she muses. “Jonathan had a real love for dance; he understood it on multiple planes…. And he understood the way I worked.”
“I chose to work with subtle brushes in Rent, small gestures,” says Yearby, who choreographed the 20th anniversary production we’ll see at the Jube. “I was very much impacted by the people who played the roles. In their own selves they were interesting people…. I watched first who they were, and then I watched them embody the character. I never stopped watching them….”
“As an example, I noticed that Wilson Heredia (who played Angel, Rent’s drag queen street percussionist with AIDS) always liked to jump up on the table and sit cross-legged to take notes….” She asked him to duplicate that impulse as Angel — to jump up and dance on the table — a move made trickier by Angel’s 4” heels.
“And it became a thing. It was the same with every single character, a (matter of) taking the time to discover who they were as people, to bridge their -isms and the characters’…. I’m a natural people-watcher as an artist.”
Every time new actors joined the cast, or a new tour was mounted, Rent was “re-visited, re-constructed,” says Yearby. “There are audience expectations, yes, but subtle differences in every production.” And that accounts for the “authentic breath” of the show, she thinks. “It keeps us honest! There are marks we hit, but the journey, how we get there, is really influenced and inspired by who we’re working with….”
The biggest change of late came about when Rent played China where “there was an issue with touching,” says Yearby. “I think it’s important for the work to travel internationally, so I agreed to make some shifts.”
Since Yearby was used to taking a year, sometimes two, to craft a work, the six weeks rehearsal for that first Off-Broadway showing of Rent, at New York Theater Workshop, was wildly compressed. “The consensus was we were done. And I was O my gawd, no! I found myself fixing and fixing the first year after we opened, touching and re-touching.”
“That first group that hit the stage in 1995, it was beautiful watching them evolve,” says Yearby. And she’s been struck by the excitement of this latest cast, the one we’ll see, “their energy and love for the work, how intently they listened” in rehearsal.
From the start Rent was a tangible demonstration of diversity, both in conception and execution, as Yearby points out. “It’s hugely important. There are a lot of different cultures on that stage!”
“And I also love the ensemble work that happens in Rent…. When it was created there were no principals; it was just never discussed. Kudos to the original cast that first year.” True, stars emerged from Rent, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Anthony Rapp, Rosario Dawson among them. But that’s not how it started. “It was the idea that we are all together telling this story; individuals come onstage, across all cultural demarcations, and become the characters…. That’s something that’s very special about Rent.”
Two decades-plus have done nothing to diminish Rent’s currency, says Yearby. In an era where “women and our bodies, racial equality, sense of identity,” seem to be losing ground, the musical remains as powerful as ever. “‘Rent had changed my life; it has given me permission to be who I am!’ That’s the most consistent thing I hear from people,” she says, people who weren’t even born when Rent stormed onto Broadway.
“In the current climate, to figure out who they are in this world, what the risks are, what they’re willing to risk for love,” says Yearby, “it’s huge to remind people to stand up for what’s important to them. We are all connected, and this connection is one of love. If we cut that out, we lose, we lose everything we thought we had….”
Rent 20th Anniversary Tour
Broadway Across Canada
Created by: Jonathan Larson
Original direction: Michael Greif, re-staged by Evan Ensign
Where: Jubilee Auditorium
Running: Sept, 3 to 8
Tickets: 1-855-985-5000, ticketmaster.ca