“Rent” opened Off-Broadway 25 years ago today at the New York Theatre Workshop, which will mark the anniversary in March with a starry streaming fundraising gala. The opening came a day after its 35-year-old creator Jonathan Larson died suddenly, and three months before it opened to great acclaim on Broadway. Below are two articles I wrote about its opening: The first article, published on May 12, 1996, is an interview with cast members Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Adam Pascal and Idina Menzel, all four of whom had just been nominated for Tony Awards. “All of us came from a long, rocky road,” said Heredia, the only actor to wind up winning, although the musical won three other Tonys (Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score) and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In the second, published on April 7, 1997, shortly after Allen Ginsberg’s death, I recall the time I took him to see “Rent” not long after it opened. “It has a lot of energy,” he told me. “I don’t.”
FOUR NEWCOMERS: Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wilson Heredia, Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel
A FEW MONTHS AGO, Daphne Rubin-Vega was on her knees vigorously scrubbing the floor of the tenement where she worked as a sculptor’s assistant when her employer’s husband walked in.
“Daphne,” he said, shocked, “what are you doing that for?”
“Well,” she said with a theatrical sigh, “I guess I’m playing Cinderella.”
This, it turns out, was no joke. Born in Panama, orphaned as a child, Rubin-Vega grew up feeling, she says, “like an odd duck.” This week, the singer with the swan neck and the tiger eyes was nominated for a Tony Award – in the same category as Julie Andrews.
At the same time she was scrubbing that floor four months ago, Wilson Heredia had just quit his job answering complaints about clogged toilets; Adam Pascal, having just broken up “Mute,” the band he had started in ninth grade with his pals in Woodbury, was gently prodding fat people into shape as a personal trainer for a gym on the Upper West Side; Idina Menzel was singing “The Wind Beneath My Wings” at a bar mitzvah at Leonard’s of Great Neck for the thousandth time.
They, too, were nominated this week for Tony Awards, all of them for their roles in “Rent.” Two of the four had never even acted professionally before. The announcement came on the day David Geffen gathered the young cast members to begin recording what may well become a hit album, judging from “Rent’s” previous magic.
In a matter of months, “Rent,” the musical about life among young bohemians in the East Village, has turned from a promising show to an astonishing fairy tale – and not just one fairy tale, but many.
“All of us came from a long, rocky road,” says Heredia, who plays the character Angel, and in real life still lives with his immigrant family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “We all gravitated to this play by way of fate.”
Five-hundred twenty-five thousand six-hundred minutes
How do you measure . . . measure a year?
Five-hundred twenty-five thousand six-hundred minutes
How can you measure the life
of a woman or man?
– “Seasons of Love” from “Rent”
On the door to the Nederlander Theater, an all-but-abandoned building on West 41st Street that was renovated just for the Broadway opening of “Rent” two weeks ago, there is now a cryptic work of art full of numbers and symbols, part of the art gallery that lines the vestibule in an attempt to re-create the feel of the East Village where the show began. The people behind “Rent” use the numbers and the symbols in the painting as their own measure of the story of the musical that is, in many ways, more extraordinary than the story in the musical.
The first number on the painting is “1858,” which is the year of birth of Giacomo Puccini, who wrote the opera “La Boheme,” on which “Rent” is based. Then there is “1960,” the year of birth of Jonathan Larson, the composer and lyricist who waited tables at the Moondance Diner in Soho while he worked for seven years trying to bring his rock musical to life. The painting discreetly omits the date of his death – this year, on Jan. 25. Larson died suddenly at the age of 35 of an aortic aneurysm on the last day of rehearsals, before the first public performance of “Rent” at the downtown New York Theater Workshop.
Also on the painting are the numbers “40 74,” the latitude and longitude of New York City, the word “Feb,” the month the musical opened in the East Village to astounding critical praise, and “15:00 h,” the hour (expressed ironically in military parlance) that the Pulitzer committee announced that “Rent” had won this year’s prize for drama.
The “Rent” people may have to add other numbers to the door – certainly “10,” the number of Tony nominations it received this week, more than any other show, and maybe 1 million, which is easily the number of words that magazines and newspapers (and the amount of footage that TV stations) have devoted to the show, with no end in sight.
But some things about “Rent” cannot be so easily quantified, such as what it has meant to the young cast. They talk of turning points and of dreams, but, if this sounds like the old lullaby of Broadway, listen again. This is a different generation.
“It’s been my dream my whole life,” Adam Pascal was saying, “to meet Billy Joel. And he came backstage!” Before “Rent,” Pascal had never been in a play, never even thought about being in one. “Even the idea of auditioning was exciting to me,” he said, “because I never did it before.” What he always wanted to be, he said, is a rock star. What’s more, he still wants to be a rock star.
But he admits he is affected by the intense reaction of the audience. “People come up to you and say, `Thank you.’ It’s not `I love you; you have a great voice.’ It’s some kind of deep gratitude they have about the show itself.”
Idina Menzel, who also grew up in Woodbury, used to fantasize about getting to go to a big awards ceremony, but the award she had in mind was a Grammy. She, too, never acted on the stage before, and at 16 switched from an “Annie” wannabe to dreams of succeeding Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. “I wanted to get up a sweat and throw my hair around.” As Maureen the performance artist in “Rent,” she gets to do just that.
Daphne Rubin-Vega already has had some success as a recording artist with a No. 1 dance single, “I Found It.” But to hear her tell it, in “Rent” she has found something, too: a place to fit in. “My real father died when I was two,” says Daphne. “My real mother died when I was ten.” She was brought up by a stepfather. “As far back as I can remember, I wasn’t really a geek, but I was a freak.”
Wilson Jermaine Heredia, whose parents came from the Dominican Republic, attended Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School in Manhattan, which trains students to become nurses, before launching a career that included a play at Lincoln Center. (He and Rubin-Vega are the two with acting experience.) “My family wanted me to be a doctor. I said, `Mom, I’ve got to dance, I’ve got to sing, I’ve got to perform!’ She said, `Don’t worry, you’ll grow out of it.’ “
The family has since come around.
“I get paid to sing and act and dance – and the play actually means something. Who could ask for anything more?” Heredia says, unconsciously quoting a Gershwin song from an old Broadway show.
I HAVEN’T BEEN to the theater in a long time,” Allen Ginsberg said as he walked into the Nederlander Theater to see “Rent” in December. The last musical he could recall seeing before that was “Hair,” and it wasn’t even on Broadway then, but in Washington, D.C., some two decades ago. “I’m not a theater buff,” he remarked. Several lyrics had made a special impression on him. “They paraphrased a whole bunch of my poems,” he said. “They never paid me, never told me about it, they never invited me to the opening.”
Now “Rent,” which like “Hair” tries to present to a wider public the story of a new generation of bohemians, had lured the poet who was surely the most famous bohemian in America, though even he had trouble defining bohemia. “Probably it has to do with making love with your eyes open,” he said, as we walked to our seats. “It’s an old tradition, you know. It goes back before the opera” – before Puccini’s “La Boheme,” on which “Rent” is modeled. “It goes back to the Gnostic poets.” Ginsberg, who died Saturday at the age of 70 and was one of the original Beats of the 1950s, seemed to have kept up over the years with each new hip trend. He not only knew the music that young people were listening to, he was making some of it. His latest release, “The Ballad of the Skeletons,” was a political poem set to music by Ginsberg himself, with help from Phillip Glass and Paul McCartney, who also played guitar, drums, organ and maracas on the CD (Mouth Almighty, a division of Mercury Records). The music video, directed by Gus Van Sant (director of “Drugstore Cowboy” and “To Die For”) and which shows Ginsberg in his famous Uncle Sam hat, has gotten play on MTV. Just as he shared a concert stage with Bob Dylan and The Clash, so Ginsberg had been performing his new single in concert with Beck and Lemonheads. When I said I hadn’t yet listened to Beck, Ginsberg said, “I guess you’re over the hill,” but in a way that made it clear he was making fun of himself.
Now as he settled in his seat, he looked at the tower of metal and junk that is the most elaborate part of “Rent’s” relatively simple set.
“That’s the Gas Station,” he said, and he seemed pleased. The Gas Station was a club on Second Street and Avenue B, which featured similar huge metal sculptures. “I gave four poetry readings there.”
A woman in a mink coat waited impatiently for the poet to stand up and let her through to her seat. “A well-heeled crowd,” he observed. He was dressed for the theater in bright white shirt, tie and red suspenders, though this was covered up by a bulky down overcoat that he never took off. When he sat down, he spent the minutes before the show chatting about the CIA drug conspiracy. “We live in an industrial loft on the corner of 11th Street and Avenue B,” Mark, a filmmaker, started saying from the stage.
“Rent” had begun unceremoniously. When Mimi meets Roger, Ginsberg whispered, “What a monster she is.” During the song “Tango Maureen,” Ginsberg leaned forward. “Are you able to follow this?”
During the duet between Roger and Mimi, the HIV-positive lovers, he dropped his head and closed his eyes.
During the spoof of performance artists, when Maureen moos like a cow, he busied himself checking every pocket of his pants, shirt and coat, finally bringing out a bright red checkered handkerchief, into which he stuck his face. .
During the song “La Vie Boheme,” sung in honor of the death of bohemia, when the cast toasts “Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham and Cage,” he looked at his watch.
During the intermission, Ginsberg left. “It has a lot of energy,” he said. “I don’t.”
He said,”I don’t want to be negative, and added he just wasn’t feeling well. “I have congestive heart failure, diabetes. I’ve been in bed for the past few days.
“When Machiavelli was on his deathbed, they told him to renounce Satan and accept Christ. He thought about it and said, “now is not the time to make enemies.’ “
But on the cab ride back to his apartment, he said, “I couldn’t figure out who was doing what to whom, who was a junkie and who wasn’t, who had AIDS and who didn’t. It was too loud and ponderous; you couldn’t understand the words.”
When the cab arrived at his 13th Street loft, he said with approval, “it was a nice mixed cast” but, he couldn’t help adding, “You wouldn’t know from it there are any artists in the Lower East Side,” I don’t know; I’m sick, I’m not in any position to make sense about anything, but they seem less serious than the artists I know here. There are a lot of great people here.”
And then he began to name them, one after the other, old and young, mostly painters and musicians. He made the list sound like a poem.