In the month before Rent opened Off-Broadway in January, 1996, Idina Menzel was singing “The Wind Beneath My Wings” at a bar mitzvah at Leonard’s of Great Neck for the thousandth time; Daphne Rubin-Vega was working as a sculptor’s assistant, scrubbing her boss’s floor and feeling like Cinderella; 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; Wilson Jermaine Heredia had just quit his job answering complaints about clogged toilets.
Four months later, when I interviewed them backstage at the Nederlander Theater on Broadway, all four were the cast members who had been nominated for Tony Awards for their performances in Rent. Heredia would win one for his role as Angel. The musical about life among young bohemians in the East Village, which quickly moved to Broadway, had suddenly 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,” Heredia told me at the time.
Jonathan Larson himself, 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, had 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.
And now, 23 years later, Rent has been broadcast live on the Fox Network, under very different circumstances. And Heredia, along with others from the original cast were there for the finale.
Read Jonathan Mandell’s review of Rent Live
Most of the cast members for the live TV broadcast are already celebrities — screen stars, recording artists, or at the very least contestants on TV reality shows familiar to millions of viewers. Idina Menzel, who was 24 when she made her Broadway debut in the role of Maureen the performance artist, had never acted on stage before; Vanessa Hudgens, who’s taking on the role of Maureen for the live broadcast, has been famous for some 15 years, making her feature film debut at the age of 14.
Daphne Rubin-Vega, who at 26 originated the role of Mimi, already 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 found a place to fit in. “My real father died when I was two,” she told me. “My real mother died when I was ten.” A stepfather brought her up. “As far back as I can remember, I wasn’t really a geek, but I was a freak.”
Many aspects of Jonathan Larson’s musical made it stand out in 1996 — the diversity of the casting, the frank depiction of AIDS and of gay love, the trans character that Heredia played, the hint of radical politics.
Theatergoers and even TV viewers accept most of this as the norm now. But even back then the musical’s romanticization of bohemia was suspect, as I discovered when, seven months after it opened on Broadway, I took Allen Ginsburg to see it.
“I haven’t been to the theater in a long time,” he told me as we took our seats. 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 earlier. “I’m not a theater buff.” Several lyrics from Hair 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, was trying 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.” “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 was one of the original Beats of the 1950s, seemed to have kept up over the years with each new hip trend.
Before the show began, he looked at the tower of metal and junk that was 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.
“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.
Four months later, Ginsberg died, at the age of 70.
Nicole Hertvik says
What a fun read! So interesting to see the genesis of this show from Ginsberg’s perspective. So interesting to glimpse how great artists digest other art forms. I had the great fortune to meet Ginsberg once. I asked him to autograph my copy of Howl and he said, “I don’t give autographs, but I give hugs!” and he hugged me. Later, I attended his memorial in San Francisco, a great public gathering and a celebration of his life.