The timeless themes of life, love and tragedy

Based on La Boheme, the hit Broadway musical Rent is at the New Wolsey Theatre in July. David Henshall talks to director Steve Wooldridge

There are certain shows that point up differences in American and British audiences, London audiences anyway. The musical Rent is one of them. It was a superhit on Broadway, taking the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four Tony Awards out of 10 nominations. And it ran for 12 years.

At the Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End it fizzled in 1999 after 18 months and then struggled through two very short London revivals in 2001 and 2002. Yet the score of this rock opera has given the show world-wide cult status, particularly among the Rentheads, the fans who regard it as the best-ever musical.

It took Jonathan Larson seven years to write the show, book, music and lyrics, which is based on La Boheme and the opening night of Rent was carefully scheduled to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s opera. Tragically, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm the night before his show was due to open.

The big differences between the Puccini opera and Rent are that in La Boheme the characters are heterosexual and Mimi is dying of tuberculosis and in Rent Mimi and her would-be lover Roger live in a gay/lesbian New York group with drug problems and both are suffering from Aids.

Steve Wooldridge is directing Rent for Gallery Players at the New Wolsey the week after next and is with the Rentheads. He thinks it a dramatic and moving show and agrees that it is pre-eminently about the the music.

“There is very little dialogue. There are nearly 50 songs, some of them repeated, but it’s so cleverly written that there’s almost uninterrupted movement from one item to another. The bits of dialogue are very quick and the music underscores the story. It’s virtually seamless and you are drawn along by the score.”

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It’s about a particular time in America with Aids, he says, a period when the musical badly needed a fresh approach and that’s what Rent gave it. It attracted back to the theatre a generation of young people who only watched MTV and the other all-music channels on television.

“It’s a strange phenomenon and I’ve absolutely fallen in love with it and all young people know the music. I go into schools all over the county concerned with performing arts and they all love it. I think it’s because it is a rock opera which was Larson’s passion and which he wanted to write more than anything else in the world.

“The sad thing is that he missed the Broadway first night and the show’s subsequent great success. When he died there was a big debate about whether the show should go ahead but in the end the opening night was sung through to an audience of family and friends.”

It is, says Wooldridge, about the love and friendships that make us all human. Friendships have their ups and downs, the little sparks that cause rifts, the mutual support that brings help. This story, too has its twists and turns, beautiful moments and dramas that make it interesting. But the central theme is love.

The characters remain very much he same as those in La Boheme but in the opera Mimi dies. In Rent she’s a junkie and ill, but living for the moment.

“There’s a fantastic number in the show that echoes that thought. Seasons of Love that opens the second act is one of those rare songs from a musical that got into the hit parade. It’s an iconic number, part of the milestone and revolutionary in all sorts of ways. It’s also a song that often has the audience on its feet.

“The cast is hugely talented and rarely have I directed a musical where, within a very short time, they are all off the book and word perfect as they were in this case. They absolutely love it.

“We invited Brian Tobin from the drug rehabilitation group, the Iceni Project – he featured in programme Five Daughters about the Ipswich murders on TV – to talk to us about drug addiction because it features in the play and the cast was fascinated.

People need to understand what they are dealing with. Rent, as Larson once said, is not only about paying for a roof over your head, it also means torn apart.

“Laura Lucock is Mimi with Jonathan Mudd as her initially reluctant lover. Also in the cast are Sian Naylor, Emily Peakman, Phil Kinsella, Dean Wales and Daniel Mackshand. The singers are backed by a five-piece group.

“We are being supported by a charity called Body and Soul concerned with HIV for those between 15 and 25. It was seen as a disease of the gay community in the early days and there’s now a bit of a resurgence in spite of all the safe-sex warnings. People have got a bit blas� about it. We’re show-casing a few numbers, including Scenes of Love, at Gay Pride in Christchurch Park.

• Rent is at the New Wolsey, Ipswich, from 6 – 10 July. Tickets: 01473 295900 or wolseytheatre.co.uk.

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