"Singing of Social Issues" Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold Scene4 Magazine SPECIAL ISSUE "Arts&Politics" January 2014

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold


January 2014

The turn of a century, it has been said, often lends itself to serious reflection, and this adage has proven itself true even in the genre of the American musical, where the two most recent Pulitzer Prize winning musicals, RENT (1996) and Next to Normal (2010) have eschewed mere diversion and opted to depict a more complex social realm. The eight musicals which have won the Pulitzer Prize for drama [1], approximately one a decade since the prize for drama was first awarded in 1930, have been diverse in theme and style, but, for the most part, they share the distinction of having enhanced or expanded the format of the musical and having articulated a relevance to the historical and social contexts of which they were born.

The last two of these Jonathan Larson's RENT and Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Next to Normal are no exception to this equation. Both pop/rock works, they began as small off-Broadway endeavors and went through a series of developmental workshops before arriving on Broadway to become almost cult phenomena.  Moreover, both help to define the social history of their era in original artistic language.

When RENT opened off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop on January 25, 1996, it had already had a long, turbulent, and tragic history in making its way to the stage. Its thirty-five year-old creator, Jonathan Larson had died the night before the premiere of an aortic aneurism, never getting to experience the acclaim for his seven years of journeyman labor on the show. RENT immediately sold-out its 150 seat venue, and on April 29, 1996, it moved to Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre, where it ran for twelve years and 5,123 performances before closing on September 7, 2008, the ninth longest running Broadway show at the time. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, it garnered three Tony awards and two Drama Desk Awards, has received countless international productions and tours, and was revived off-Broadway in 2011.

In so many ways RENT was the autobiographical love child of its creator, Jonathan Larson. Born in 1960 into a Jewish family in White Plains, NY, he Photo2Larson-crwas involved in music and theatre from an early age, and later attended Adelphi University where he studied acting and began composing for campus cabarets. After graduation and a stint playing piano at the Barn Theatre in Michigan, Larson moved to an unheated Greenwich Village loft which he shared with several roommates who became models for the bohemians in RENT. For almost ten years he subsisted in poverty, working as a waiter at the Moondance Diner on weekends, while composing his musicals on weekdays. Several works made it to small stages across New York City, among them Saved – An Immoral Musical on the Moral Majority, Superbia, a rock reimagining of Orwell's 1984, and tick, tick…BOOM, a rock musical indebted to Stephen Sondheim.

Larson began work on RENT with playwright Billy Aronson in 1989, but in 1991, he reached an agreement with Aronson to use the concept (and share profits if RENT went to Broadway) and take the musical in a new direction.  From this point onward Larson drew on his own autobiographical experiences living in poverty in a cold water flat, being jilted by a girlfriend who left him for a woman, losing friends to the AIDS epidemic, and watching the demographics of Lower Manhattan change. The first draft of the show received a staged reading and brief studio production in 1993, but was then revised and rewritten into the musical which premiered in 1996.

Like Giacomo Puccini's opera La Boh├Ęme on which it is based, RENT is a love story, but unlike Puccini's work, RENT is also a composition which explores the social issues of homelessness, poverty, multiculturalism, addiction, homosexuality and transgender, as well as the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, and the plight of artists trying to survive and be heard in an ever gentrifying landscape. Set on Manhattan's Lower East Side in "Alphabet City," RENT's score is an amalgam of pop, electric rock, gospel, salsa, Motown, and folk ballads, with the occasional musical quotation from Puccini. Larson, who had said his goal was "to write a rock opera for the MTV generation," surely took some musical inspiration from that icon of the 60s, HAIR, but his songs and lyrics are also indebted to Sondheim, as well as the vast and diverse pop spectrum of the late 20th century. Moreover, Larson demonstrates his inherent appreciation for the expressive counterpoint of duets and ensembles, born, no doubt, from his love of Puccini.


At its off Broadway premiere Ben Brantley of the New York Times hailed Larson's work as "shimmering with hope for the future of the American musical," an opinion he continued to espouse after the show moved to Broadway. He praised Anthony Rapp's Mark for giving  "the show its energetic motor," "the golden voiced Adam Pascal 's Roger for his "meditative soul" and Daphne Rubin-Vega's Mimi for her "affirmative sensuality," while complimenting Idina Menzel (Maureen), Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel), Fredi Walker (Joanne), and Jesse L. Martin (Tom Collins) for being "performers of both wit and emotional conviction."

With the exception of Rubin-Vega, who was pregnant at the time, and Walker, the same performers recreated their roles in Chris Columbus' 2005 film adaptation. In addition to this relatively faithful incarnation of the show, two other  live performances exist in video versions, the Broadway closing night in 2008 and highlights (on You Tube) of the Hollywood Bowl staging in 2010.  Perhaps one of the tests of the durability of a work is how vibrant and relevant it remains in the interpretations of different artists and in the context of successive time periods. RENT surely has stood these tests in its brief seventeen-year odyssey. The original direction by Michael Grief was cogent and compelling, utilizing Paul Clay's minimalist grunge collage set with its paper moon, a beacon of light and warmth in the harsh realities of the bohemians' lives, and this concept has played well through the long run of the show. Neil Patrick Harris skillfully adapted the intimacy of the original to the huge Hollywood Bowl arena, while Chris Columbus did a remarkable job on film of adding more realistic contexts – the East Village streets, and interiors like the funeral home or Maureen and Joanne's commitment ceremony.


Aaron Tveit


Through all these variations, the changing casts have shone in their musical virtuosity and individualized characterizations. Adam Pascal, for example, makes Roger a hard-edge romantic, while Will Chase captures the punk rocker's edgy anger, and Aaron Tveit, who gives the most thrilling vocal account of the part, brings a youthful vulnerability carefully disguised behind a veneer of self-loathing and despair.  Likewise, Anthony Rapp made Mark the emotional soul of the bohemians, while Adam Kantor and Skylar Astin stressed the ironic detachment.  Sadly, Rubin-Vega's Mimi is not preserved on film, but Rosario Dawson's account in the movie is street-wise and heart wrenching, while Vanessa Hudgens' take succeeds on its vocal merits. Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won a Tony for creating Angel Schunard, Justin Johnston, and Telley Leung all bring an exciting vocalism as well as great empathy to the loveable, doomed transvestite. And the list goes on. RENTheads, who have seen the musical innumerable times, can faithfully recount the minute differences in the performances and spar over their favorites. The point, however, is that Larson's rock opera has a  vitality, accessibility, and universality in its music and in its dramatic characterizations that lends it a renewable quality. Larson had said that he wanted to transform the musical theatre and make it more modern. "That isn't our music uptown on Broadway; those aren't our characters, and those aren't our stories," he had said. (www.angelfire.com) And he had gone about to make his stories and characters heard.

The same is true for the dramatic situations of the story. Though RENT is set in the last decade of the millennium, it is a work of art that easily transcends specific time and place constraints. Many of the social issues it addresses remain with us still, and its larger message reaches out to embrace a wide spectrum of humanity. Larson's logline for the finished musical read, "RENT is about a community celebrating life in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century." And because it was topical, it did touch an immediate chord.

The first cases of AIDS in New York City were diagnosed in 1981 and by 2010 over 100,000 had succumbed to the disease there. The impact of the HIV virus on communities like the Village, populated by artists, bohemians, gays, as well as contingents of drug users and homeless people – all at special risk - was devastating.  As the plague took its toll, abated by ignorance and prejudice, not to mention the ludicrous "Just Say No" denial of the Regan administration, silence no longer seemed a conscionable option. There had been conflicts like the Stonewall Riots in 1969, one of the defining moments in the gay rights movement, and now there were violent demonstrations like those in Thompson Square Park in August 1988, when the tent city inhabitants stood their ground to the police who attempted to enforce a curfew. While the immediate issues at stake were use of the park by the homeless, the underlying tensions also centered around the seething rage in the Lower Manhattan neighborhoods against a society that treated them as outcasts, - that lumped artists, gays, drug users, homeless, mentally challenged, and AIDS victims all together as society's dregs – and hoped to make them "disappear"  - if not literally, then by marginalizing them and consigning their struggles to oblivion.

This was the kind of silence that Jonathan Larson refused to countenance.  And as is so often the case, in a sea of crusading activism, it is a work of art which somehow crystallizes the issues and speaks louder and more persuasively than so many other efforts. There are those who will always criticize a dramalike RENT for being simplistic or for "its cop-out ending,"  - ("It's a play about life, not about death," Larson replied) - but to do so is to miss the point.


The same can be said for those who find fault with the most recent Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Next to Normal, for its "unscientific and questionable" handling of the theme of mental illness. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's 2009 rock opera is a brave and brilliant exploration of the struggles of a white, middle class family, coping with bipolar depression, grief, and loss. And while it is because of its pioneering look at these issues that it gripped audiences and garnered critical attention, Next to Normal remains first and foremost a work of art, not a medical treatise. Indeed, it is due to its consummate artistry that it makes the impact it has.

Librettist Brian Yorkey has said that the main catalyst to writing the show was to "expose the stigma attached to mental illness," and in an interview star Alice Ripley cited feedback from fans, commenting, "I think we are performing a public service." (bpmagazine, Fall 2009)  Indeed, the Pulitzer Prize Board agreed calling the show " a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals."

Next to Normal began, as Aaron Tveit, the original Gabe, remembers as this "seemingly little show off-Broadway that everyone involved with believed was something special." (at 54 Below May 2013).  After several workshop performances, it debuted at the Second Stage Theatre in 2008, winning the Outer Circle Critics prize for Outstanding Score and receiving several Drama Desk nominations.  From there, the show was retooled and had an out-of-town tryout in its new version at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in November 2008-January 2009 before opening at the Booth Theatre on Broadway in April 2009. The show received eleven Tony nominations and went on to win three for Best Score, Best Orchestrations, and Best Leading Actress for Alice Ripley, and, of course, it garnered the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, only the eighth musical to ever do so. Next to Normal closed on Broadway in January 2011 after 754 performances and has since gone on tour in North America, as well as receiving numerous international mountings.

The original off-Broadway version of the musical, while it boasted virtually the same cast as the Broadway one (with the exception of J. Robert Spencer who replaced Brian D'Arcy James as husband Dan, and Louis Hobson who took over from Asa Somers as Diana's psychiatrists at the Booth Theatre) and while its plot, intent, and much of the music were essentially the same, it struck a somewhat different tone from the final incarnation of the musical. The 2008 version allowed for the characters, especially Diana, to occasionally step outside themselves with an ironic detachment that Ben Brantley of the New York Times criticized as "detours to the brink of camp." (NYT 2/14/2008).  It elicited far more laughs – albeit dark ones – than the final version. Somewhere along the way, Yorkey and Kitt made the courageous decision, together with director Michael Greif, who had also helped to shape RENT, to present the Goodman family's emotional and psychological struggles with grief and mental illness in searingly honest, however uncomfortable, terms, avoiding gratuitous humor where there was only pain. Kitt's score, orchestrated for a six-person ensemble of keyboards, percussion, strings, and winds pulsated with what Brantley called "a jaggedness and vitality" (NYT 4/15/2009); the rock beat was an organic function of the driving demons within the characters – I'm Alive, I Am the One, for example.  That the musical also attains moments of heart-shattering lyricism – I Miss the Mountains or There's a World (a haunting siren song to suicide) – only added to the kaleidoscope of emotions, as did Yorkey's sometimes acerbic, sometimes melting lyrics reminiscent of Sondheim at his best.


Aaron Tveit, Alice Ripley,
 J. Robert Spencer


The final product was a musical and dramatic masterpiece, bolstered by the incredible six-person cast. Alice Ripley's Diana Goodman will remain in the annals of 21st century musical theatre history as one of the most consummate and towering portrayals in recent memory. Haunted by grief and loss, embattled and let down by an often impotent medical establishment, a victim of her loving husband's enabling, she is an essentially brilliant, strong, sexy woman adrift in an incomprehensible landscape. J. Robert Spencer as her husband Dan, who is the seemingly rational anchor of the play, brought a troubled sweetness and self-effacing exhaustion to the role; Jennifer Damiano's Natalie was consumed with sarcasm and hurt; her boyfriend Henry, played by Adam Chanler-Berat was a loveable antidote to the Goodman family pain; and Aaron Tveit gave his breakthrough Broadway performance as the phantom son, Gabe – angel and demon, provocative existential questioner of the misconceptions medicine and society apply to dysfunction, mental illness, and mourning.  Louis Hobson accomplished the difficult task of making Diana's doctors both maddeningly uncomprehending as well as compassionate.

And it was precisely in this depiction of the clinical aspects of Diana's illness that the debate arose.  Next to Normal was criticized for "narrowing and sanitizing the representation of people with such disabilities" (Scott Wallin & others), for sensationalizing the electric shock treatment episodes (the final version of the play removed a song that had taken the treatment scene precariously close to the edge of camp), and for depicting medical management as "suspect." But Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey were not trying to write a medical treatise; they were bent on telling a human story. Dramatists, they sought to accomplish the mission the poet Shelley once described in his dictum as Poets are the legislators of mankind. As artists they did not want to deal with social history as fact, but as poetry – not with the panorama of events, but with the drama of the individual within the larger context.

Next to Normal dares to discuss in a musical the serious, debilitating effects of mental illness on a white, upper middle class, suburban family, and it treats those experiences, often kept secret out of shame, with a compassion and openness that is liberating to audiences. Librettist/lyricist Yorkey asserts that "normal is a concept that separates some individuals from others and can harm those who are unable to meet its standards." (in Scott Wallin, Next to Normal & the Persistence of Pathology). And so, near the end of the show, Natalie poignantly tells her mother she yearns only for "something next to normal" – not perfection, but a realistic means of coping.  In an interview with Tom Gregory, AaronTveit summed us the significance of the show for himself and his audiences: "Every family in America today goes through problems; they may not specifically be mental illness, but nobody is perfect. The average American family is anything but average."


Like RENT, Next to Normal embraces the qualities which make us different; it lifts up its voice in support for the outsider, the not-so-normal, and begs understanding for their struggles to find truth in a world which often seems hostile or unintelligible. In Next to Normal Diana Goodman sings of scars for which there are no medical miracles: What if the burn is not in your head, but in your soul  And her spirit son, Gabe, mourns his mother's post ECT amnesia: With nothing left to remember, is there nothing left to grieve? In his rehearsal notes for RENT, Jonathan Larson had scribbled "Humanness: otherness. In our desensitized society, the artists, the bohemians, the poor discarded others, recovering addicts – all are more in touch with their humanness than the so-called mainstream" (oasisjournals.com). 

And while both dramas are calls for social change, they are also hymns to human resilience and endurance. Though Mimi Marquez, unlike Pucciani's heroine, does not die at the end of RENT, her reprieve is temporary. (There is no future/ There is no past/ Thank God this moment's not the last, Roger sings.) And though Diana Goodman takes a courageous step on her own, there are no illusions that the way forward for the entire family will be anything but difficult. (You don't have to be happy, just happy you're alive, Natalie sings).  And perhaps Larson articulates it best in the Life Support Meeting scene and again at the close of RENT when the cast sings, There's only us /There's only this/ Forget regret-- or life is yours to miss… Give in to love/ Or live in fear/ No other path/ No other way /No day but today.

As so many poets and artists through the history of time, the creators of RENT and Next to Normal firmly believed that art – and specifically, the art of musical theatre – could serve as a powerful catalyst for societal revolution as well as social and personal transformation. There is something about ideas articulated in song that take on a heightened emotional impact, and in the hands of skilled composers and lyricists such as Larson, Kitt, and Yorkey, the songs become anthems of change, carols for a new consciousness.


Larson saw it that way when he wrote in his notebook,


Love, Life, Art survives .

  1. Pulizter Prize Musicals since 1930: Of Thee I Sing (1932), South Pacific (1950), Fiorello (1960), How to Succeed in Business without Even Trying (1962), Chorus Line (1976), Sunday in the Park with George (1985), RENT (1996), Next to Normal (2010) 

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | www.scene4.comCarla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold is a freelance journalist whose reviews, interviews, and features on theatre, opera, classical music, and the visual arts have appeared in numerous international publications.  She is also the author of two novels, The Whaler's Bride and Raising Rufus: A Maine Love Story, as well as an award-winning screenplay based on the latter.
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