The Skylight’s rockin’ Rent
Starting Friday, the Skylight Opera Theatre will make its first foray into rock idiom, when it opens Rent at the Broadway Theatre Center Friday (May 21).
The musical, written between 1989 and 1993, might be outside the Skylight’s strike zone musically, but it fits the company’s mission.
The Skylight divides its attention among opera and musical theater. Rent is a different sort of musical, but a musical nonetheless. It is also a gloss on Puccini’s iconic La Boheme. La Boheme takes place in Paris in the late 19th century and tells the story of a group of poverty-stricken, impetuous young artists and the women who inspire them. Puccini’s gorgeous melodies reflect the sentiments and idiom of its time. Rent tells the story of poverty-stricken young Bohemians in New York. True to life, not everyone is straight. And AIDS and drug addiction replace Puccini’s tuberculosis as the as the deadly plot driver. Rent‘s thoroughly modern Mimi is a junkie. Mark, her love interest (and the stand-in for Puccini’s Rodolfo) is a songwriter who plays electric guitar. (Mark, who stands in for Marcello, is a filmmaker instead of a painter.) Benny Collins, the villain of the piece, is a developer intent on tearing down the decrepit building the New York bohemians occupy.
Jonathan Larson created the show (based on a concept by playwright Billy Aronson, who also provided some lyrics). To a great extent, Larson lived its plot. In a tragic twist like something out of a Romantic opera, Larson died at 35 in January of 1996. A few days later, Rent, his years-long project, took New York by storm. (Note: I found out all this stuff in Justine Leonard’s wonderful Skylight Audience Guide, which you can download right here.)
“This is my kind of show,” said Donna Drake, the director. “I’ve wanted to get my hands on it for a long time.”
Drake has previously directed Smokey Joe’s Cafe and Blues in the Night, both revues, for the company. They were mainstage productions, but Rent will be her first fully plotted show here.
“I’m not afraid of the subject matter,” Drake said. “Fourteen years later, we still have AIDS, we still have racism, we still have homelessness. For that matter, we still have joy. I’m very proud of the Skylight for being brave enough to do it. It will make some people uncomfortable.”
Drake, who became a Broadway star as the original Trisha in A Chorus Line, said that while she is not copying either the long-running first or the long-running second Broadway stagings, she is staying true to the early 1990s feel of the original. (Manhattan, particularly the Alphabet City area on the lower East Side, has changed a lot since Larson conceived Rent.)
Skylight patrons are accustomed to singers who excel at Gershwin, Porter, Puccini, Gilbert & Sullivan, Donizetti and so on. Rent calls for a different sort of singer.
“I’m doing it full-out rock ‘n’ roll,” Drake said. “I hired real rock singers. Rent is a real rock opera — loud and in your face.”
Tickets are $13.50 to $64 at the Broadway Theatre Center box office, 414-291-7800, and at the Skylight Opera website. Rent runs 30 times at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway in the Third Ward, through June 20. Click here for a full performance schedule.