After the final dress rehearsal of RENT at the New York Theatre Workshop in January 1996, its creator, Jonathan Larson, went home, put on the kettle for a cup of tea, and died.
Everyone associated with the production was devastated. All his greatest ambitions were about to come true beyond his wildest dreams, and he would never see it happen. But it was opening night — what to do? With the encouragement of Larson’s parents, the producers, cast, and crew decided: the show must go on.
They thought they would simply sit on the stage and sing the score, a subdued and respectful concert rendition of the show to honor Jonathan’s memory.
They couldn’t do it.
Not sing — that they managed, through throats choked with tears. What they couldn’t manage was sitting still. By the time the triumphant “La Vie Boheme” closed the first act, they were dancing on the tables.
This was just one of the paradoxes that crossed my mind watching the RENT in Concert Symphonic World Premiere as the all-star cast sang that number, standing behind music stands in suit jackets and cocktail dresses. Only two of them even moved to the beat.
RENT, a show about penniless artists squatting in abandoned buildings battling drugs and AIDS, presented at the white and gold Kennedy Center Concert Hall, backed by the National Symphony Orchestra: Is that an oxymoron?
The 61-piece orchestra — including not only the requisite keyboard, bass, and electric guitars but 18 violins, two bassoons, and a tuba — led by the NSO Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke, is lush. It is strange, for those who know that the show starts with the simple sound of a guitar being tuned, to hear this version’s full-blown overture, complete with swelling strings, blazing brass, and cymbals. Sean O’Loughlin’s rich orchestrations at times tilt toward Disney-soundtrack territory. Accompaniments to some of the songs are almost unrecognizable, at other times overwhelming, as on “I Should Tell You.” The sound design seems uneven. At times, such as in the perennial showstopper “Seasons of Love,” all the voices are crystal clear. At others, they are overwhelmed by the orchestra. Some of the most successful numbers are the most sparsely scored, especially Ali Stroker’s “Over the Moon,” which is almost a capella. In one case, however, the night we heard it, the two instruments playing the haunting arpeggiated opening to “Will I” seemed to be out of sync. On the other hand, other numbers work very well with the orchestral accompaniment, such as “Tango Maureen.” The terrific, swelling Finale of the show, which brings several of the songs together in a giant round, is especially effective. There, the orchestra helps the heart soar.
Cory Pattak’s fairly generic lighting designs take a stab at making up for the lack of a set. It is slightly perplexing on entering the hall to see the stage swathed in smoke, but it soon becomes apparent that it is there to make visible the fast-moving colored spotlights used to liven up particular moments. At one point when the cast sings “and it’s beginning to snow,” flecks of light are projected on the ceiling — a cute effect.
The all-star cast, chock-full of Tony award winners and nominees, America’s Got Talent alums, and Broadway regulars, is, as expected, excellent. Myles Frost, Tony Award winner for MJ: The Musical, is still doing his best Michael Jackson, which is lovely, but makes him a little too lightweight for Benny, the villain. Andrew Barth Feldman, a Dear Evan Hansen alum, energetically carries the show as Mark. As Roger, Alex Boniello, who played opposite Barth Feldman in Hansen, manages to project a touching vulnerability in such a large venue. Ali Stroker, Tony winner for Oklahoma, gives a tour-de-force in Maureen’s solo number, but (the night we saw it) was reading “Take Me or Leave Me” from the score, which dimmed its blaze a little — although it still stopped the show. As Joanne, Awa Sal Secka, a DC artist seen regularly at Signature, Ford’s, and the Kennedy Center, is charming in “Tango Maureen” and fierce in “Take Me or Leave Me.” Lorna Courtney, Tony-nominated for and currently starring in & Juliet, brings a strong voice and good energy to Mimi, although she could try more variety in her delivery of “Without You,” which risks becoming monotonous. The real standouts in the cast — if there are any in a show where the ensemble traditionally tends toward family — are Jimmie Herrod (America’s Got Talent) as Angel and Terrance Johnson as Collins. They bring heart, charm, and gorgeous voices to the doomed lovers. This is all the more impressive since Johnson apparently stepped in at the last minute for the better-known Jordan Donica. His rendition of “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” is heart-rending.
It is telling that the program states that these stars sing the roles rather than play them. All of these singers are busy professionals who are taking time out of their performance calendar to appear in this brief premiere. They clearly did not have the rehearsal time that a fully staged show would have. Some rely heavily on their scores, and there were a few bobbled lines on opening night. Still, others, like Mimi, Mark, Roger, Collins, and Angel, come close to a fine staged performance.
So, RENT in Concert — does it work?
It depends on what — and who — it’s for. The audience, who opening night varied wonderfully in age and background, no doubt includes grown-up “Rentheads” who used to camp out in line for $20 tickets for the original on Broadway, amateurs who have done the show at school, and fans who have the cast album on repeat on Spotify, some bringing their children to experience it. If their enthusiasm, enjoyment, and ticket sales can benefit the National Symphony Orchestra, why not?
In the ’90s, there were harrumphers who greeted the original show with cries of “What’s this? Rock and roll in a musical? I’ve never heard of such a thing!” I don’t want to pull an equal and opposite reverse-snobbery and say, “RENT with a symphony orchestra? In a concert hall with chandeliers? Oboes and violins and cymbals? How dare they??”
Jonathan Larson dreamed of revolutionizing musical theater by incorporating rock music and contemporary issues. RENT has been a dream, a workshop, an off-Broadway show, a Broadway show, on endless tours, a movie, and a stalwart of community theater. As the program says, after 30 years, its music is “iconic.” So why not a symphonic version?
Larson had he lived would be 63. As much as he started as a bohemian, he didn’t want to be a rebellious starving artist all his life. By now, he probably would be listening to NPR and attending the Tony Awards every year.
RENT in Concert is not a fully staged show, with all the intimate, raw emotions and messages of the original. But in the end, RENT is a masterpiece. It endures, and it lifts the heart, in whatever format.
As one small voice said, as the audience sat in awed silence after that first performance, “Thank you, Jonathan Larson.”
And for the gift he gave us, in any form, we can say the same.
Running Time: Approximately two hours plus a 15-minute intermission.
RENT in Concert Symphonic World Premiere played July 26 and 27 and plays once more July 28, 2023, in the Concert Hall in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($39–$149) at the Kennedy Center Box Office, online, and via phone through Instant Charge, (202) 467-4600; toll-free at (800) 444-1324.
The program for RENT in Concert is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.
SEE ALSO: NSO announces star-studded cast for ‘RENT in Concert’ (news story, June 30, 2023)