Raising ‘Rent’

Set in New York’s East Village and written in the ’80s and ’90s, the show has a relevant message for Jerusalem of 2015.

'Rent' musical (photo credit: ITA ARBIT)
'Rent' musical
(photo credit: ITA ARBIT)
The musical Rent has a lot going for it – great music, high emotion and an enviable box-office history. The rock opera pulled in the crowds, originally as a limited three-week production at the New York Theater Workshop in 1994 before moving to Off-Broadway and then to Broadway, where it enjoyed a fabulous 12-year run. In 2005 it was adapted into a movie featuring most of the original cast members. The success of the show led to several national tours, numerous foreign productions and a Tony Award for Best Musical.
Now Jerusalem and Tel Aviv audiences will be able to get into the award-winning musical’s grooves when the Starcatcher Theater Company puts on nine performances at Beit Mazia near Nahlaot on March 12 to 26 as part of the Jerusalem Arts Festival, with a one-off show at The Stage in Tel Aviv on March 24.
American-born director Eli Kaplan- Wildmann feels that the issues raised in Jonathan Larson’s work are just as relevant today as they were in the early 1990s.
“It is amazing how much Rent could be about ourselves,” he says. “The social protest here, but not just that. A few weeks ago we staged a scene, which was written in the 1990s, or even in the late ’80s when Larson started writing it, when a policeman comes up to a homeless man and starts to beat him, and the main character comes with a camera and says, ‘Smile for the camera, Officer Martin,’ and then the policeman stops and goes away.
This could be pulled straight from today’s headlines, unfortunately. On many levels, this show is still amazingly relevant.”
In fact, it was the messages conveyed by the musical, rather than the great score, that first drew Kaplan-Wildmann to Rent.
But the process of deciding what to present to the public addresses several factors.
“When we choose a show, we have to take a lot of things into consideration,” says the director. “We have to make sure it is something that will sell and is something we feel we will be able to cast.”
The latter certainly had to be taken into account, as the musical is filled with catchy numbers that require high-level vocal abilities. Judging by the rehearsal I attended of the show last week, Kaplan- Wildmann and his colleagues, indeed, did a good job with the casting.
“You need very good singers for Rent,” he continues. “And you need to have an audience that is willing to see some deeper messages – this is not a family musical, let’s put it that way. There’s no real nudity, but we have to see whether Jerusalem audiences will be ready to come to something that is more explicit. There are allusions to everything that’s in these people’s lives.”
Larson wrote Rent very much based on his own experiences in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he lived in New York’s East Village. But many of the issues he addressed a quarter of a century ago could be beamed across a time and geography warp into Jerusalem of 2015. Larson was very much bothered by the encroaching gentrification of his neighborhood and how this was pushing rents up and generating serious financial challenges for him and his pals.
Kaplan-Wildmann and I met at a café in Baka, an area that has undergone a substantial makeover in recent years, as many old pretty single-story buildings have been capped by another two or three floors, adding property tax payments to the municipality’s coffers but also gradually erasing much of the area’s original aesthetic charms. Property prices have gone up in the interim, as have rental rates.
The epoch in which Rent was born was also the time when the AIDS epidemic was rearing its scary head with everincreasing momentum, and people of all sexual preferences, particularly members of the gay community, were becoming ever more concerned about the possibility of contracting the disease. The cast of characters in the rock opera includes samesex couples, transgenders and straights, as well as substance abusers.
That sounds like quite a mix to present to Jerusalem audiences.
“Yes, Rent is a challenge on all levels,” admits Kaplan-Wildmann. “It’s a challenge to present something that touches so close to home. It’s a challenge that it is more mature in its nature but requires really great talent to pull it off. I am happy to say we have the singers and, judging by ticket sales so far, we seem to have the audience. This is not your average Broadway musical. This is something grungier. I think it is clear that this is not Mary Poppins.”
There are some trying logistics to be dealt with. All told, the Rent team comprises 19 people, including five instrumentalists, most of whom come from Jerusalem, with others from Tel Aviv, Haifa and Ra’anana.
“It’s hard to schedule, but having such a large cast makes the show sound really good. Rent is a very musical show. It is sung almost completely through, and the music is complex and nuanced, and it is very good. So we wanted to have a big cast to bring that out,” he says.
While Rent may convey universal and timeless messages, Kaplan-Wildmann has made some allowances for a more contemporary take.
“There’s this drag character in the show, and we wanted to make the play feel a little more Yerushalmi and little bit more now.
It’s set in New York, and we’re not going to start changing the text, like having someone say, ‘Go to Mahaneh Yehuda.’ But we try to find where we can make changes,” he says.
The sense I got at the rehearsal was not only of meeting a very talented bunch of youngsters, which includes several professionals, but also a feeling that everyone is in this together. A couple of actors who play lead characters, for example – seasoned actor and singersongwriter Lev Kerzhner, who studied at the William Esper Studio in New York, and Rachel Frazin – played out one of the emotive closing scenes at the rehearsal as the rest of the cast looked on. Everyone was duly appreciative of the standard of the run-through.
Last year, Starcatcher put on a wellreceived performance of A Chorus Line, and Richie Mann, who performs in the current musical and takes care of PR, says the company has taken its operating level up a step with Rent.
“That is definitely the place as far as getting a bohemian and urban setting,” says Mann. “Beit Mazia is the ideal place for hosting Rent.”
While some of the areas the show touches on may sound a bit grim – AIDS, social protest (sound familiar?) and more – Mann says he expects the audiences to leave the show in good cheer.
“Many of the underlying themes are extremely uplifting. Here you have a group of people in New York, when the AIDS epidemic was so new, and I think people didn’t know how to handle it. There was a lot of anger and confusion back then. But I think, at the heart of the musical, there is a really inspiring message of tolerance.
That’s what I find so beautiful. And Jonathan Larson’s music and words are so beautiful, too,” says Mann. 
For tickets: www.bmz.org.il/show.php?id=971
For more information: www.facebook.com/ rentinjerusalem and starcatcher.co.il/blog/