'Rent' aims to promote tolerance in Jerusalem

The diverse cast includes religious, gay, and Christian actors.

rent the musical 248.88 (photo credit: Yehoshua Halevi)
rent the musical 248.88
(photo credit: Yehoshua Halevi)
ºAt first glance, it may seem like Jonathan Larson's hit musical Rent would be more at home in Tel Aviv than in Jerusalem. But the directors of the show's Israel debut feel its messages of tolerance and living life to the fullest are as relevant in the Holy City as anywhere else - and perhaps even more so. The musical, based on Puccini's opera La Boheme, follows a diverse group of young Bohemians in 1990s New York's East Village as they struggle with AIDS, drug abuse, poverty, relationships and their own integrity. The primary message of the show - which spans a year in which several of the characters, including two gay couples, deal with the terminal disease - is embodied in such lyrics as "Measure your life in love" and "No day but today." Larson's premature death shortly before the production's opening in 1996 has endowed it with a loyal following determined to keep that message alive. "I think the messages are very important for Jerusalem, especially in terms of accepting people for who they are," director Rafi Poch of Merkaz Hamagshimim-Hadassah's Center Stage Theater told The Jerusalem Post this week. "Not that what they're doing is [necessarily] correct - it might not be - but we all have to learn from one another and create a functional society in a city of multiple faiths and beliefs. There are references to Christianity and Judaism in Rent, and different lifestyles - homosexuality, heterosexuality, people living in poverty, people trying to help out - things that can definitely be taken to people in our community." Poch, who is Orthodox, feels that the real power of the show comes from the questions it raises. "The question is asked very seriously in the show: What do you do with the time you have left? That's something we can ask ourselves even if we're not sick with a fatal disease," he said. "Each day, do I make a difference with the people around me? How do I make a connection, and is it a positive connection? What I have to ask as a religious Jew is, am I asking those questions? And if not, then perhaps there's a problem, and I should be." In fact, the cast boasts several religious actors, including a seminary girl whose father is a rabbi, and a new oleh who, Poch said, found his Judaism strengthened by the experience of working on Rent. It also includes several gay members, a Christian and a Conservative convert. One of the cast members, Zahava Dalin, said that as a religious Jew, she'd initially had certain reservations about working on the show. "Then I met people who destroyed any stereotypes I had about secular people and homosexuals - from TV, society, etc.," she said, adding that after working together for eight months, the cast members were all extremely close. Aaron Johnson, the lone Christian cast member, said he hadn't noticed any differences in working with a diverse cast. "I think most, if not everyone, is a person of faith, and that's something that ties us together," said Johnson, who hails from Cleveland. "Jerusalem, for me, feels almost like home... maybe because there are so many different types of people, so you feel like there's always a place for you." The proximity of the show - which opened last Thursday and runs through June 25 - to the gay pride events throughout the country was a fluke, since it was originally scheduled to go on in February and was delayed for technical reasons. Musical director Sarah Halevy, an Orthodox clinical psychologist who works with teens at risk, put a different spin on the issues raised by the show, and using one's artistic talents to serve God. "As a psychologist, I see a number of religious gays and lesbians, and they are all, to some degree, suicidal," she said. "I don't think we can penetrate the depths of the religious world with this show, but I do think we can make a start - and if by doing so, we make one conflicted teenager able to find somewhere to go with his pain, then we've accomplished something very holy."