‘Rent’ revels in both slums and hope

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‘Rent’ revels in both slums and hope

On Jan. 26, 1996, the musical based on Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” ― rechristened “Rent” ― was about to go on stage for the first time. But the day before the curtain lifted, the show’s playwright, songwriter and composer, Jonathan Larson, suddenly died of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 36.
In order to celebrate its 10th anniversary on Broadway, the Broadway cast of the “Rent” has embarked on their first world tour. Fortunately for us, one stop on the tour is Seoul.
There have been too many B-class Broadway actors who come to Korea as part of hastily assembled tour casts, but this time most of the cast were actually in the Broadway original production. The musical, which has won four Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize, will be on stage here until Jan. 26, having its show on the same day Larson died 10 years ago, making its visit to Seoul more significant.
The cast also includes Karen Mok, an actress and singer from Hong Kong with a clean-cut image (some might recognize her from Wong Kar Wai’s “Fallen Angels”) who will transform herself to fill the role of Mimi, a dirty, drug-addicted, HIV-positive club dancer.
Some critics have claimed that Mok, who has never before been in a musical, was added to the line-up for the tour only to boost the show’s appeal to Asians. In reply, David Truskinoff, 42, the musical director of the show, said in an interview with the JoongAng Daily, “[Mok] brought something different to Rent, perhaps because she lives in another part of the world, while the rest of us are from New York, Broadway.”
He added that Mok has “Asian sensibility, voice and acting,” which she used to create her own version of the character, different from the Mimi portrayed by the actress Domenique Roy in the original Broadway cast. Mr. Truskinoff said that Mok was the first Asian Mimi he’s ever worked with.
Except the new Mimi, the version of Rent that will be performed in Seoul is not too different from the original version staged on Broadway, even having the five musicians (two keyboardists, a guitarist, a bassist and a drummer) that comprise the rock band performing on stage. “I consider the band to be very much a character in the show,” Mr. Truskinoff said. “I can’t think of the band being off the stage.”
The original script still has the resonance among audiences that it did at its first performance, and having been performed by 25 international productions in 15 languages, that power appears to be universal.
Despite the passage of time and the number of productions, the play has not needed to be changed, said Jeremy Kushnier, 30, who performs as Roger, a poor musician who struggles to pay his rent. Every part of the musical is perfect, he said, and the story’s general theme of “community, love, respecting other people and acknowledging that we all have basic needs,” is something unbounded by nationality or generation. He said that it was amazing to see audience members in China crying and laughing at parts in the show even though they didn’t completely understand the dialogue.
“I think [Larson] is smiling somewhere, seeing that so many people perform [Rent] and so many people are touched,” he said.
“[Larson] succeeded completely in what he aimed to do with his piece,” said Trey Ellett, 35, who plays Mark, Roger’s roommate, a filmmaker and the show’s narrator.
The play lifts the 19th-century opera about four poor Bohemians ― a poet, painter, philosopher and musician ― and one lady suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis in the back streets of Paris into a musical format about poor artists in New York’s East Village. Along with the background, the characters were also modernized, with the poet Rodolfo becoming Roger, and the lady with pulmonary tuberculosis is Mimi, the AIDS patient. (Roger also has AIDS.) “Rent” also deals frankly with the issue of homosexuality, something that no one would have dared to put on stage a century ago. Above all, however, it is a story of dreams, passion, love, friendship and hope.
So how tough were things for the cast members before they became Broadway stars?
Plenty tough, Ellett said. He worked odd jobs, from dog-walking to telemarketing to waiting on tables. “And I still do struggle, although it’s not as hard as it used to be,” he said. “It’s the part of being an artist, it’s part of what you sign up for.”
Kushnier agreed. “Yes, even now, after this tour is done, I go back to the states and ask, ‘Now what?’ You know, I’m always waiting, looking for the next thing.”
Both Ellett and Kushnier had played the roles of Roger and Mark before joining the tour, and both say they find their current roles to be easier.
“Roger bundles up his emotions, fighting off anger, fighting off depression, and fighting off sadness. He’s like a cyclone,” Ellett said. On the other hand, “Mark is so rational, just observing what others do,” which Ellett said is easier to act, although staying on stage for most of the show’s running time isn’t easy. (He’s used to it, though, having played Jonathan in the musical “Tick, Tick... Boom!,” also by Jonathan Larson; he had to stay on stage almost all the running time.)
Kushnier finds Roger easier to play. “[Roger’s] arc is built into the story. He is depressed when his girlfriend leaves, he’s happy when he falls in love [with Mimi] and he’s sad again when she leaves him,” said Kushnier. “But Mark doesn’t have a lot of things built in the story. He has to sort of find his own arc in it.”
“The wonderful thing about Rent is that it attracts a very wide audience,” said Truskinoff, the musical director. Young kids like the rock music and adults dig the gospel, R&B, ballad, and tango. “It talks about the passion of all ages, races and backgrounds, which speaks to everyone,” he added.
So how will the performance of the Broadway troupe benefit Korea?
Mok said in a press conference in Seoul last month that she believes Korea will lead the musical industry in Asia as it has in other fields of entertainment through hanryu, the Korean wave.
“Although now when we say musical, people think of the West End or Broadway, I think Asia absolutely has potential in this form of entertainment,” said Mok.
Yun Ho-jin, the president of Acom International, a creative musical company in Korea, thinks the country still has a ways to go before it can give Broadway a run for its money.
“The original cast must come to Korea to lift the level of the Korean musical industry,” he said. But he seemed concerned that a one-way reception of foreign productions could result in the domestic industry being “corrupted,” and said the government should adopt measures to protect Korean creative musicals from being crushed by foreign productions.

by Park Sung-ha

“Rent” runs from today through Jan. 26 at the Olympic Hall of Olympic Park in Bangi-dong, southern Seoul, at 8 p.m. weekdays and 3 and 7 p.m. on weekends. Get off at Olympic Park subway station, line No. 5, exit 3. Tickets cost 44,000 won ($45) to 99,000 won. The Broadway troupe will also perform in Daegu from Feb. 2 to Feb. 5 at the Daegu Opera House. Tickets cost 33,000 to 99,000 won. For more information, call (02) 512-7986, or visit www.rent2006.co.kr.
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