BROADWAY RECALL: When Rent Surprised Everyone

Welcome to BROADWAY RECALL, a bi-monthly column where's Chief Theatre Critic, Michael Dale, delves into the archives and explores the stories behind the well-known and the not so well-known videos and photographs of Broadway's past.  Look for BROADWAY RECALL on the 1st and 15th of every month.

When Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp returned to their starring roles in the original Broadway production of Rent more than ten years into its run (video via photo below), it was certainly an unprecedented event.  But by then the East Village rock musical that chronicled a year of friendships as seen through seasons of love had already accumulated an unusual history.


The fact that Jonathan Larson (in photo below) won two posthumous Tony Award for writing and composing Rent is certainly bittersweet, but the fact that for one of those awards he bested the also posthumously nominated Rodgers and Hammerstein is just plain weird.  But the last-minute addition of Rent to the 1995-96 Broadway season seemed to be the catalyst for one the oddest Tony nights ever.

For most of the season, the only new hit musical in town was one about bohemian artists and homosexuals.  I'm referring, of course, to Victor/Victoria, the stage adaptation (with an expanded score), of the hit 1982 film with Julie Andrews recreating her role as a penniless Parisian singer who acquires fame and true love as the world's most convincing female impersonator.  If the musical had opened the same year as the film, before the original Broadway production of La Cage Aux Folles, Victor/Victoria might have seemed daring and even a little subversive, but by its October '95 opening it was welcomed as a big, splashy, tourist-friendly star vehicle.  Critics may have found it a bit cheesy, but with Julie Andrews returning to Broadway for the first time since starring in Camelot way back in 1960, the box office was busy.

The two previous new musicals that season hadn't fared as well.  Graciela Daniele's dance piece, Chronicle of a Death Foretold (based on the novel by Gabriel García Márquez), was appreciated artistically but there was not enough interest to justify an extension of its initial limited run.  Swinging On A Star, a revue celebrating the lyrics of Johnny Burke, featured the Broadway choreographing debut of Kathleen Marshall and had an ensemble cast that includEd Lewis Cleale, Kathy Fitzgerald and Michael McGrath (all four would receive Drama Desk nominations) but couldn't quite last three months.  It wasn't until late March that another "new" musical opened and it was to be the final producing entry for the legendary David Merrick; a stage adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair, which cobbled together a score from songs used in the 1946 movie and a collection of R&H trunk songs.  The production was kindly, if not enthusiastically, received and remarkably, Merrick was able to get the Tony rules committee to allow the trunk songs, without the movie songs, to qualify for consideration as a Best Score contender.

But by then the word had hit uptown about an exciting new musical that premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop.  If news of the relatively unknown Jonathan Larson's tragic death the night before what was scheduled to be the first preview wasn't immediately noticed by the theatergoing public, Ben Brantley's New York Times review, which proclaimed, "People who complain about the demise of the American musical have simply been looking in the wrong places," certainly provoked a surge of ticket sales that sold out the Off-Broadway run immediately.

Two weeks later, Frank Rich wrote a Times op-ed piece that focused on the political depths of Larson's artistry in an essay that seemed intent on assuring musical theatre traditionalists that Rent was of greater literary and musical value than Broadway's previous rock musicals.

"Stephen Sondheim, who became the young songwriter's mentor," wrote Rich, "this week recalled how he 'welled up' when he first heard of Mr. Larson's work on a tape in part because it was 'generous music,' lovingly merging the musical theatre traditions of past generations, including Mr. Sondheim's own, with rock."

Not everyone was quite in sync with what made Rent different, like the folks at Bloomingdale's who opened up a special Rent boutique where customers spent hundreds of dollars buying clothes inspired by the show's thrift store fashions.  But fortunately the producers recognized the awkwardness of giving a musical about homelessness and AIDS a glitzy, Broadway treatment, so the seldom-used, disheveled Nederlander Theatre, all alone on a seedy block of 41st Street, was chosen as the show's new home, with an outdoor display meant to resemble graffiti.  (Soon after, the newest Broadway revival of Cabaret and the transfer of Urinetown also made the atmospheric choice to inhabit a theatre that was in obvious need of a sprucing up.)

Because the realities of Broadway ticket prices alienated the low-income artistic folks the musical was all about, $20 seats in the first two rows were offered for each performance on a first-come, first-served basis.  Fans began arriving in the early morning hours huddled under blankets and sleeping bags, appropriately looking like homeless people sleeping outside the theatre.  A community of repeat customers began referring to themselves as Rent-Heads and cast members grew accustomed to regularly seeing familiar faces up front.  Eventually, the switch was made to a lottery system to distribute the $20 tickets, eliminating the need for early morning arrivals.  Such lotteries are now common at Broadway shows, especially those seeking a youthful audience.

Rent was the last new musical to open before the Tony Award deadline, arriving on the heels of another popular Off-Broadway transfer, George C. Wolfe and Savion Glover's Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, a dance musical that explored the history of black Americans through tap, and the highly anticipated, but ultimately disappointing musical version of the hit movie Big.

Although the Tony Awards are meant to honor the excellence that takes place throughout the Broadway season, a glance at the nominees in any given year shows a traditional leaning towards productions that are still open.  So the theatre community was understandably shocked when Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Swinging On A Star were honored with two of the four Best Musical nominations, along with expected nods for Rent and Noise/Funk.  While Chronicle's three nominations (also for book and choreography) could be attributed to appreciation of its artistic ambitions, the Best Musical nomination for Star was highly suspect because it was the only nomination the show received.  Victor/Victoria also received just one nomination, for Julie Andrews' performance.  With V/V out of the mix it seemed assured that Rent would nab the Best Musical prize and speculation began as to if the nominators were intentionally making an art vs. commercial theatre statement by eliminating the possibility of more traditional voters backing the glittery star vehicle.

After the next performance of Victor/Victoria, Julie Andrews, who had never won a Tony and was assumed to have an automatic win on her way, made a curtain speech, with cameras rolling, declining her nomination in an act of solidarity with her company members (video via photo here).


But the ballots with her name had already been printed up and sent to voters.  Would they decline her decline and vote for her anyway?  With Ms. Andrews not in attendance, Nathan Lane got a big laugh, and perhaps tricked a few people on the Tony telecast by making an elaborate entrance with his back to the audience, dressed in a replica of the star's double-drag costume.  When Bernadette Peters came out to announce the nominees for Best Actress in a Musical, her knowing expression recognizing that the moment everyone had been waiting for had arrived also received some chuckles.

As it turned out, the victor was Donna Murphy, for her critically and publically acclaimed performance as Anna in The King and I.  Placed in an awkward situation, Ms. Murphy gracefully accepted without a mention of any extenuating issues.

Would Rent have won the Best Musical Tony if Victor/Victoria was nominated?  Most likely, yes.  Would Julie Andrews have won the Best Actress in a Musical Tony if she hadn't declined?  Most definitely, yes.  But such controversies are a part of Tony history.  Perhaps we can look back at another one of them next time.

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