David Cromer's gritty revamp of Rent is a show for America at the start of the millennium
David Cromer's gritty revamp of Rent is a show for America at the start of the millennium Credit: Michael Brosilow

“Maybe I really have written the show that will reinvent musicals for our generation—the Hair of the 90s,” says Jon, protagonist of Tick, Tick . . . Boom!, an autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson.

Larson went on to write Rent, which did indeed reinvent musical theater for his generation—not to mention a couple that came after. The Pulitzer Prize-winning hit, one of my musical theater students recently told me, is “the first rock opera of our generation.” For folks like her—she was three when it premiered—Rent is a touchstone. Sadly, Larson never got to see how influential it’s become. He died of a heart ailment on January 25, 1996, the day before Rent opened.

Now the American and About Face theaters have pooled their resources to mount David Cromer’s stirring, sometimes haunting rethinking of Rent, while Porchlight Music Theatre is staging Tick, Tick . . . Boom!, which chronicles the professional and personal struggles that led Larson to consider giving up his dreams and then recommit to them.

Modeled on Puccini’s 1896 opera La Boheme, Rent takes place in New York during the mid-1980s—an era whose complacent consumerism the characters reject, just as the hippies in Hair reject their families’ middle-class materialism. “When you’re living in America at the end of the millennium, you’re what you own,” these self-styled members of the “East Village avant-garde” declare.

One of them, an aspiring songwriter named Roger, admits he doesn’t even “own emotion. I rent.” An HIV-positive recovering drug addict, Roger wants to write “one song to redeem this empty life” before AIDS kills him. His roommate, a video artist named Mark, is filming a documentary about Roger and the rest of their circle: Roger’s lover Mimi, an HIV-positive junkie who dances in an S-M nightclub; gay teacher Tom Collins and his drag-queen companion Angel, also HIV-positive; and performance artist Maureen and her lawyer girlfriend Joanne. The prospect of early death is a given for these young people—just as it is for the Vietnam-era kids in Hair.

Cromer has stripped away all hints of Broadway spectacle and sentimentality to get at the emotional core of this story about wounded misfits seeking “connection in an isolating age.” Derrick Trumbly’s Roger isn’t the beautiful dude of the touring productions but a grungy, greasy-haired punk wrestling with self-loathing. Grace Gealy’s Mimi isn’t a seductress but a tough, streetwise tomboy. And Aileen May’s Maureen isn’t a bratty flake but a strong woman struggling to find an authentic artistic voice. Angel, usually played as a sweetly ethereal black androgyne, has been made over by Esteban Andres Cruz into a freaky, bearded, in-your-face Latino gender fucker. [Note: as of 5/23, Cruz has been replaced by Eduardo Placer–ed.]

Alan Schmuckler’s Mark, meanwhile, is a dumpy little nebbish who almost disappears among these flamboyant folks. Still, Rent turns out to be his story as much as anyone’s: by clarifying the show’s mosaic narrative structure more insightfully than the Broadway production did, Cromer subtly highlights Mark’s evolution to the point where he can claim his friends’ fierce pride as his own.

Collette Pollard’s minimalist set places the action in an alley running down the middle of the American Theater Company space, immersing viewers in the world of the characters. A four-piece band under Timothy Splain’s musical direction drives home the score’s crunchy rhythms, yet the lyrics are always clear, and, though the singers are miked, their robust voices never sound amplified.

Some numbers are quite beautiful, but the ensemble never indulge in crowd-pleasing vocal pyrotechnics. They come across instead as people communicating. Too often staged as a duet for dueling divas, Maureen and Joanne’s soulful “Take Me as I Am” is offered here as a heated conversation between two strong-willed women trying to be true to themselves as well as to each other. And the show’s anthemic hit, “Seasons of Love,” is rendered with a gentle wistfulness: contrived enthusiasm is replaced with poignant uncertainty as it asks, “How do you measure a year in the life? How about love?”

Playwright Jonathan Larson actually does hover over this production of his semi-autobiographical musical <i>Tick, Tick . . . Boom!</i>
Playwright Jonathan Larson actually does hover over this production of his semi-autobiographical musical Tick, Tick . . . Boom!

Originally a “rock monologue” that Larson himself performed Off-Off-Broadway in 1990, Tick, Tick . . . Boom! was retrofitted after his death by playwright David Auburn and arranger Stephen Oremus. The show finds Jon devastated by the failure of his futuristic rock epic Superbia and unsettled by his breakup with his girlfriend Susan and the news that his gay best friend, Michael, has been diagnosed with AIDS. On the eve of his 30th birthday, this ironically self-described “promising young composer” considers giving up his artistic aspirations altogether. He doesn’t, but Larson’s untimely death hovers over the story. It ends with Jon receiving a phone message from his idol, Stephen Sondheim, telling him that he has “a great future.”

Adam Pelty’s kinetic, imaginative production benefits greatly from Adrian Aguilar’s performance as Jon. Rumpled and unkempt, Aguilar burns with the intensity of an artist riven by self-doubt yet driven by the need to create. Jenny Guse and Bear Bellinger are excellent as Susan and Michael; Guse, in particular, does a superb job with the driving rock ballad “Come to Your Senses.” Under Diana Lawrence’s musical direction the vocals always sound natural and conversational, enhancing the emotional honesty of the work.

The story is smartly framed by Anna Henson and Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projections showing the skyline and subways of New York, photos of Larson as a child, and the chilling image of a digital clock ticking away the life of a gifted young composer who died young yet left an enduring legacy.