After a limited season at Theatr Clywd in Mold, the 20th anniversary production of Jonathan Larson’s innovative American musical Rent has embarked on a three-week tour prior to a Christmas season at London’s St James Theatre where it has already broken box office records.
Below, Musical Theatre Review contributor Rebecca Gordon chats to director BRUCE GUTHRIE about his new production of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning show.
I heard that you’ve never seen a production of Rent – how did this impact you?
I am coming at it with a fresh perspective. I am a huge fan of the book and a huge fan of the music so I tried to approach it as if it was a brand new musical. I was lucky enough to go to New York City before we started rehearsals and meet a lot of the people who were involved in the original production; people whose situation had inspired certain moments in the production or were friends with Jonathan Larson.
What was the most surprising discovery you made when you were in New York and doing your background research?
I don’t know if this is surprising, but I was struck by how much was drawn from personal experience and the people around him. ‘Seasons of Love’ is a collection of lyrics drawn from Jonathan’s friends. He called them up and asked them: “how would you measure a year?”
You recently said that you are a big fan of Jonathan Larson and wanted to keep to his vision as much as possible – could you tell me a little bit more about this?
There’s various interpretations of the production. There have been times where directors have kept it closer to La bohème – they have kind of cut when Mimi apparently dies at the end of it. But that’s not what Jonathan wrote. I worked with the actors and the creative team to make it feel authentic, but also to absolutely pay service to the writer. He wanted it to end with a sense of hope and we need to honour that.
As a director, what are the challenges of developing a new production of Rent when people have strong opinions on what the musical is supposed to do?
It’s a massive challenge. We don’t have the luxury of having the writer in the room, which is an unfortunate thing. I would have enjoyed meeting Jonathan. It is superb writing. He pays absolute respect to La bohème while making it very much his own thing and a product of its time…incredible qualities to have. I think the cast has brought so much to it. They are all young, incredibly talented, 15 fresh imaginations. They approach the work from a very emotional point of view with a great amount of respect and integrity.
It’s never about ego or what has gone before. It’s allowed a young group of actors to flex their creative muscles.
How do your actors surprise you?
They surprise me every day. Layton Williams [as Angel] is an extraordinary performer. His relationship with Ryan O’Gorman who plays Tom is really, really special. Lucie Jones [Maureen] is an incredible vocal talent as well as Shanay Holmes [Joanne]. The way that they have built up the relationship is extraordinary.
Billy Cullum is the guy who holds everything together and with his Mark he totally gets the Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall and ensures that the audience keeps up with everything – he’s wonderful. And then you’ve got Ross (Hunter), playing the role of Roger. He has the most extraordinary rock voice and finds new depths within the character every day.
Philippa Stefani, who plays Mimi, brings a wealth of talent and depth of emotion to a character who really struggles with life on a daily basis. Pip gives something up of herself with every performance and the audience really responds to that.
Then you have Javar La’trail Parker [Benjamin]. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be someone who is prepared to not be liked – that’s a very difficult thing to do. They’ve done an extensive amount of research to give these characters authenticity because otherwise the audience doesn’t buy it.
In the late 1980s, during the time Rent was set, the HIV virus was spreading. That was radical during that era, but how do you think Rent speaks to an audience now?
I think it’s radical to look back on as well. It was the great plague of the 20th century. It was the thing that nobody talked about.
Real drama comes from the way that actual human beings react in extreme circumstances and there are not many circumstances that are as extreme as HIV. It also depicts great inequality to a group of people who are struggling to make it…people who feel like they haven’t got a voice, disenfranchised, and wish politicians could stand up for them. It could be set yesterday from that point of view. We are all going through it with Brexit and Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton.
Do you think there’s a temptation with a musical like Rent to play about with some of the themes and issues?
I think there is, but that isn’t what Jonathan Larson wrote and I think that people are smart enough to get that. Twenty years after Rent first opened, have we really changed that much? Has the political climate changed that much? Has social inequality changed that much? I think my job as director is to represent what the writer intended with a group of actors who are insanely talented and really care about the work. We are storytellers. We are not politicians.
If you had to ask Jonathan Larson one question what would it be?
[Laughs] That’s a hard one. I guess it would be after he had seen the production. I would ask: are you happy? Did I serve you?
Tickets for Rent at St James Theatre are available HERE.
Presented by Robert Mackintosh and Idili Theatricals in association with Theatr Clywd and Wales Millennium Centre, Rent continues at the Malvern Festival Theatre (22-26 November) and then moves on to the Wycombe Swan (29 November-3 December).
The production will play the St James Theatre from 8 December until 28 January 2017 before heading off on tour.
The 2017 leg of the tour will begin in Eastbourne at the Devonshire Park Theatre (31 January-4 February) followed by Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre (14-18 February); Leicester’s Curve (28 March-1 April); Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff (3-8 April); Cheltenham Everyman Theatre (11-15 April); York Theatre Royal (18-22 April); Lighthouse, Poole’s Centre For The Arts (1-6 May); Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre (9-13 May); Nottingham Playhouse (16-20 May) and the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells (23-27 May).
BRUCE GUTHRIE has directed: The Last Mermaid (Wales Millennium Centre); Man to Man (Wales Millennium Centre and Edinburgh Festival 2015); Lotty’s War (UK tour); Bakersfield Mist (Duchess Theatre); The Merchant of Venice (Fort Canning Park, Singapore); Othello (Fort Canning Park, Singapore); The Man On Her Mind (Charing Cross Theatre); An Incident at the Border (Finborough and Trafalgar Studios); Twelfth Night (Fort Canning Park, Singapore); Hitchcock Blonde (Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff); Karen’s Wish (Mayfair Theatre); Gloucestershire (Arcola); Stories by Heart (Lyttelton NT); The Elephant Man (Trafalgar Studios); The Long and the Short and the Tall (Pleasance); Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me (The Venue, Leicester Square, and Edinburgh Gateway Studio).
Bruce is also the artistic director of the National Youth Theatre of Wales.