More than one irony surrounds playwright-composer Jonathan Larson's death, and not because Larson checked out at just 35. Not only would his landmark musical Rent premiere on Broadway the day after a rare heart disease took him in 1996; his lyrics reflect a trove of artistic wisdom for a guy so young.
“The opposite of war is not peace; it's creation.” “Forget regret, or life is yours to miss.” I'm here to tell you that Larson framed such dialogue with untold musical brilliance amid his bottomless lust for life, his embrace of ethnic diversity and his urgent declaration of hope for the human family.
Shaun T. Evans likes Rent so much that he sought out the script's school edition—missing one song, devoid of the “f” word and easy on the play's gay-, drug- and AIDS-heavy themes about a group of artists fighting to preserve their integrity in New York's roily East Village—for a turn by San Diego's California Youth Conservatory (CYC), set to open Saturday, June 20. So far, so good. But that was before last March, when CYC was awarded the rights to the full score, replete with all those high-level, gritty references to drug addiction and disease.
And all that language.
CYC is the world's first youth company to stage the show unplugged. The honor hasn't come without its dubious side. Some concerned parents reportedly withdrew their kids from rehearsals; others wanted concessions on the material before they consented to their child's participation. All were adamant in their stances—and that's left CYC managing artistic director Evans, who co-helms the piece with the locally acclaimed Karole Foreman, full of questions about artistic truth and, more important, Larson's legacy.
“One mother said I should be ashamed of myself that I'm propagating this kind of filth,” Evans said. “And several school officials [in three states] had actually shut the school production down. I don't deal directly with the schools, so I haven't had that kind of problem.
“But as soon as I pull a pebble out of the dam [by consenting to arbitrary constraints] for all the people who don't want their kids exposed to this or that [and] start coming with all their conditions, by the time you get done with that, you're not doing Rent anymore. You've got the Disney-fied, sanitized version where you've washed all the meat out of it.”
Rent won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama and best musical Tony Award; it's been performed in more than 20 languages and is the eighth longest-running show in Broadway history. It accomplished all that in its original form, the way Larson wrote it and the way modern theater annals record it. To their great credit, Evans and CYC are staging the show accordingly. In so doing, they're showing singular respect for the art form and for Larson's intent. Theater is the living library of the events that, for better or worse, shed light on who we are and just what we think we're doing here. You can't maintain the archives, for chrissake, if you start ripping out the pages at the same time.The California Youth Conservatory production of Rent runs June 20 through July 5 at The Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $24-$30. 619-544-1000, www.sdrep.org, www.cyctheatre.com.Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.