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The Show That Changed Broadway

Midway through completing my drama degree at Stellenbosch University, having taken significant strides into the worlds of Shakespeare, Brecht and Coward, I realised I had been yearning to somehow put my musical talents into practise. Not an easy job in a faculty where serious drama was seen as the order of the day, but I persevered and three “musical productions” later, (Robin Hood - The Musical, which I composed with colleague Keith Bain, who wrote the book. A seriously sexy rock cabaret called ‘Womanize’ which I devised with six spunky girls from the department and a somewhat debauched musical parody, in Afrikaans, of The Rocky Horror Show with singing puppets), I ultimately left my mark on the boards of the H.B. Thom Theatre as the musical-theatre wannabe!

It was during this time that I was told to listen to the soundtrack of a new musical that had recently opened in New York. I was instantly enthralled. I had never imagined songs like these being performed in a musical, they were so decisively rock in feel, yet many of them also celebrated other musical genres including the tango and some with an R&B feel. There was even one song that sounded like a club anthem. The material was challenging on so many levels, the lyrics so modern and ‘with it’ and some of the melodies literally ripped my heart out. It completely changed my perception of what I knew musical theatre to be, and I knew instantly that I would spend most of my career in the musical theatre arena. This musical was called RENT.

Almost 10 years later, I still can’t believe my luck at having been chosen to be a part of the South African Company of Jonathan Larson’s RENT, which opens at The Alexander Theatre this month in Johannesburg.

Before I elaborate on that, let me report back on the last few months. Our tour of Superstar in Athens was an exhilarating experience. A whirlwind tour of talent, tavernas and tzatziki. Having had the opportunity to explore the very spots where revered orators and philosophers like Socrates communicated their profound thoughts to the ancient world, I quickly realised just how remarkable the city of Athens is, and how to this very day, its fascinating past lingers in every corner. Our production of Superstar was a hit, having received countless standing ovations. However, we were also admonished on a nightly basis by a group of protesters who demonstrated outside The Badminton Theatre, protesting that Jesus Christ Superstar was blasphemous. Whilst this is old news to anybody who knows the history of this show, I was utterly surprised at how passionately some people felt about this, some going so far as to deface our billboards and posters. Who would imagine that the premise of this old 70’s musical could, in this day and age, still get people so hot under the collar. It certainly wasn’t because they felt we had staged the show inappropriately, they refused point blank to watch it. I’m convinced that some of them may even have felt differently had they bothered to give the show a chance. Nowadays, when movies like The Passion of Christ, The Da Vinci Code, and all the hype surrounding the newly discovered Gospel of Judas, have far more controversial comments to make about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, our little musical still managed to ruffle the Hellenic feathers. Needless to say, the old adage sticks - there is no such thing as bad publicity, and we sailed in and out of Greece having left our mark on the hearts and souls of hundreds of theatre goers. I was particularly surprised by the amazing feedback I received from audience members on my website, and I encourage you to use it in the same way.

A short trip to London on my way home, resulted in my seeing no less than 10 musicals. Call me crazy! I was exhausted, as was my bank account, but it was so worth it. Highlights here included my second viewing of the astonishing Billy Elliott, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a show with so much heart anywhere, the brilliantly novel and naughty Avenue Q, and a superb revival of Evita, with a fireball performance by the petite Elena Rogers as Eva. Other highlights included the performance of Bob Martin as ‘Man in Chair’ in The Drowsy Chaperone, the choreographic work by Peter Darling in both Billy Elliot and Lord of the Rings, and the performance by Richard Griffiths as the psychologist in Equus with Daniel Radcliffe. Greatly inspired I headed home to start work on RENT.

RENT is the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning musical by Jonathan Larson which is still running eleven years later at the Nederlander Theatre, On Broadway, New York. Set in New York’s gritty East Village, RENT is loosely based on Puccini’s La Boheme. It is a rock opera about a group of Bohemian friends who share 525 600 minutes striving for acceptance, tolerance and success in a community plagued by poverty, illness, drug addiction and the AIDS epidemic. This piece of musical theatre couldn’t be more relevant to our society here in S.A. today, especially at a time when the Aids epidemic is rife and when now, more than ever, there is a desperate need to show an attitude of tolerance toward other people. Featuring an all South African cast, RENT is a musical that will touch your heart and change your life.

Our director is none other than Anthony Rapp who originated the role of Mark Cohen in the very first Off-Broadway production of RENT, and who then reprised it when the show moved on to Broadway. He has also recently appeared in the 2005 Sony Pictures feature film version of the musical. It has been an amazing experience working with Anthony, he has such comprehensive and thorough knowledge of the piece, having worked with the composer Jonathan Larson and the original director Michael Grief. The rehearsal process has as a result been incredibly satisfying as we have had first hand knowledge and experience passed on to us. Anthony leaves us to reprise his role as Mark Cohen for a further season in New York in August.

I am privileged to have been appointed Resident Director by both my producer Hazel Feldman and Anthony on this South African Production of RENT, and am also covering the part of Roger Davis. On a nightly basis I will be playing Gordon/The Man/Mr Grey for any of you RENT-heads out there, so needless to say, I have my work cut out for me.

I will continue posting pics and reviews (two amazing ones already) from the S.A. Production of RENT as they come in. Be sure to check out the JCS Athens Tour Pics as well as Rent Rehearsal pics in the gallery. Details for the Alexander Theatre and show times for RENT are on the Current Show links, and of course as always, pop me a line in the guest-book.

Till next time, VIVA LA VIE BOHEME!

Best wishes

Ant

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