A new Bohemian rhapsody

In New York, 'Rent' is so sold-out even Brad Pitt can't get tickets. But Robert Butler got to see it, and better Broadway shows too; BROADWAY '96
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The Independent Culture
SUNDAY evening, outside the Nederlander Theater on West 41st Street, and the man at the front of the returns-only queue has been in line since 8am. In the advance-bookings queue, a woman pleads with the box office that next month is her 25th wedding anniversary (that's Broadway audiences, for you: married for 25 years). But no luck, Rent is a sell- out. When I try ringing the publicist for a ticket he tells me that there's nothing. Nothing. Last week he couldn't "get tickets for Brad Pitt".

Rent, a new rock-opera, just transferred from the 150-seat New York Theater Workshop to the 1,180-seat Nederlander, now plays, according to the weekly grosses given in Variety, to 101.9 per cent. A freak hit, Rent's success can be attributed to the fact that it taps into two very powerful showbiz stories.

The first is La Boheme. Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, bases his musical on Puccini, who in turn based his opera on Henri Murger's Scenes de la Vie de Boheme. The Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1830s becomes the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1990s. With quite a few extra problems. Marcello, the painter, becomes Mark, the videographer, worrying about whether to sell out to tabloid TV. Mimi, the seamstress who has TB, becomes Mimi, the dancer at a sadomasochist club who is an HIV- positive heroin addict. Schaunard, the musician, becomes Angel, the transvestite street drummer, who is HIV-positive. Rodolpho, the poet and playwright, becomes Roger, the punk singer, who is HIV-positive. And so on.

The second showbiz story (also a tragedy) is about the artist who dies on the eve of great success. Famously, Gower Champion, the director and choreographer of 42nd Street, died the day that show opened on Broadway (25 August 1980). He won two Tonys, posthumously, for best director and best choreographer. This latest version is more extreme. Jonathan Larson worked as a waiter at the Moondance Diner in Greenwich Village, shared a dingy walk-up loft with two flatmates and had a simple, if grand, ambition to write a rock-opera that reunited popular music with theatre and had characters on-stage who resembled the sort of people he knew. This he achieved. Sadly, after the dress rehearsal for the off-Broadway production, Larson, who had been complaining of chest pains, suffered an aortic aneurysm. His death, aged 35, made Rent a front-page story.

The ironies might have been scripted in advance. Premature death dominates Rent. Act Two opens with the entire company singing "Seasons of Love" about the amount of time you have left when you only have a year to live ("Five hundred twenty-five thousand / Six hundred minutes"). Writing for posterity is a big theme too. When Rent begins, the singer Roger is recovering from his girlfriend's suicide (yes, she too was HIV-positive). His first number is "One Song Glory": "One song / Glory / One song before I go / Glory / One song to leave behind."

In Rent, Larson leaves more than 30 songs behind: Broadway songs, rock songs, operatic arias and gospel numbers. The cast album will be produced by David Geffen in August, who predicts that later when the songs are covered by well-known singers there will be four or five hit singles. As well as the 30-odd songs, Rent has eight different storylines. This is its problem. Watching the show, when you do finally get a ticket, seems more like viewing a collage than experiencing a dramatically engaging musical. All the emotion is there, but it's all over the place. Rent emerges as a kind of community play for New York bohemia. The references here are to AZT, T-cells, Alphabet City, Sontag and Sondheim. It makes little concession to a wider world. Even the landlord in Rent wants to turn his property into a cyber studio. Rent revels in a kind of group solipsism, characterised by Angel's lines: "It's a comfort to know / When you're singing the hit the road blues / That anywhere else you could possibly go / After New York 'd be a pleasure cruise."

One hesitates to list the number of places in the world which could never be called a pleasure cruise. This fortress mentality is one reason why Rent may not do as well on tour as it does in Manhattan. When it transfers to London it won't benefit from the surge of emotion that followed Larson's death. But the album will be out (the score is better than the book), and if the producers are clever they will choose a stark, unconventional theatre space that mirrors the play's hip, grungy atmosphere. Then it may be an event here too.

For sheer abundance of talent, for unmistakeable star quality, there is far more to enjoy in another off-Broadway transfer, Bring in 'Da Funk, Bring in 'Da Noise, which tells the history of tap dancing as the history of the African-American experience. George C Wolfe, director of the Joseph Papp Public Theater, conceived the show round its star and choreographer, Savion Glover, whom he describes as "a living repository of rhythm".

Glover is a virtuoso: one of the most talented performers you are likely to see. Only 22, he's been on Broadway since he appeared as the title character in The Tap Dance Kid when he was 12. Gregory Hines, with whom he appeared in the Broadway show Jelly's Last Jam, and no slouch as a hoofer, describes Glover as "possibly the best tap dancer that's ever lived".

The numbers, directed by Wolfe, with an impressively clear, stylish authority, unfold chronologically, showing how rhythms and beats (the way they are expressed, the way - during slavery - they were allowed to be expressed) developed out of precise historical conditions. They move from "In 'Da Beginning", which has Glover arriving on a slave ship, to the dazzling percussion of panhandlers in "Som'thin' from Nuthin' ", to "Urbanisation", which has a chilling dance number "Lynching Blues", and "Industrialisation", where factory workers bang out the automated rhythms on the machinery.

After "Da Interval", Glover brings tap up-to-date: "Where's the Beat", takes satirical swipes at black entertainers in the 1920s and 1930s who assimilated; "Street Corner Symphony" catches the shifting moods and music of '57, '67, '77 and '87. Tap here becomes angry, menacing and full of attitude. In a cooler sequence, Glover stands in a spotlight facing three mirrors. On a soundtrack we hear him talking us through what he learnt from his predecessors. As we listen, Glover demonstrates his versatility by doing each of these styles. It's been said (without much exaggeration) that Glover has the percussion section of a symphony orchestra under his feet. He shows us why.

For anyone who needs reminding what a really good musical is like, Christopher Renshaw directs a magnificent revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, first staged 45 years ago. Donna Murphy - who sang the role of Fosca on the New York recording of Passion - is superb as Anna the governess, singing with warm crystalline fervour and swirling her vast hooped gowns that elegantly deflate like parachutes when she sits down. Designer Brian Thomson lovingly evokes 1860s Bangkok, and among many highlights Jerome Robbins's enchantingly witty choreography for "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" still stands out.

One of Broadway's divas, Betty Buckley, currently starring as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, took over Carnegie Hall on a Monday night to sing a gala evening for "Broadway Cares / Equity Fights Aids". She moved from a traditional first half to a more unbuttoned, playful second half that included introducing the British singer Linzi Hateley, with whom she had starred on Broadway in the famous flop Carrie. Hateley entered, in a long plain white cardigan, and without any introduction delivered the title song of Carrie with the kind of power normally required to launch rockets. Broadway audiences leap to their feet so often you sometimes wonder why they buy seats. Here it was deserved. Judging from the two numbers sung from Carrie (which retains a cult following here) we'd be as likely to see a successful revival of Carrie, 45 years on, as Rent. !