collage narrative

9

you can’t believe every story you’re told

not even the ones you tell yourself

Rent is wildly popular rock musical with music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. It tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in New York City’s East Village in the thriving days of Bohemian Alphabet City, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.

Rent was one of the first musicals I saw and the first musical that ever spoke to me. I remember watching the movie and “Life Support” came on. I cried my heart out. It was so beautiful and raw.

Jon lived a bohemian life in downtown New York. He rented a scruffy loft that had a bathtub in the kitchen and a crumbling water closet with a skylight above the toilet, and thick extension cords running all along the baseboards to feed his computer, his synthesizer, and his tape decks. For a while, he and his roommates kept an illegal, wood-burning stove. He got a waiter’s job at a SoHo restaurant called the Moondance Diner. He dated a dancer for four years who sometimes left him for other men and finally left him for another woman. He wrote lots of music in the years between leaving college and mounting Rent, including two shows that didn’t get produced.

And here’s another thing to know about Jonathan: He wanted to transform the musical theatre, to make it more modern. He didn’t like that show music hadn’t changed since the late 1940s. That Oklahoma sounded like Oklahoma in 1943 was fine; that a lot of musicals still sounded like Oklahoma in 1996 were depressing. All of his downtown friends liked music but none of them liked musicals; he would explain to them, “That isn’t our music uptown on Broadway; those aren’t our characters, these aren’t our stories.” Jon had grown up listening to the Who and Billy Joel and Elton John, along with Sondheim. He wanted to make them one and the same thing. But after seven years of writing musicals in the city, he hadn’t been able to convince anyone else that this was the right way to go. That was when he hit on Rent.

So now here’s Billy Aronson, who was a Yale trained playwright, who loved opera, and who had this idea. Billy wanted to write a musical updating La Boheme. He wanted it to be about people like himself - struggling to make art under lousy conditions. Some theatrical acquaintances suggested Jonathan. They met a few times in 1989, sitting on Jonathan’s roof and absorbing a little kefi. Jon came up with the title. He didn’t like Billy’s proposed Upper West Side setting. Billy wanted to make the show about his friends, and Jon wanted to make it about his. Jon won. In 1991, he called Billy up and asked if he could take Rent for his own. Billy said sure. Jon also liked one more thing about Rent. In La Boheme, the Parisian bohemians are afflicted with tuberculosis; the whole opera occurs under its spectre. The modern equivalent was AIDS. Jon knew all about AIDS. He was healthy, but a lot of good friends had HIV, like Matt O'Grady, his pal from back home. Writing Rent provided one way to make sense of the experience.

Jon spent a year working on the themes in Rent. Though he set the show in the East Village, he didn’t really live there. Jon felt out of place in the punky East Village; he was West Village through and through. Jon didn’t want to go alone on tours of the East Village so he took along Eddie Rosenstein, a filmmaker and friend, who scouted locations with him.

Back home, he wrote his musical. He whittled his Moondance job down to three days a week, which left four days for writing. Sunday nights, Jon would boil a big tub of pasta and a big pot of sauce and mix them together; he’d eat that for dinner all week. He’d buy boxes of Shredded Wheat, and break off exactly one and a half scrubby bricks each morning. He wanted to fuel himself like a machine - without having to think - so all his thoughts would be reserved for writing.

One day in the summer of 1992, after he’d finished the first draft of Rent and recorded some of the songs, he hopped onto his bike. “That now legendary bike ride,” remembers Jim Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop. The Workshop has just purchased a new theatre on East Fourth Street, “and that summer we were tearing it up to try and make it more hospitable to the kind of work we wanted to do. Jon took a ride through the East Village, sort of scouting out theatres. The doors were open, he heard the construction, and he wandered in. And he immediately fell in love with the space and thought it would be perfect for Rent.”

It was the right moment for Jon to bring a musical to New York Theatre Workshop, which had been doing mostly new plays for nine years. Nicola thought it was high time NYTW mounted a musical. He wanted a show reflecting the world beyond Broadway, with music that sounded the way music does today. Jim listened to Jon’s tape the night he got it. “‘Light My Candle’ was there, and the title song, and 'I Should Tell You.’ The story wasn’t quite there yet - there didn’t seem to be a clear story - but the music was thrilling.”

New York Theatre Workshop put on a reading of the musical in the spring of 1993. Nicola was struck by the intensity of responses. Some friends though it was simply ragged, but others were in love with the material from the first, no matter its flaws. A young producer named Jeffrey Seller, who had met Jonathan several years earlier, also felt the time was right to produce a musical. He had stayed in touch with Jon, because he, too, wanted to bring rock music to Broadway, and was convinced that one day, “Jon was going to write a brilliant musical.” He came down to Fourth Street. Jeffrey felt the play was baggy, a collage with no narrative shape. “There were great songs,” Jeffery remembers, “but there were endless songs.” Some producer friends he had brought with him left at intermission, assuring Jeffrey the work was unsalvageable. Jeffrey was still interested, though - as long as Jon found a story as good as the music.

Jon sent a letter to Stephen Sondheim, asking for advice and assistance. The older composer responded by encouraging Jonathan to apply for a Richard Rogers Foundation grant. Jonathan eventually won $45,000 to support of workshop production of RENT.

What they needed now was a director. Jim immediately suggested Michael Greif, a young New York director who had recently become artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. He sent Greif Jon’s tape and script. Greif listened to the tape on a Walkman flying from California to New York. The script seemed shaggy - “What impressed me,” he remembers, “was its youth and enthusiasm, and that it was a musical about contemporary life. Jon was writing about some people I felt I knew, that I sort of loved, or had loved in my life.” What Jim wanted in a director was a counterweight to Jon’s kefi philosophy, which had allowed him to treat dark subjects like AIDS, homelessness, and drug addiction with optimism. Michael was hard-nosed and cool-headed. He met with Jim and Jonathan in January of 1994, and the three set to work on bringing the script to the level of the music. “It was a very fragile material at the time,” Jim recalls.“ And it was so easy for it to become sentimental or hokey, or any number of things. I felt Michael had the right sort of dryness and sharpness to balance Jonathan’s writing.

Jim saw his instincts had been right as soon as the three got down to shaping the script in Jon’s loft. They met for a week in the middle of the spring, preparing for the workshop scheduled for November. They went over the script scene by scene, moment by moment. Immediately, the dynamic between Jonathan and Michael slipped into a productive yin and yang. Michael was afraid there was something self-congratulatory about the young bohemian heroes of the show; so Jon toned down the lyrics of "La Vie Boheme.” Michael fretted about the homeless characters - that they not simply serve as East Village window dressing, as moral scarecrows where Mark and Roger could drape their good social conscience; so Jonathan wrote the new song, “On the Street,” where a homeless woman gives Mark a stern telling off. Most importantly, Michael had reservations about the message of the show, the “No Day But Today” cheerfulness of the Life Support meetings. Michael had friends with HIV, just as Jon did, and they were not cheerful about it. Jon added the new scene of Gordon questioning the Life Support credo. And Jon himself kept Michael from becoming too hard-nosed and cool-headed. “What Jon gave Michael was some of his hope and heart and generosity of spirit. And what I think Michael gave Jon was some edge and realism and complexity. It was a good marriage,” remembers Anthony Rapp, who plays Mark.

The three met again that summer at Dartmouth College, where NYTW ran a kind of working camp for its affiliated artists. Michael and Jon talked plot. One large problem, they agreed, was the relationship between Maureen and Mark; in these drafts, a major plot point was Mark winning Maureen back. Michael didn’t like it. “My position was, if they’re going to be lesbians, let them be lesbians. Don’t make them about going-back-to-their-man.”

In October, back in the city, Michael worked out the “performance vocabulary” of Rent. For budgetary reasons - and also because it suited the nature of the characters - it was decided to have minimal props. Michael suggested the three “Frankenstein” tables, which could be made to serve so many functions in the show. Because it was rock, Michael played around with microphones, with actors singing   directly to the seats: “We were very anxious to take advantage of the fact that it would be as much a concert as it was a play.”

For all its flaws, the November workshop was a tremendous success. It ran two weeks with the audience growing larger and more enthusiastic each night; by the last week it was sold out. Anthony Rapp, a cast member of the November workshop, remembers the excitement: “I kept telling people it was going to be an event. We knew it needed work. But people I trust and respect - friends and collaborators - would come down and be knocked out by it.”

Jim Nicola thought it needed work, too. But the responses he was getting from his friends were just what Anthony was hearing. “There was a lot of passion - again, the most striking thing was the intensity of opinion about it. There was a large segment of people whose tastes I trusted who just loved it, and didn’t care what the problems were. I felt even more convinced that there was really something strong here.” Jim found himself moving towards an exciting, scary, stirring decision. “Rent was the kind of show to bet the company on.”

The second week, Jeffrey Seller returned to East Fourth Street. He brought his business partner, Kevin McCollum. Sitting down in the front row, seeing the three tables, remembering the plotless show he’d seen a year earlier, Jeffrey had time for a crisis of confidence. He turned to Kevin before the show and warned him, “This is either gonna be absolutely brilliant or it’s going to be a piece of crap.” At intermission Kevin nudged Jeffrey and said, “I’m loving this. Get out the checkbook.”

A couple of nights later, the two brought a business associate named Allan Gordon to NYTW. The three had worked together previously on the national tour of “The Real Live Brady Bunch.” Allan was equally enthusiastic - like Jeffrey and Kevin, he was overpowered by the music. That night the three decided to work on the project together.

After the holidays, Jim, Michael and Jonathan sat down again in Jim’s office. Jim had thought it over, and talked to NYTW’s board members. The Workshop decide to stage a full production of Rent the following year with the help of Seller, McCollum and Gordon, who would get the commercial rights in return. The budget would be $250,000 - twice the cost of anything NYTW had ever mounted.

After the holidays, Jim, Michael and Jonathan sat down again in Jim’s office. They spoke about what need fixing. The show had no single story, no primary narrator - in the November workshop, all the characters told the story; when they had something to say, they turned around and said it right to the audience. And the characters themselves, especially Maureen and Joanne, needed refinement. Jim gave Jon a task: Could he boil the plot down to a single sentence? The sentences Jon first turned in were impossibly long, crammed full of clauses and parentheses and second thoughts. But as Jim anticipated, as the sentence came into focus, so did the play.

Jim decided to hire a dramaturg to work with Jonathan. Dramaturgs work with playwrights as shapers, advisers and editors. Jon did a lot of interviews before meeting Lynn Thompson. They hit it off right away. From the first, Lynn seemed to be on Jon’s wave length. She was able to speak in a voice that sparked Jon’s enthusiasm. Jim put the two on a schedule; Jon would deliver a revised draft by the summer’s end. Rent was to begin rehearsals in the fall.

Jon had found another strong collaborator. Lynn suggested he work up biographies of the characters, that he write a version of Rent told through each person’s eyes. Her belief was that once Jon understood the story completely, once he really had the characters under his belt, the rewriting of the play would come in a simple burst. They worked through the summer, discovering a structure for Rent.

By October they had a new draft. Jon was confident his six years of work were over. Actors read the script aloud to everyone. Jim and Michael were both struck by the changes, but they knew they weren’t out of the woods. The characters were sharper, but Jon had done some structural fiddling, turning much of the show into flashback. The first act began with Angel’s funeral and Mark wondering, “How did we get here?”, with the rest of the story catching up from there. No one was comfortable with this except the playwright. The Maureen-Joanne relationship was finally working, but their second act duet was by all accounts miserable. “One of the worst songs ever written,” Michael remembers with a laugh. “The songs was a straight out cat fight, the lovers sniping at each other, Maureen telling Joanne, 'You’re the hepatitis in my clam.’”

Jeffrey was also concerned. The show was supposed to go into rehearsals in six weeks and Rent didn’t feel ready to him. “On the one hand, the new script made a huge, wonderful leap from the workshop - a gigantic creative stride - but it wasn’t there yet. Now it’s late October and we’re in casting. And the show starts rehearsing in December.” Jeffrey dashed off some quick, blunt notes on what he felt need to be changed in Rent before the production could move ahead.

Jeffrey’s notes were intended for Jim and Michael, but Jon got a hold of them. What the notes called for was another rewrite. Jon didn’t want to do any more writing. “There was real terror the production wouldn’t happen,” Michael remembers. “It was a tense few days. Jon was very upset and very frustrated. But what it came down to was, we all want this to be as strong as it can be. No one thinks this is finished, so we should have another go at it.” Jon turned to Sondheim one last time, and Sondheim reminded him of a key proposition: theater was collaborative. Part of Jon’s job was to take into account what his collaborators felt. So Jon signed on.

Michael wanted a simplified structure, with a clearer emotional division between the two acts: “The first act should be much more the celebration, and the second act should be a lot of the ramifications and sorrows surrounding these lives.” Jon finally quit his job at the Moondance Diner. His friend Eddie Rosenstein remembers, “After he left the diner, and he announced that he was a full-time professional musical playwright, his spirits soared. That’s all anybody wants to do in life, isn’t it? A chance to do what they do.”

During Jon’s rewrites the show moved in casting. Michael wanted a youthful, sexy cast, and he and Jon leaned toward young performers who seemed to have some connection with their characters, whose spirit could add dimensions to the work. The cast seemed to invigorate Jon. “He was really inspired by this company,” Michael says. “We still needed the Joanne-Maureen song. And Jon really wisely said, 'let me just sit with these actors, and let me bring you something.’ And then what he brings me is 'Take Me Or Leave Me,’ and I’m totally thrilled out of my mind.”

In December, with casting done and rehearsals about to begin, Jon handed in the final version of Rent. Jon had worked a succession of 20 hour days. “He had completely cleaned up the narrative,” Jeffrey says, remembering everyone’s excitement with this last creative step. “In December, when I saw the first sing-through with the full cast, I knew we were in great shape. I gave Jon a hug and told him, 'you done good.’”

One thing that struck Jim was how tired - even in his excitement - Jon seemed after pulling off this final rewrite. “But I do think of theatre as sort of an Olympic event. It’s a rare moment in one’s life when you really push way beyond what you think your endurance is. That’s what Jon did.” They had the draft of the show everyone had wanted for three years. And Jon finally delivered to Jim his one sentence summary of what story Rent told: “Rent is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century.”

From December on, it was a quick sprint to the show you’ve seen [or at least know and love]. There were a lot of what Jon called “programming changes”: shifting songs from one position to another, seeing where they fit best. In January, Jim watched a rehearsal with a group of NYTW board members, and the emotional response to RENT was extraordinary. “It continued to get even tighter and better through rehearsals,” Daphne Rubin-Vega remembers. Then The New York Times got wind that a rock musical based on La Boheme was going to premiere on the 100th anniversary of the original La Boheme. No one had know this; it was a simple fluke. The night of the final dress rehearsal, Jon was sick with a sore chest and a fever. But he took a taxi to Fourth Street, watched the show, and sat for his interview with the Times. The last thing Michael and Jim remember saying to him was to take it easy and sleep well; they’d see him and Lynn in the morning. Jon died an hour later.

After Jon’s death, there were few revisions. Lynn, Jim, Michael and music director/arranger Tim Weil (who would take charge of the show’s musical elements after Jonathan died) would meet and attempt, by looking over the many drafts of Rent, to decide what changes Jonathan would have approved. They would put their heads together and out of their three component visions try to come up with a close duplication of Jonathan’s. When the show premiered, they knew they had something special on their hands. Jon’s death added an explosive, powerful element to the cast’s understanding of the play. “The company had already come together so well, but that event of Jon dying just brought us together that much more strongly,” Daphne remembers. “It let us remember that the bottom line is really about what you do with this experience, because tomorrow isn’t promised you. There was no more powerful way of receiving that message than from someone who was completely healthy and died. Someone whose life was just beginning.”

Jon’s friends had to go to his old loft to clean the place out. His oldest, best loved girlfriend found a diary Jon had kept during his last years of college. “When I die,” he had written, “whenever and wherever that may be, I wish to be cremated, and I want my ashes to be thrown to the sunset with music and dancing and crying.”

The day of Jon’s death, no one at the Workshop was quite sure what to do. The first performance was scheduled for that evening. Jim Nicola’s first inclination was to cancel, but he knew they needed to do something for Jonathan’s memory. Jim was uneasy. The first act, in particular, involved a lot of tricky dancing and jumping on tables. It hadn’t been completely rehearsed, and he was afraid there would be injuries. Eddie Rosenstein urged him to run the whole show full out. By the evening, Jonathan’s friends were streaming into the theatre, his parents were there, New York Theatre workshop was filled to capacity with people Jon loved - friends, family and colleagues. Jim decided on a sing-through - no movement, just songs. Throughout the first act, the cast was able to hold their seats. But very slowly, they began to rise. They acted, they danced. “It was incredible and terrible,” Anthony remembers. “It was like we had to do it. We were all sobbing and crying.” The lighting people made their way to the lighting booth; the sound manager began to pick up his cues. “They couldn’t contain themselves,” Eddie remembers. “The audience was reaching out to the cast. They were crying and cheering. By the second act, it was no longer contained. It was the full show run full-out, with every line hit for greater and greater meaning. If emotion could have become a physical force, the roof would have blown off, the weather would have changed.” The second act ended. There was a huge ovation, the cast slowly left the stage, and the audience stayed in the theater. No one was sure what to do. The cast returned and sat down in the front row. Finally, a single voice called from the audience, “Thank you, Jonathan Larson,” which brought the evening’s loudest, final burst of applause.

By Ebony Tucker ( bogges-s ) 

RENT won the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score. Rent played on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre from its debut in April 1996 until it closed on September 7, 2008. It is the 9th longest running show in Broadway history. In addition, it has toured throughout the United States, Canada, Japan, United Kingdom, Australia, China, Singapore, Mexico, and Germany and throughout Europe as well as in other locations. A film version was released in 2005. Less than three years after Rent closed on Broadway it was revived Off-Broadway at Stage 1 of New World Stages just outside of the Theatre District. It went into previews on July 14, 2011 and opened August 11, 2011.

GAINING PERSPECTIVE ON GRAPHIC NARRATIVE: essential/ worthwhile/ personal favorite books regarding comics as an art, technique, style, or serve other significance

in short, i work at a book store and take great advantage of the ability to order whatever i want for the store without bearing the responsibility of paying for anything. i read a lot of books and texts about comics because i’m driven to make a graphic novel i’m proud of, these are just some of many i find noteworthy- b/c no one actually needs a bunch of courses or an art degree to obtain a broader upstanding of the illustrated narrative and subsequently grow as a comic artist.

  1. binky brown meets the holy virgin mary - justin green (duh. essential for contextualizing early crumb/ spiegelman/ a lot of work in the comix scene & era as well as serving as the ultimate ideal model for the autobiographical comic narrative.)
  2. graphic women: life narrative and contemporary comics - hilary l. chute (adore this one- its subjects and contents are the bible for women producing autobiographic comic content)
  3. panel discussions: design in sequential art storytelling - durwin s. talon (an essential and personal favorite and all around perfect book)
  4. comics versus art: comics in the art world - bart beaty
  5. the power of comics: history, form and culture - randy duncan
  6. cartooning: philosophy and practice - ivan brunetti
  7. german expressionist woodcuts - shane weller
  8. the art of the woodcut: masterworks from the 1920s - malcolm c. salaman
  9. wordless books: the original graphic novels - david a. berona
  10. graphic witness: four wordless graphic novels - masereel, ward, patri, and hyde (this and the former three are the best introduction to textless graphic novels/ expressionist woodcuts that i’ve come across. woodcut narratives have been so huge for me.)
  11. critical approaches to comics: theories and methods - randy duncan 
  12. underground classics: the transformation of comics into comix - james philip danky
  13. from staple guns to thumb tacks: flyer art from the 1982-1995 new orleans hardcore scene / punk is dead punk is everything (not a universal necessity but punk flyer art has always been a big inspiration and love of mine. it had visual command that lends well to comic structure)
  14. the visual language of comics: introduction to the structure and cognition of sequential images - neil cohn
  15. the art of possible! comics mainly without pictures - kenneth koch
  16. a hummet: a treated victorian novel - tom phillips 
  17. une semaine de bonte: a surrealistic novel in collage - max ernst (this and the former are some personal favorites and incredibly useful/ inspiring for incorporating collage elements into comic narrative)
  18. comics and sequential art: principles and practices - will eisner (any of eisner’s books are applicable here)
  19. the system of comics / comics and narration - thierry groensteen (all groensteen’s pieces on comics are so great.)
  20. how to draw noir comics: the art and technique of visual storytelling - shawn martinbrough
  21. comics and language: reimagining critical discourse on the form - hannah miodrag (a touch bloated and precociously academic but an insightful read nonetheless)
  22. best of comix book: when marvel comics went underground - stan lee
  23. panel one: comic book scripts by top writers - dwayne mcduffie
  24. AX volume 1: a collection of alternative manga - various authors (another personal favorite. but i think any comic artist can benefit from AX- it’s an amazing and diverse collection of highly stylized shorts that take really interesting and surreal narrative directions)
  25. vanishing point: perspective for comics from the ground up - jason cheeseman
  26. rebel visions: underground comix - patrick rosenkranz
  27. drawing words and writing pictures/ mastering comics - jessica abel & matt madden (yeah anything jessica abel touches is perfect)
  28. the graphic canon vol 1-3 - russ kick
  29. graphic subjects: critical essays on autobiography and graphic novels - michael a. chaney
  30. projections: comics and the history of twenty-first century storytelling - jared gardener
  31. lynd ward: six novels in woodcuts - lynd ward (..,,there’s nothing i can say about ward that would do him justice really. he was the master of the craft and i just consider his work so intrinsically important.)
  32. the language of comics: word and image - n.c. christopher couch
  33. the daniel clowes reader: a critical edition of ghost world and other stories, with essays, interviews, and annotations - daniel clowes 
  34. comics, comix, & graphic novels: a history of comic art -roger sabin (one of my favorites)
  35. a comics studies reader - jeet heer (an on point essay collective, way really impressed with the diversity of topics addressed)
  36. making comics: storytelling secrets of comics, manga, and graphic novels - scott mccloud
  37. love and rockets: the covers - los bros hernandez (the entire series is more ideal of course but l&r’s covers are engaging even in a secular context from their narrative)
  38. writing and illustrating the graphic novel: everything you need to know to create great work and get it published - daniel cooney
  39. 99 ways to tell a story: exercises in style - matt madden
  40. framed ink: drawing and composition for visual storytellers - marco mateu-mestre
  41. perspective! for comic book artists - david chelsea
  42. TO END ON A FUN NOTE ::: wampus, vol. 1 - franco frescura & luciano bernasconi ((the stupidly fun dated as hell french comic book that’s supposedly a cult classic but i’ve never encountered anyone else who’s actually read it so like, help me out here)

 

I’ve mentioned that a big part of trauma therapy involves narrative building. I just wanted to share something that my first therapist had me do when I was having a hard time working with vocal narratives (because triggers make me nonverbal). I made a collage narrative out of magazine and newspaper clippings, and it honestly did help. Another friend made mix CDs to tell her story. There are so many ways to tell your story, and you can tell it every single way you can think of, you can keep retelling it until you know yourself again. 

When I made this, it was only a year after I had gotten away from my abuser and come out of the closet. I was struggling with an intensely low depressive episode and I was going to therapy every Tuesday.