No Day But Today: 20 Years of Rent

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The Nederlander Theatre while RENT was running. Image via Wikipedia.

Ten million, five hundred and twelve thousand minutes. How do you measure twenty years in the life?

Two decades ago today, RENT opened on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre, where it would continue to run for twelve years and over five thousand performances. It would gross over $270 million dollars, have four national tours, an Off-Broadway revival in 2011, and become one of the most popular productions for regional theatre. How did it get this way? A man wrote about the people he knew and what he saw.

Jonathan Larson lived in a crap apartment in New York City, where, just like his characters Mark and Roger, he had to throw his keys down to his visitors in the street if they wanted to get into the building. He was absorbed in his work and eventually quit his job as a waiter to focus exclusively on writing RENT. And it paid off: it won the Best Musical Tony, and Larson won Best Book and Best Score. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming the first person to ever win the award for writing both the score and the libretto (the second person to do that just won this year). Only he wasn’t around to see it happen. Larson, at 35, died of an aortic aneurysm before the first performance at New York Theatre Workshop on January 25, 1996.

Without a captain at the wheel, RENT set sail regardless. They used their sorrow and turned it into success. And here I am, twenty years later, writing about a musical that debuted when I was thirteen months old, that I still relate to and get inspiration from.

I’ve talked about the show on this blog before, so I’m not going to recap the story (you can check out my beginner’s guide to musicals for that). But a musical only becomes a revolution every once in a while: A Chorus Line, Les Mis, Phantom, The Book of Mormon. And RENT. The musical that unapologetically tells the stories of AIDS-ridden strippers and cross-dressers.

Sometimes, when an artist dies, it can reflect in their last work: David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, reeks of death. RENT leaves you with the message that you should make every moment you’re lucky enough to have count:

Forget regret
Or life is yours to miss
No other road
No other way
No day but today

Live your life. Tell your story. And remember to measure your life in love.

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Getting to Know You: Studying Characters

I just finished my first year of Creative Communications and all I can say, in the words of Mark Cohen, is: “I can’t believe a year went by so fast.”

I’m beginning research on my project for next year – writing a novella about a theatre actor. The content research is fun (believe it or not, I love reading and hearing about theatre), but there’s also writing research I have to do. Most of all: how do I create likeable, relatable, round characters?

I found this series, Character Study, on Broadway.com a little while ago, and I have watched every single video since. These short documentaries follow an actor’s pre-show routine and show them getting into character. They talk about who their character is and what it means to play them, which helps me, as a writer, understand each character’s motivation.

Check out this one of Sutton Foster preparing to play Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, and then watch the rest of the videos here.

Do you have any fiction writing tips or getting-into-character tips for me? Leave a comment!

The Election of 1800/2016: The “Hamiltome” and Modern Politics

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Me, in my bathrobe, holding up my Hamiltome seconds after ripping open the package.
I voted yesterday.

Even though this was only my third eligible election, it was the most difficult decision I’ve faced so far. There was no clear-cut choice for me: all of the options seem like they’re not going to represent my best interest. I was going to cop out and just vote for the Dogs and Ice Cream Party so I would have a clear conscience, but alas, there was no representative for my part of town.

So I did the honest-to-goodness responsible thing: I looked up each of the parties, scrolled through their policies and promises, and looked at the potential MLAs for my region. And then I read my new book.

I got Hamilton: The Revolution in the mail on Monday (even though it wasn’t released until Tuesday! Thanks Amazon) and I haven’t been able to put it down since. Even as I type this, at school, the book is beside me, wrapped in a protective plastic bag. The book goes through each song in the show and includes the complete annotated libretto (or lyrics/script) and an essay introducing each portion of the show. On Twitter, it’s known as the #Hamiltome because the three hundred-some page volume is not an easy read, but its’s one that I’ve greatly enjoyed so far. In the less than 48 hours since I first held it in my hands, I’ve read nearly two hundred pages. I’ve never enjoyed American history so much before.

This book is teaching me all sorts of things about this show that I thought I had memorized – I’m finally getting Washington’s first verse from “Right Hand Man” down, I learned that the opening notes of the show were based on a door creak noise from iMovie, and that Lin-Manuel Miranda does more creative things while on vacation than I’ve done my whole life. But mostly, I’m learning that even though these events took place over two hundred years ago, the politics are almost the same.

On page 190, the latter part of the lyrics for “The Room Where It Happens,” Lin annotates the following:

COMPANY: The art of the compromise –
BURR: Hold your nose and close your eyes.
COMPANY: We want our leaders to save the day –
BURR: But we don’t get a say in what they trade away.
COMPANY: We dream of a brand new start –
BURR: But we dream in the dark for the most part.

This is what he says:

I’m perhaps proudest of these three couplets in the whole show: they encapsulate everything the number is about, are fully in character, and also speak to something fundamentally true about contemporary politics that I’d never been able to verbalize until these lines showed up.

So not a lot has changed since Washington, D.C. became the U.S. capital. Canadian politics are likely even less evolved since we weren’t even considered a country until over thirty years after Burr’s death (and over sixty years after Hamilton’s). I complain as I wait in line for my advance poll and I complain more when I have to use a golf pencil to determine the future of my province. But this is the system we have. And until we find a way to make it run more efficiently (Like when Jefferson is trying to get Washington to support France – Jeff: But sir, do we not fight for freedom?/Wash: Sure, when the French figure out who’s gonna lead ’em/Jeff: The people are leading/Wash: The people are rioting. There’s a difference), standing in line and voting with a tiny pencil is what we’re going to have to do.

This system is the best we’ve got. Do not throw away your shot.

Review: Winnipeg Studio Theatre’s Heathers

IMG_4014Let me start with a disclosure: I went in to this one fully and totally already obsessed with Heathers.

Two years ago, almost to the day, Heathers opened Off-Broadway. It ran for about four months and never transferred to the big time, but the cult classic movie was now a cult classic musical. It got a cast album (which doesn’t necessarily happen all the time for an Off-Broadway show) and now, it’s being performed regionally across North America.

After I had listened to the album a bajillion times, I tried watching the Heathers movie, and I fell asleep part of the way through. I don’t even remember where, it wasn’t the end. All I could focus on was how nobody looked like they were high school age and that made it not relatable.

But Heathers the musical? I’m all about that.

Let me start with that the Tom Hendry Warehouse is a beautiful theatre. It’s well-kept and under utilized. All of the seats ascend with each new row, so in my third-row centre seat, I was eye-to-eye with the performers. And I loved it.

Like I mentioned before, I’ve listened to the cast album dozens of times. I know where every breath goes. Going in, I was worried that whoever was playing Veronica wouldn’t be able to live up to Barrett Wilbert Weed’s notorious high belting. I was not disappointed. Julie Lumsden was incredible as the geek-goes-chic protagonist. I realized halfway through the first act that although the show is called Heathers, Veronica is in almost every single scene. If she were a weaker performer, the show would’ve fallen on its face. But she wasn’t. And it didn’t.

One of the things that bothers me about the Heathers movie is that Christian Slater is so creepy that I have a hard time believing anybody would ever want to approach him, let alone date him. But Matthew Fletcher was the perfect combination of cute and charming as JD, who only reveals what he’s capable of after Veronica has fallen for him. And them pipes. “Freeze Your Brain,” JD’s ode to Slurpees, is one of my favourite songs in the show, and not only was it delivered perfectly, but Fletcher showcased all of JD’s intentions and emotions within the number.

Despite her character being dead for most of the show, Brittany Hunter made an incredible Heather Chandler, serving as the devil on Veronica’s shoulder. She was able to perform the exact formula of beauty queen, comic relief, and “mythic bitch” that the role needs.

Like I said, Veronica is in almost every scene of the show. The only one she isn’t in is the one where she doesn’t need to be: Jillian Willems’s “Kindergarten Boyfriend” was more than enough to stand alone. Martha Dunnstock spends most of the show being the butt of the joke, but she gets her own time to shine here.

The simple set did the job, Kayla Gordon’s directing was superb, and the four-piece band played the score without missing a beat. The only thing I’m choked about is that I missed WST’s production of Spring Awakening.

Heathers runs until Sunday, April 10 at the Tom Hendry Warehouse. You can and should get tickets here.