Art/Style/Travel Diaries

Remembering Jonathan Larson’s struggles as ‘Rent’ is set for restaging in Manila

In a season of post-pandemic creativity, Nine Works Theatricals will bring back the late composer's masterpiece in 2024

Jonathan Larson before the preview of 'Rent'. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Like its counterparts in the performing arts, the local theater community is still recovering from the nearly four-year long series of lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in spite of the opening of live shows by the middle of last year, only a few groups had braved the challenge to stage new works.

A recent hot topic is the re-staging of what has worked before. Is it worth bringing back bestselling productions from the pre-pandemic years, like song revivals interpreted by new artists? Will the audience patronize them again? Whatever happens, live theater is back, with the usual mainstream venues, big or small, and alternative spaces more or less jampacked.

Now, the good news is that Jonathan Larson’s magnum opus Rent is going to be staged in 2024. Yes!

Nine Works Theatrical’s managing director Santi Santamaria answered this writer in an online conversation Saturday midnight when we asked him if there was a possibility of bringing Rent back after staging Tick, Tick…Boom, Larson’s semi-autobiographical rock monologue on his struggling years as a musical artist in New York in the 1990s.

Now, that’s a wrap: Vien King, Jef Flores, and Kalya Rivera in Nine Works Theatricals’ ‘Tick, Tick…Boom’ (Photo from Jon Jon Martin)

Though we didn’t want to pre-empt them, it was officially announced during the closing snow of TTB on Sunday afternoon, when cast members sang a few lines from Seasons of Love, the most popular song from Rent, after curtain call.

Incidentally, Rent is Nine Works Theatricals’ first full production. The debut run was staged for the whole month of February in 2010 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium. It became such a hit, they had to have a limited rerun from December 8 to 12 the same year, but moved it to Cinema 2 of Power Plant Mall in Rockwell Center in Makati City.

More requests for a rerun came so they staged it again for the third time, from February 12 to March 6, 2011, back at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium. In all those runs, Gian Magdangal played the lead character, songwriter Roger Davis.

So 13 years later, Nine Works is coming full circle with its fourth restaging of its maiden musical production.

Now, more on reruns and extensions. A septuagenarian veteran theater actor told us the only time he really feels at home playing a role, like reaching that apex of a performance where he and the character become one, is on the third weekend of the usual month-long run of a play.

“The momentum must be maintained,” Fernando “Nanding” Josef, artistic director of Tanghalang Pilipino and a theater actor for 50 years, told us just a couple of days ago in a casual conversation. “And that’s why whenever I reach the fourth weekend, most of the time it’s hard to let go of the whole experience. Your body will want more, you’ll crave for it.”

It’s another way of saying there must be an extension, even for just one weekend.

In the Philippine setting, a four-weekend run has been the norm—short and sweet. Bought the shirt or the tote bag or ref magnet, whatever one can afford. Move on to the next social media-worthy experience.

In another interview, Repertory Philippines alumnus and Full House Theater Company’s artistic director Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo said, “By the time we close, we are ready to open.”

We are reminded of this because, as reviewers and local theater followers have attested, one of the best musicals ever staged in Manila since live shows came back after the pandemic years is Nine Works’ TTB.

One of the best musicals ever staged in Manila since live shows came back after the pandemic years is Nine Works’ ‘Tick, Tick…Boom,’ also by Larson

Nine Works first staged it in 2016, or about seven years ago with nearly a bare stage, letting the actors—led by musical theater heartthrob Jef Flores as Jon with Tanya Manalang as Jon’s girlfriend Susan and Ariel Reonal as Jon’s best friend Michael—doing the storytelling. This time, TTB returned with more elaborate set design and powerhouse cast.

Flores and Manalang (now Atadero) reprised their roles. Flores alternated with showbiz matinee idol and debuting theater actor Khalil Ramos. Those who’ve seen how they interpreted the character in their own unique ways would know there is neither comparison nor competition. Same with the magnificent Kayla Rivera and Manalang-Atadero alternating as Susan, and Reb Atadero and Vien King alternating as Michael.

Director Robbie Guevara (yes, single “r”) also gave them multiple roles that brought awe and laughter to the audience. In some scenes, Rivera or Manalang-Atadero would transform as waitress, customer, mother, actress in Jon’s play, among others. Atadero or King would be Jon’s father, fellow waiter, and so on.

As Larson wanted it, a live band is part of the play, and the musicians are visible on the left side of the stage. Scenographer and set and costume designer Mio Infante, who did the 2016 run, had a movable and elaborate set that made the experience more engaging.

Besides Rent and TTB, Nine Works has been known for producing landmark Broadway musicals like A Christmas Carol,  American Idiot, Grease, and originals like Eto Na! Musikal nAPO! and Himala! Isang Musikal.

Now, it can be said: TTB is Nine Works’ successful return to producing magic on stage.

Jef Flores as Jon in the recently concluded ‘Tick Tick…Boom’ by Nine Works Theatricals (Photo courtesy of JonJon Martin)

It is also claiming back Carlos P. Romulo Theater, known for being home to local staging of the best theatrical productions, not just some mind-numbing, amateurish so-called advocacy plays that make theater nerds leave after the first act and curse the heavens as to why the hell they agreed to take a look at these post-pandemic salvos.

For those who failed to see TTB, it is a story about a young, idealistic musical theater artist in New York in the 1990s named Jon, who struggles to create his one and only magnum opus titled Superbia before he turns 30 years old.

Jon is so hell-bent on finishing it, he dismisses what he regards as distractions to his creative process. One is having a “real job” in the corporate world, specifically creating jingles and copies for an advertising firm, courtesy of his roommate and best friend Michael. Another option is moving to another place outside New York and settling for good with his girlfriend, an ambitious dancer named Susan.

Incidentally, Superbia is a real theatrical piece by Larson.

From an article in Playbill, it was said Superbia was what Larson wrote after his failed attempt to stage his musical adaptation of the classic novel 1984 by George Orwell. The same titled piece was considered Larson’s first full book musical, and he reportedly planned to stage it in the year 1984, but wasn’t given the rights to produce it, so he wrote his own original “futuristic dystopian musical” that became Superbia.

Superbia was previewed at Playwrights Horizons, an off-Broadway group meant to workshop new materials, in 1990. Again, Larson got rejections from producers, so he wrote about the experience and came up with a rock monologue titled Boho Days. In 1991, he performed Boho Days as a solo act at the Village Gate, the Second Stage Theater, and the New York Theatre Workshop until 1993.

After Larson’s death, in the able hands of playwright David Auburn and Larson’s college friend, producer Victoria Leacock Hoffman, Boho Days became the three-hander Tick, Tick…Boom.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius creator of Hamilton, saw one of those limited runs while he was in senior year in college and in an interview with Vanity Fair, said the whole show was a “sneak preview of what my 20s were gonna be. It felt like a direct message to me in the 10th row of the audience being like: ‘Hey, Lin, this is not gonna be harder than you think.’”

Jon’s story inspired Miranda to pursue his dream in musical theater. He would eventually direct the movie version of TTB with Andrew Garfield playing Jon. It has been streaming on Netflix since 2021.

In Larson’s struggling years in the 1990s, when he felt like Superbia was going nowhere, he accepted an offer to write a modern-day adaptation of another classic, Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Boheme.

Thus was born Rent, dubbed a retelling of La Boheme, set in the Lower East Side of New York. It is about a group of starving, struggling young artists in the middle of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States.

In the 1990s, Larson accepted an offer to write a modern-day adaptation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera ‘La Boheme.’ Thus was born ‘Rent’

A rock music fan, Larson infused Rent and TTB with his influences.

Vien King, Jef Flores, and Kalya Rivera in Nine Works Theatricals’ ‘Tick Tick Boom’ (Photo from Jon Jon Martin)

In an interview with americantheater.org, he said, “I’m a rock-and-roller at heart and I’m influenced by contemporary music. There is a Jonathan Larson style, but I can’t totally describe it.”

When asked who his favorite composers were, he told interviewer John Istel: “Well, I loved Pete Townshend growing up, and I loved the old Police and Prince. I love Kurt Cobain and Liz Phair. Beatles. And in the theatre—Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim. I absolutely love them.”

In another interview, Larson said he envisioned how the lead character Roger Davis would sing his lines the way Kurt Cobain does— screaming, growling, grunge rock Seattle style. Or something to that effect.

As we all know, Larson died on the morning of Rent’s off-Broadway premiere on January 25, 1996, just 11 days before he was about to celebrate his 36th birthday on February 4.

The same year, Rent won for Larson the posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical. The Drama Desk also gave four major awards, namely best musical, and for Larson, best book, best music, and best lyrics in a musical.

In 2021, what was dubbed “the rock opera of the ‘90s” was cited by BBC as the 11th longest running show in Broadway’s history.

It may have overshadowed Tick, Tick…Boom, but Rent was Larson’s dream realized, bringing musical theatre to the MTV generation. In the long run, it changed how Broadway musicals were done.

As to exactly when Nine Works will stage it, for theater nerds, “soonest in 2024” is a good enough date. We can imagine Flores playing Roger Davis, who is supposed to be in his 30s.

And so the series of re-staging of excellent works will continue, all for the growth of a recuperating industry.


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