|By James Sanford|
Director Scott Burkell draws on his friendship with Jonathan Larson in shaping the show’s MSU production
When choosing a director for “Rent,” the Michigan State University Theatre Department didn’t just select someone who knows the show — it found someone who knew the show’s creator.
Scott Burkell met the late Jonathan Larson at the Barn Theatre in Augusta in the summer of 1980. Over the course of the season, Burkell, Larson and fellow Equity membership candidate Marin Mazzie — then a student at Western Michigan University and later a Tony nominee for her performances in “Ragtime,” “Kiss Me Kate” and “Passion” — became good friends. When Mazzie joined Burkell and Larson in New York a few years later, the three performed together as J. Glitz.
“Anywhere they had an open-mike night, we sang there,” Burkell recalled, “with Jonathan playing a little Casio. Our opening number — without a hint of irony — was a medley of ‘Fame,’ ‘Downtown’ and ‘On Broadway.’ It must have been such a strange sight: these two fresh-faced kids from the Midwest and this Jewish guy from Long Island.”
But even in those days, J. Glitz was not Larson’s primary concern. “I remember him telling me he was going to change musical theater,” Burkell said. “Not ‘I want to,’ I will. As cool and as hip as Jonathan wanted to be, there was still a kind of a square musical theater guy in there, which you can see in some parts of ‘Rent.’”
Among Larson’s early projects were a musical version of “1984” (“He had no idea you had to get the rights to do something like that, and the George Orwell estate said, ‘Uh, no’”), a one-man show called “tick, tick … BOOM!” and a science-fiction musical called “Superbia,” which Burkell and Mazzie worked on. Eventually, however, Larson began writing from personal experience.
“Jonathan lived in this little shithole apartment in the West Village,” Burkell recalled. “We hated that apartment. A bathtub in the kitchen! I’m sure the apartment he saw when he was writing ‘Rent’ was the same one he was living in, and I know that apartment well. Freezing cold, with too many people in too little space.”
In “Rent,” that apartment is both the living space and the studio of roommates Mark and Roger. Mark is a documentary filmmaker still reeling from his recent breakup with fiery performance artist Maureen; Roger is a rocker battling both writer’s block and HIV. The characters represent two sides of Larson’s personality, according to Burkell: “I think Roger was who he wanted to be and Mark was who he was.”
Burkell, a Manhattan actor and writer who is guest directing “Rent,” recalls the New York of the late 1980s as being a very different place than the one we see today. Times Square was awash in junkies, hookers and porno palaces. Urban decay was from page 10 everywhere.
So was the specter of AIDS, or, as it was known then, “the gay cancer.”
But nearly 15 years after it premiered, Burkell thinks “Rent” may be ready for a little renegotiation.
“I’m not interested in recreating the Broadway production,” he said.
Although a bathtub will now be in Mark and
“I think there’s hopefulness at the end, but there’s also a scar: They’ve all been through a lot.”
He paused for a moment.
“And to know that anyone could go at any moment and to be thankful for the time you’re in right now.”
8 p.m. Friday, April 16, Saturday, April 17, Friday,
$20 general admission; $15 students;