April 14 2010 12:00 AM

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.”

of the challenges Burkell has faced with his cast has been trying to
convey “how high the stakes were at that time. People 20 years old were
dying left and right. What’s really propelling these people? There’s
that lyric in the opening song: ‘Your own blood cells betray.’"

was a box office smash when it opened in 1996 and went on to win a Tony
as best musical and a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Larson did, in fact,
change musical theater. But he was not around to enjoy the acclaim:
Hours before “Rent” was to open off-Broadway, Larson suffered an aortic
aneurysm that ended his life, days before what would have been his 36th

A few
months later, “Rent” would move to Broadway, where it remained for 12
years. “Some things burn brightly, but don’t have much staying power,”
Burkell said. “‘Rent’ obviously does.”

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.

the placement of a headset microphone on his cheek, Burkell said,
“We’re not in ‘Rent.’” He said he told his actors to “put away the
(original cast) CD, put away the movie. I told them we’re not going to
stand across the stage in a line for ‘Seasons of Love.’ And they were
all ‘What?! We’re not?’”

Although a bathtub will now be in Mark and
Roger’s kitchen, the form-fitting Santa suit traditionally worn by
cross-dressing Angel is getting the ho-ho-heave-ho. Burkell wants to tweak the tone of the show as well.

thing I thought they never quite got in the Broadway show was that
sense of loss, that melancholy bittersweetness of ‘no day but today,’”
he said. “I can understand why
they did that (in the original production) because of the loss of Jon.
To have it be downbeat would have been too devastating. But we’re 15
years down the pike now.

“I think there’s hopefulness at the end, but there’s also a scar: They’ve all been through a lot.”

the changes won’t impact the essence of the material itself. “The heart
of the piece is very much alive and apparent: Jon’s love of life and
his desire to connect with people across these obstacles, even though
it’s terrifying,” Burkell said.

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.”


State University

8 p.m. Friday, April 16, Saturday, April 17, Friday,
April 23 and Saturday, April 24; 2 p.m. Saturday, April 17, Sunday,
April 18, Saturday, April 24 and Sunday, April 25; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday,
April 21 and Thursday, April 22

$20 general admission; $15 students;
$18 seniors