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The Highs and Lows of NYTW’s 25 Years of Rent Benefit

Fredi Walker-Browne and friends at NYTW’s benefit. Photo: Jon Burklund/ZANNI Productions

New York Theatre Workshop punches far above its weight. The gutsy little theater on East 4th Street, just in recent seasons, has produced shows like Slave Play, Once, and Hadestown, all of which later traveled uptown to play successfully on Broadway. Its primary impact on the theatrical Zeitgeist, though, struck way back in 1996, with the super-blockbuster Rent, Jonathan Larson’s rock adaptation of Puccini’s La Bohème. To celebrate the show’s silver anniversary, NYTW organized its annual fundraising benefit as a kind of birthday celebration. Between solicitations for donations, it invited current workshop collaborators to talk about Rent’s impact on their work, Zoomed with old cast and crew members to share their memories of making the show, and presented new interpretations of a few Rent songs by the current crop of Broadway stars. Daphne Rubin-Vega videoed in, looking divine, to reminisce fondly about calling Larson a dork, while Anthony Rapp and Idina Menzel talked about the smash-cut adjustment of going from obscurity (he at Starbucks, she singing at bar mitzvahs) to working on the decade’s buzziest musical. Original cast members Rodney Hicks, Aiko Nakasone, and Fredi Walker-Browne all talked about their abiding love of the material. It was, to put it mildly, an emotional evening. Twenty-five Years of Rent: Measured in Love was broadcast live on March 2, but streaming passes are still available through March 6 — so here’s your Vulture guide to what did and didn’t light our candle.

HIGH: Christopher Jackson’s “One Song Glory”

The show started with the usual benefit business — though in pandemic times, this means footage of founding artistic director Jim Nicola walking into his own theater for the first time in a year. There, he chatted with Rent director Michael Greif, and the audience was offered a bit of introductory history, including 25-year-old B-roll video that told the who, what, and when of Rent’s inception. It took a while to get to the first musical performance, but when it came, it was a doozy. Hamilton’s original George Washington, Christopher Jackson, sang “One Song,” recorded in close-up, his eyes piercing directly into the audience’s soul. (His choice on “Time dies”? Chills.) This alone was proof that Rent’s songs can live on through many new interpretations, but the broadcast added another layer by intercutting Jackson’s take on Roger’s song about his vaulting musical hopes with archival footage of Larson, just as ambitious, putting together Rent itself. We also got a peek at Larson’s penciled multiplication to get from one year to 525,600 minutes. Math of great historical consequence. Jackson McHenry 

LOW: Ben Platt’s “Without You” without a duet partner

Ben Platt has a three-times-in-a-generation voice, so it’s no surprise that NYTW enlisted the Tony Award winner to sing Rent’s emotionally devastating ballad “Without You.” From behind an impressive quarantine beard, the Dear Evan Hansen star belted his heart out, throwing in riffs and runs all over the place. While the NYTW event showcased how you absolutely can play with Larson’s music (cf. Chris Jackson), Platt’s performance made the mistake of turning the classic duet between Roger and Mimi into a solo showcase, depriving the audience of its harmonies and packing the rendition so full of bells and whistles that the song’s crucial simplicity was lost. The beauty of “Without You” lies in its clarity — the straightforward lyrics, the gorgeous melody. It’s a love song about loss sung by two people who are in love but apart. It’s not an audition for American Idol. Chris Murphy

Wilson Jermaine Heredia. Photo: Jon Burklund and Zanni Productions

HIGH: Eva Noblezada’s “Out Tonight”

Eva Noblezada came in swinging, telling an unseen interviewer that she loves the character Mimi because “she’s a sexy bitch” and launching into a rendition of “Out Tonight” that included some pole-dancing skills she picked up in quarantine. (Check her Instagram for further pole details.) Noblezada’s got the voice to sing the part and the charisma to sell it, which got us thinking about the fact that anyone who could play Eurydice in Hadestown might cross over to make a good Mimi (and vice versa). Throw in the stage Moulin Rouge! version of Satine and it’s a whole new casting niche. Musical theater loves a doomed beltress; we’d call it La Mort Bohème. J.M.

LOW: Oh, internet

Because everything is the internet and the internet is everything, that bundle of World Wide Wires and bad impulses got up to some mischief during the benefit. There were glitches and sound drops and random mini-crashes, though nothing a reloaded page couldn’t fix. On the bright side, now that the show’s available on demand and not live, those little hiccups should be gone. We were also congratulated by the host, Drag Race star and onetime NYTW administrative intern (!) Olivia Lux, for “breaking the internet” with our donations, as the site was overwhelmed relatively early in the evening. If you got an error message, go back and give! Don’t let a little 404 message stop you from supporting the arts.Helen Shaw

HIGH: Billy Porter’s soaring rendition of “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)”

If “Without You” is Larson’s introspective, contemplative song about the pain of losing a loved one, “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” is his primal wail. And who can wail better than Billy Porter? The Pose star laid into Rent’s 11 o’clock number with visceral emotion and a ferocious vocal performance. The moment followed a segment about Larson’s sudden death at age 35 of an aortic aneurysm the night before Rent’s first preview. The online audience was flooded with behind-the-scenes footage of the ensemble in the aftermath of that tragic event. The whole NYTW affair had a slightly somber air, often feeling more like a dedication and a memorial to Larson’s memory than a celebration of his show. But leave it to old pro Porter to find the perfect balance between the two, mourning the loss of Larson while celebrating his immense talent with that guttural, soaring voice of his. C.M.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred years ago (approx.). Photo: Joan Marcus

LOW: All that chatting

The saddest yet most predictable events of the evening took place in the sometimes wonderful, sometimes toxic audience chat. Several stars were in the comments queue, and the presence of Lin-Manuel Miranda turned things a little … frantic. Even before the kickoff, the chat sidebar alternated between “Rent is everything” and “Lin, please notice me!” — which, as one Vulturer noted, is every theater-livestream chat distilled to its essence. Most Rent-heads were utterly delighted and supportive, but as the night went on and the benefit turned out to actually be a benefit (rather than a straight-up performance of the musical), some commenters got downright bitchy. “I don’t need to hear about fundraising. SCAM,” said one chatter, who stormed away because he couldn’t abide the shoutouts to a vital downtown theater enduring a financial crisis, the elegiac tributes to Larson, and the rare archival footage. The door did, in fact, hit him on the way out, if by “door” we mean universal opprobrium. Be better! H.S. 

HIGH: Ali Stroker and Tracie Thoms take on “Take Me or Leave Me”

Is there a better musical-theater karaoke song than “Take Me or Leave Me?” It’s a super-sexy duet with high stakes and even higher belting — and Tony winner Ali Stroker and Tracie Thoms (Joanne in the 2007 Rent film) sang the heck out of it. They proved, believe it or not, that there can be chemistry on Zoom! According to the broadcast, this was the last number Larson wrote for Rent; Fredi Walker-Browne, Broadway’s original Joanne, said Larson had composed it specifically for her and Idina Menzel. Speaking of Idina, it was around this point in the evening when fans started to realize that Taye Diggs, the original Benny (and Menzel’s ex-husband), had yet to appear on the telecast. Although Diggs eventually made a blink-and-you-missed-it appearance during “Seasons of Love,” it definitely feels like Menzel got custody of Rent in the divorce. Maybe Diggs got Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party? C.M.

HIGH: A big “Seasons of Love” reunion done by groups of Rent casts 

You knew they had to do “Seasons of Love” somehow, but it managed to be impressive and surprising anyway: The show found a way to work it into a closing montage that grouped various Zoom recordings of performers into their associated Rent cadre. In streams styled to look like film strips, we saw everyone from members of the original cast (including that brief glimpse of Taye Diggs) to those from the Off Broadway revival to some of the Rent Live cast and those from several overseas productions. The faces multiplied and filled the screen. As it turns out, every theater actor ever has been in Rent at some point. It was a sepia-toned, typewriter-font Where’s Waldo of performers with an interesting vibe whom you recognize from somewhere. J.M.

LOW: The incredible sense of loss

This isn’t a lowlight so much as an acknowledgment that the event was often deeply sorrowful. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise in this season of bereavement, but much of the celebration was really a wake: Larson’s sudden death just before the show opened is, as several NYTW folks pointed out, deeply imprinted on the material, both in its legend and in the way the original cast infused its performance with raw grief. The benefit wound up being a kind of cenotaph — it noted the death of Larson, yes, but also the friends he and other theater-makers lost to AIDS, some of whom were memorialized in the show. And even the inanimate have passed away: When someone in the chat pointed out that the original Life Cafe closed in 2011, the rest of us were swamped by the realization that many of the Village’s remaining bohemian gathering sites won’t survive the current crisis. Loss upon loss upon loss. Light a candle for them all. H.S.

Photo: Joan Marcus

25 Years of Rent: Measured in Love is available on demand through March 6 via New York Theatre Workshop.

The Highs and Lows of NYTW’s 25 Years of Rent Benefit