Ballots Over Broadway

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As interesting as this controversy was to the New York theatre establishment, it could hardly have been a topic at barbershops or hair salons throughout the country. I was amazed by the Tony telecast's meanspirited attacks on Andrews, and I suspect the nationwide audience must have been puzzled by the in-joke references. It was another indication just how out of touch the Broadway theatre is with its potential audience of tourists/suckers.

Fortunately for all of us, the commercial theatre has been rescued from its scorpionesque tendency to self-destruct by two works of superior artistry in the most American of all art forms, the Broadway musical.

First, there is the buoyant, energetic and joyous celebration of dance Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, which earned Tony Awards for Best Director (George C. Wolfe), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Ann Duquesnay), Best Lighting (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer) and, especially, the revolutionary Best Choreography of Savion Glover. Glover is so much fun to watch that he could have won an award for Best of Show. He is supported by outstanding dancers, including Baakari Wilder (also incredibly overlooked) and the rhythmic genius of drummers Jared Crawford and Raymond King, who beat out the syncopations on the bottoms of plastic industrial cans.

There isn't much of a book, or even much of a score, in Noise/Funk. The premise is that the play's depicting a history of African Americans through tap dancing, stretching the art to explore the passions, anger and humiliation of the black race in America. That profound task lies beyond the scope of the dance, given tap's traditional associations with more lighthearted fare, but it is always entertaining, and often thrilling, and kids love it.

The triumph of the season is the Tony winner for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book and Lyrics, and Best Supporting Actor in a Musical, Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer-winning Rent. A contemporary revisit of Puccini's lyrical opera La Boheme, Larson's masterpiece is set on Manhattan's Lower East Side, among the disenfranchised young artists whose desperate lives are engulfed by drugs, sex and death.

Anthony Rapp gives another overlooked performance of brilliance as Mark, whose girlfriend (nominee Idina Menzel) has left him for a black lesbian lover. Mark's roommate is the classically handsome composer/guitarist Roger (played with great poetic sensitivity by nominee Adam Pascal), whom we meet as he takes his daily dosage of AZT. Early in the show, Pascal sits on a steel table and picks out on his acoustic guitar a haunting melody that intones: "Glory! I want to write just one song, before I . . ." The unfinished thought brings a lump to the throat, no doubt intensified by the knowledge that the composer, Jonathan Larson, died at the opening preview of Rent ten days before his 36th birthday of an aortic aneurysm. "Rent" is his one glorious song.

Of course, Roger (like Rudolpho) will soon meet Mimi (played to aching perfection by nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega), who also has AIDS, and the "best ass south of 14th Street." The Musetta story of Boheme becomes a poignant romance between Tony-winner Heredia, a caramel-colored drag queen named Angel, and Tom Collins. At their first meeting, Collins (played with endearing humanity by Jesse L. Martin) remarks: "You look like an Angel."

Assembled across the front of the stage, the cast gave the Tony audience a taste of its simplicity and eloquence with the stirring "Seasons of Love," reminding us that "Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes" make up a year. This generation, so aware of the clock ticking away at its mortality, reducing expectations for a span of life we once took for granted, has been given an anthem that will clutch at your heart.

Rent has received so much attention that it is important to report that the accomplishment of this signal work of art far exceeds the hype. It has been called the Hair for the '90s, but that demeans its depth and stature. It is a much better musical than Hair, or indeed any other popular musical within the past decade.

The director, Michael Greif, although nominated, did not win his Tony because, as wonderful as it is now at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway, presumably it lost something in the transfer from its original staging at the small New York Theatre Workshop. My only complaint is that the sound design is somewhat overamplified, robbing us of the opportunity to savor each rippling rhyme of the lyrics. I can hardly wait for the CD!

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Marshall W. Mason