Change On Stage Theater: Two groundbreaking musicals go head-to-head for Tony honors tonight. The fact that they're in the running at all suggests that Broadway might never be the same.

June 02, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK -- No one could have guessed it.

Not the critics who preview each season's new shows and speculate on which will be hits. Perhaps not even the shows' creators.

But at tonight's 50th annual Tony Awards ceremony, one of the most-heated contests will be between two musicals no one expected to even be on Broadway -- "Rent" and "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk."

Having both transferred from small, off-Broadway theaters with casts of mostly unknowns, the two hip, hard-driving shows just may change the future of Broadway theater. They're already changing the look of its audiences.

Loosely based on Puccini's "La Boheme," "Rent" switches the opera's setting from Paris to New York's East Village and updates the occupations of its artist characters to a filmmaker, a punk rock composer, a performance artist, a drag queen and an exotic dancer. AIDS replaces consumption as the ravaging disease and rock music replaces opera.

Winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize and featured on a recent Newsweek cover, "Rent" turned out to be an eerie example of life imitating art when its creator, Jonathan Larson, died of an aortic aneurysm at age 35, shortly after the show's dress rehearsal.

"Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk" is one of the more unconventional musicals ever to ascend to Broadway. A chronicle of African-American history told through the metaphor of tap dancing, the show didn't exist before the renowned young dancer Savion Glover got together in August with director George C. Wolfe and a cast that includes four other dancers, a narrator, a singer and a couple of subway bucket drummers.

Lauded by the New York Times as a hybridization of dance theater, musical theater, epic theater and black theater, "Bring in 'da Noise" is a new style of musical that departs from traditional plot structure and from a traditional development process.

For the record, two other musicals are also competing for top honors -- "Chronicle of a Death Foretold," based on a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and "Swinging on a Star," a revue of songs by lyricist Johnny Burke. But however worthy they may have been -- and since "Swinging on a Star" was a revue and not a full-fledged musical, its worthiness is debatable -- the fact that they have both closed essentially eliminates them as serious contenders.

In one of the healthiest musical seasons Broadway has seen in years, the best musical category has attracted attention because three musicals that are still running -- "Victor/Victoria," "Big" and "State Fair" -- were passed over in favor of their now-closed competitors.

"Victor/Victoria" made headlines when star Julie Andrews, who received the musical's sole nomination, asked to have her name withdrawn from consideration in protest -- a request Tony administrators disregarded.

Whatever the artistic merit of such objections, they have prompted allegations that the nominating committee deliberately shunned commercial fare in favor of shows that originated in the nonprofit arena.

Evan Shapiro, director of marketing at the New York Shakespeare Festival, which produced "Bring in 'da Noise," believes the nominators were sending a message. "Look at the four shows nominated. Combined they cost less than 'Big,'" he says. "You don't need to spend $12 million and charge $75 to be entertaining. As long as you speak the truth, you don't need to put a roller coaster on stage. Tell a story and show us some people. That's why 'Rent' is such a huge story and 'Noise/Funk' is taking the town. Because they have real people in them."

Life and art

Like the cast of "Bring in 'da Noise," many of the real people in "Rent" are newcomers to Broadway who are still in their 20s. And, even those with theatrical credits bear some striking similarities to the struggling artist characters on stage.

For example, Anthony Rapp, the 24-year-old who plays the filmmaker based on "La Boheme's" Marcello, is indeed an aspiring filmmaker, and, in a situation like the one that gives the show its title, he was once a squatter in an East Village apartment.

The musical's strongest parallel, however, is with the tragically short life of Larson, its creator, who also lived in an East Village loft, and until the fall, supported his songwriting habit by working as a waiter in a SoHo diner.

Larson, whose career was encouraged by Stephen Sondheim, told friends he was creating "'Hair' for the '90s," and the zealous and well-deserved reception of his up-to-the-minute rock opera is proof of his success.

Although he retained a number of plot points from "La Boheme," Larson altered the ending by giving it an optimistic spin. The result celebrates what its creator's short life exemplified -- the importance of getting the most out of life. The rousing lyric that ends the show, "no day but today," is the musical's recurring theme.

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