Spectator – Movie for ‘Rent’

More people can afford “Rent” this month, thanks to Revolution Studios. The production company brings a film version of the Jonathan Larson rock opera to movie theaters this week, directed by Chris Columbus and starring most of the original Broadway cast.

Set against the backdrop of New York’s East Village in the late 1980s, and based on Puccini’s opera, “La Boheme,” “Rent” tells the story of bohemian artist friends struggling with poverty, heartbreak, drug addiction and AIDS.

Perhaps because of its gritty, real themes and characters, the show has been credited with generating interest among younger generations in musical theater. “Rent” is currently the eighth longest-running show in Broadway history, with a fan base affectionately called “Rentheads.”

Notably absent from the film creation is show creator Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm on the eve of the play’s first preview. Larson’s sister, Julie, is the film’s co-producer, which should ease fans’ minds about the filmmakers’ desire to do justice to a show that has won both Pulitzer and Tony awards.

Indeed, the sound and feel of Broadway’s “Rent” are intact, even while the music assumes a slightly edgier rock core, and some dialogue is spoken rather than sung.

Jewish Rentheads can also rest easy, as the little nods and throwaway lines Larson wrote for Jewish character Mark Cohen are still there, too. Mark still mentions his bar mitzvah, and talks about learning to tango with Nanette Himmelfarb, the rabbi’s daughter at the Scarsdale Jewish Community Center.

The filmmakers also kept the part where Mark’s mom calls him on Christmas to wish him a happy holiday. That may sound strange, but actor Anthony Rapp, who reprises the role from Broadway, explained that Mark’s character was drawn from Larson’s own experience.

“I know that Jonathan did celebrate Christmas in their house, but I think they also had a menorah,” Rapp said.

This loyalty to Larson’s vision is a hallmark of the film.

“We’re here to serve Jonathan and the play,” said Tracie Thoms, who plays Joanne in the film. “And we’re here to serve all the fans who were touched and moved and saved by the play.”

“Rent” opens in theaters Nov. 23.


7 Days in the Arts

Saturday, December 11

Today and tomorrow only, the award-winning “Underneath the Lintel” returns to the Sacred Fools Theater Company. Playwright Glen Berger’s story about a Dutch librarian who feels compelled to hunt down a man whose library book is 123 years overdue is really about the search for the sublime. Is the delinquent really the Wandering Jew of Christian myth? And if so, does Berger’s play have anti-Semitic undertones? In more modern mythology, the Wandering Jew has been upheld as a hero, rather than a villain, and that’s how many have interpreted the play. How will you?

10 p.m. (Saturday), 7 p.m. (Sunday). $10. 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood. (310) 281-8337.

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Kilmer’s Moses a Real ‘Ten’

When Val Kilmer talks about his new role in the small, bare room that is his office on the Paramount lot, he sounds more like a Bible class teacher than a participant in a multimillion-dollar extravaganza.

“It’s hard to imagine what a culture is like when a human thinks they’re God,” he said, referring to Pharaoh. “And people react [to that] from a foundation of fear. It’s amazing that Moses was able to do what he did, and that clarity of intensive righteousness that he had, and how selflessly he assumed the role of leader that he didn’t want. That is what characterizes him as extraordinary.”

Kilmer plays Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” the new musical version of the Exodus story, which is set to open at the Kodak Theatre on Sept. 27. His philosophical musings are typical of those of the main players behind the show. While the trend in recent popular musicals has been to give audiences a good time in the most facile way possible, “The Ten Commandments” aims to be wholly entertaining but primarily inspirational and educational.

“It’s so hard to find a story that lends itself to speak to a generation, but people do want to be entertained and they don’t want to be preached to,” said Robert Iscove, the show’s director. “We are trying to get our message across in a highly educated and entertaining way.”

The message of the show, as Iscove describes it, is: “Faith will not divide us, only our fear will. We are all the same underneath the skin, and without all agreeing on a code of behavior, anarchy rules. The only time we don’t grow and follow our spirituality is when our individual Pharaoh is ruling us.”

That message is one of the reasons that producers Charles Cohen and Max Azria decided to launch the production.

Cohen, who was the senior acquisitions adviser for Europe to SFX, the company that is now Clear Channel Entertainment, originally saw the “Le Dix Commandements” in France, where it was the most successful musical ever produced in that country. It ended up playing to audiences of more than 2.2 million over 17 months, and selling 11 million copies of the soundtrack and 1.2 million copies of the DVD.

When Cohen saw the production, he was mesmerized by its scale, extravagant special effects, heartwarming and heart-pumping score and inspirational underpinnings. He loved it so much that he invested in it, and he also started thinking about how he could bring the French production to an English-speaking audience in the United States. He brought his friend, Azria, the designer behind clothing label BCBG, in to see the show in Paris, and together they started a musical production company to get “The Ten Commandments” to America.

In the international exchange, Cohen and Azria ended up revamping the show completely. They recruited Patrick Leonard, who produced the soundtracks to “Moulin Rouge” and “Legally Blonde,” to write the new music, and Emmy-award winning songwriter Maribeth Derry to write the new lyrics.

“In America we knew that it was a different ballgame altogether,” Cohen said. “We decided to change the scenic aspects, the costumes, the designs and the composition of the lyric. A new book [script] was written, we had new choreography, and different, much bigger special effects. It’s the same story, but a new show.”

Cohen won’t disclose the exact figure he and Azria put into the production, except to say that it is “many millions of dollars.”

“We are much over [the budget of] a regular Broadway production,” he said. “We have 52 people on stage, and our show becomes bigger and bigger every day. Two months ago we didn’t know that Kilmer was going to be on board, and we tripled our special effects budget. It is huge. We cannot give numbers, but those numbers are going up every day.”

“The Ten Commandments” is the largest show to originate in Los Angeles. It is booked for 90 days at the 3,400-seat Kodak Theatre, and after that it will travel to Radio City Music Hall in New York, before beginning a national tour.

Of course, “The Ten Commandments” has a long history of being a “big” production.

The original giving of the Ten Commandments more than 5,000 years ago, where 600,000 Israelites saw the revelation of God, is the historical event that for many Jews establishes the authenticity of Judaism.

When Cecil B. DeMille decided to retell the story on screen in 1956, starring Charlton Heston as both Moses and God, it was billed as “The greatest event in motion picture history.”

Iscove said that his musical is significantly different from DeMille’s film.

“A lot of the effects back then were very anachronistic, and the style of acting is different, and the message to a ’50s generation is stricter and more rigid,” he said. “There is also more feminism [in this retelling]. We do a lot about the pain of the women in the story, Ziporrah [Moses’ wife], Yochebed [Moses’ mother] and Bithia [Pharaoh’s daughter who saved Moses from drowning and then raised him in the palace.] Zipporah is a much stronger woman [in this production] than she was in the 1950s.”

The musical tells the story of how Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s house, alongside Ramses (Kevin Earley), who is Pharaoh’s son. Ramses becomes the next Pharaoh who refuses to free the Israelites from their slavery, and Moses is the brave leader who defies him to bring the Israelites to freedom.

“The story is very close to the Bible,” Iscove said. “Two people were raised in the same house, given all the same privileges, and one finds his humanity and follows his spiritual path and the other rejects his humanity and his heart gets hardened by God. It is only by Moses recognizing his humanity that he became the leader of the three great religions.”

Iscove said that Kilmer, who in the past has had a reputation of being difficult with directors, is “terrific” as Moses.

“He is becoming Moses, and the leader of this company,” Iscove said. “He is adopting Moses. Moses is a gentle soul, and he has been very much a gentle soul in this.”

This production is Kilmer’s second turn as Moses. His first was with the 1998 DreamWorks animated film “The Prince of Egypt.”

For Kilmer, the role is an extension of the weekly Bible readings that he does for his local Christian Science congregation in his home state of New Mexico.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from reading the Bible and sharing stories that matter with my community,” he said. “Playing Moses is bound to have some effect on me and anyone else involved in this story, and hopefully the audience will be affected too.”

“The Ten Commandments” opens Sept. 27 at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland. Previews begin Sept. 21. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at (213) 365-3500. For more information, visit www.the10com.com or call (323) 308-6363.

Rebel, Rebel

Rabbi Jonathan Aaron of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills knows as much about show business as shul business.

The 39-year-old rabbi, a former actor and managing director of the Open Forum Theatre in Connecticut, is the author of a new musical, “Hyrcanus,” an intergenerational production of the temple’s Emanuel Arts Center.

The story, enacted by 65 actors, singers and dancers, aged 7 to 87, is based on the life of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, a renowned scholar of the Talmud (circa 80-120 C.E.) who captured Aaron’s imagination in rabbinical school. In the musical, the young Hyrcanus, frustrated with his life as a farmer, leaves home to learn from the great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, even though he does not know a word of Torah. Angry about his desertion, Eliezer’s father follows him to Jerusalem to tell him he is cut off from the family fortune — but learns more about his son than he ever imagined.

Why did Aaron pick Hyrcanus for his musical theater debut? “Nobody knows the rabbinical stories, and I think they’re the richest stories in Judaism,” says the rabbi, who is married to Michelle Azar, the managing director of an L.A. theater company, Neurotic Young Urbanites. “Most Jews think the Bible is it, but Judiasm has much more to offer.”

“Hyrcanus is the only rabbi who was ever excommunicated,” adds Aaron, noting that more than 300 of his halachot are quoted in the Talmud. “So I’ve always loved him. I like people who are a bit on the edge.” The excommunication was politically motivated and occurred after the time span depicted in the play. But the children in the cast identify with the determined young man, Aaron notes.

“They recognize the rebellion of the child against his parents,” concurs Nili Kosmal, the Israeli-born director of the play and the Emanuel Arts Center. “And the parents recognize how the character of the father needs to let his son spread his wings and fly.”

Kosmal, who came to the U.S. in 1966 to earn a theater degree at UCLA, drew her cast from every segment of the shul’s population, from the religious school to the day school to the sisterhood. The performers include a USC professor, a personal injury attorney, even Tom Cruise’s agent, Lawrence Kopeikin. To secure a young lead actor, Kosmal turned to Aaron, who recalled officiating at the bar mitzvah of a teenager who had a good singing voice and had quickly memorized his Torah portion. Nicolas Krasney, now 14, is playing Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, and his real-life father, Robert Krasney, is portraying his father in the play. “We have at least 20 families participating together, which is one of the Center’s goals, along with teaching Judaism through the arts,” Kosmal says.

Center President Marilyn Weiss has a theory about why the intergenerational productions work: “It allows people to learn about Jewish tradition in a unique way,” she says. “It’s a very different type of learning than goes on in the classroom.”

For some cast members, the upcoming play will be especially memorable. Two years ago, active shul member Charlotte Goode played a breast-cancer patient leaving an ethical will for her granddaughter in the Center’s “From Generation to Generation.” After the performance, Goode herself was diagnosed with cancer and underwent treatment. “She battled the cancer, and she is still a bit frail, but she is determined to perform in the play this year,” Kosmal says.

“Hyrcanus” runs Feb. 24 and 25 at the Emanuel Arts Theater, 8844 Burton Way in Beverly Hills. For tickets, call (310) 274-6388 ext. 232.