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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"I always felt the sections that really most specifically connected to what your life's like when the end is in sight -- how do you live your life most fully -- were perhaps the most meaningful parts of RTC the musical," says "Rent's" director, Michael Greif, whose credits include Center Stage.

It was this theme that kept the show's cast and artistic team going after Larson's sudden death -- just as Larson's seemingly disparate enthusiasms for both Broadway musicals and rock music sanctioned the show's transfer to Broadway.

"I think he wanted as much to do a brand-new musical as he wanted to be descended from the long line of Broadway musicals," says James C. Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, where "Rent" originated. "I see that as the experience I personally had with Jonathan, which is reconciling contradictory elements. He wanted to be downtown, but he also wanted to be on Broadway. For probably Michael [Greif] and myself, you would define our jobs of working on 'Rent' as finding the creative place to put those contradictions."

Nicola feels Larson's ability to create art out of contradictions was "one of his genius attributes."

Unusual creation

Not surprisingly, this blending of contradictions also characterizes the season's other groundbreaking musical, "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk."

Here the contradictions are tap dancing, which is generally associated with light entertainment, and the history of racism in America -- a subject that is anything but light.

One of the clearest examples of this combination is "The Uncle Huck-a-Buck Song." In this comic but chilling number, Savion Glover, wearing a life-sized Shirley Temple-style puppet attached to his shoes, dances with a grinning Bill Robinson-like Baakari Wilder, who sings: "Who de hell cares if I acts de fool/When I takes a swim in my swimming pool?"

But it isn't just the juxtaposition of smooth tap dancing and cruel history that sets this musical apart. It was also created in a manner virtually unknown to Broadway.

Ann Duquesnay, who co-wrote the score and also serves as the show's on-stage singer, says she was stunned on the first day of rehearsal when director Wolfe told her there was no script. Instead, she says, the show "developed from day to day" and was the result of a variety of collaborative inputs.

Scriptwriter Reg E. Gaines distilled conversations that the young cast members recorded about their lives, memories and events they had heard about from their elders. The songwriters created music for lyrics as unlikely, in one case, as a list of slave ships. And, most distinctively, Glover, the show's choreographer and star, interpreted "with his feet what George [Wolfe] was thinking in his mind," Duquesnay says.

This idiosyncratic creative process is reflected in the musical's form, which is essentially a series of vignettes, similar to the structure of Wolfe's 1986 play about black stereotypes, "The Colored Museum."

The structure of "Bring in 'da Noise," however, is not entirely satisfactory. The first act flows chronologically, tracing African-American history from slavery to freedom in the urban, industrial North. But despite a tour-de-force solo in which Glover demonstrates the influence of his tap-dancing mentors, the second act eventually devolves into more of a dance concert than a theatrical piece.

Future of musicals

Duquesnay says she hopes the show's "raw" structure will inspire audiences and theater artists to "be open for something different. Just be open to it. Don't just come in there with a closed mind."

"Rent" director Greif also stresses openness when he speaks of the desired impact of "Rent." "I think the fact that we have been very successful bodes very well for other untried composers to make it all the way to Broadway," he says. "There certainly has been a lot of interest now in being more open about where the next musical theater voices will be coming from."

Marketing efforts for both "Rent" and "Bring in 'da Noise" are attempting to foster that openness by attracting a more diverse audience. Both shows offer a limited number of $20 tickets on the day of performance. In addition, "Rent" advertises on alternative radio stations, and "Bring in 'da Noise" advertises exclusively on a popular black station.

In a further effort aimed at younger audiences, "Bring in 'da Noise" was promoted on MTV. And the show supplemented its Times Square billboard with a sidewalk mural. "It says, yes, this is for old-style audiences, but also the street," explains the Shakespeare Festival's Shapiro.

The upshot for "Rent" is a "wonderful, eclectic" audience, says co-producer Jeffrey Seller. "I'm seeing college students. I'm seeing high school students with baggy blue jeans in the standing room section. We're seeing gays. We're seeing straights. We're seeing upper West Siders and upper East Siders, and, yes, there are tourists."

It's too soon to tell whether these audiences will get hooked on the Broadway habit, or if "Rent" and "Bring in 'da Noise" will lead to even more unconventional successors.

"The way 'Friends' was knocked off every 15 minutes, you'll probably see 'Rent' knocked off every 15 minutes," Shapiro predicts. But at the same time, he hopes future generations will be influenced by the spirit of these musicals -- not their specific characteristics.

"Hopefully, 'Rent' won't be revived in 30 years. I hope they're not reviving 'Noise/Funk' 30 years from now. It deserves a much better fate than that," he says.

"A better legacy of 'Noise/Funk' and 'Rent' would be if they inspire new composers and choreographers who are now 5, who are now 15."

Best of Broadway

What: 50th annual Tony Awards

When: 9 tonight

Where: WJZ-TV, Channel 13

Host Nathan Lane

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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