“This island is full of talent!” I’m sitting backstage in The Auditorium in Palma talking to Alex Coehlo, one of the cast of the musical “Rent” and we’re both raving about Majorca, “It’s incredible, it’s such a small island and it’s got so many amazing people living here!” Alex tells me that all of the company come from Majorca. “Everyone lives here, we were cast in August and we’ve been rehearsing together ever since. I can honestly say I’ve never worked with such a talented group of people”. Wow, that’s high praise as Alex has been working as an actor and performer for … well, let’s just say he’s got a touch of grey in his hair. The dressing rooms are beginning to buzz with activity as the company arrives to do their technical rehearsal and you can feel there’s a lot of love in the air. Perhaps it is life imitating art as the show they’ve been rehearsing is all about love, and life.
Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning revolutionary rock opera Rent tells the story of a group of bohemians struggling to survive and still express themselves through their art and “measuring their lives in love.” Against the gritty backdrop of New York’s East Village, these friends strive for success and acceptance while enduring the obstacles of poverty and the AIDS epidemic. Among them are a songwriter, his downstairs neighbour, an exotic dancer, his filmmaker roommate, the roommate’s performance artist girlfriend who’s recently left him for a woman lawyer, a philosophy professor, his soul mate, and their former friend and current landlord. Larson’s inspiration for Rent ’s story came from several different sources. Many of the characters and plot elements are drawn directly from Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La bohème”, the world premiere of which was in 1896, a century before Rent ’s premiere. La bohème was also about the lives of poor young artists. Tuberculosis, the plague of Puccini’s opera, is replaced by HIV/AIDS in Rent; 1800s Paris is replaced by New York in the early 1990s. The name reflects the struggles the characters have to pay their rent, and how their lives are torn, rent apart. Larson wanted to set it “amid the poverty, homelessness, spunky gay life, drag queens and punk” in the East Village neighbourhood of Manhattan, which happened to be down the street from his Greenwich Village apartment.
The musical was first performed in a limited three-week workshop production at the New York Theatre Workshop back in 1994. Larson had worked for five years on the score of the show, waiting tables to make ends meet whilst he created what was to become a smash hit. Dramatically he died suddenly of an aortic dissection, (believed to have been caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome) on January 25, 1996, the night before the off-Broadway premiere. The show went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, the production was a hit, and a rock musical theatre legend was born. Now it has been performed all around the world.
So what relevance does the show have to us now, right here in Majorca? Marian (aka Brownie, playing the character of Tom Collins) answers that it’s just as relevant now as it was in the nineties. “The message is that there’s ‘No Day But Today’. You have to live your life and be in the moment. We really only have today.” Alex adds “it reflects a lot of what we are still going through as well, the economic struggles and the marginalisation that people feel when they are cut out of society. Some of the characters in the show are struggling with illness and yet they still find ways to be happy and thankful.”
The show, which opens next Tuesday and runs until Sunday at The Auditorium will be performed in Spanish, brilliantly translated by the show’s young director, twenty one year old Palma born Mark Witz. I’m staggered when I realise that he’s fresh off the block and yet has inspired and led a cast of fifteen performers, with a live six piece band and has by all accounts done a great job bringing the whole thing together. Why take such a risk? Mark answers me simply, “I wanted to touch people’s hearts.” Mark has been studying music since he was seven years old, I ask him if the show has become an obsession, “Yes!” he admits, blushing and laughing. Brownie, who aside from performing in the show is also the assistant director, picks up the story, “Mark has been working on the translation for three years, and then this summer we organised the casting and it just all came together. It’s been such a pleasure for us to work together.” Brownie moved to Majorca from the Czech Republic twelve years ago to live with his aunt and has had his own struggles, just like character he portrays. I ask him if he’s living the message of the show as well, “Six years ago I was diagnosed with diabetes, it was a big shock for me, I was in a coma for three days. We never expect that moment to come, but you have to accept that death is life. Now all the things I have right now, this opportunity with the show, the friendships in the cast and company, the potential we have, it’s all very important to me. These are my dreams coming true”. And what about the future, after the show closes next week, what ambitions do you have for the production? “I would love to take this show to the mainland as well, and show people what we can do, spread the message that life is just about today so don’t waste your chances, enjoy your life, don’t have regrets, be in the moment.”
The elements are there for the show to be a hit, Majorca is a tough residential market to crack, but I think they will do it. Mark says, “It is scary, but we started with nothing so we can’t lose”. Kudos must go to him, to Brownie and the rest of the production team including Sandra Mayol, Carlota Carballo and Marga Bonnín. When you consider the immense achievements that this young team have made with very little resources you’ve got to wonder what could they do with some actual backing?
If you can get a ticket, go and see Rent next week: you will leave the theatre high on life, ambition and hope, I certainly did.
To read more articles about people on the island visit http://www.mallorcastories.com
By Vicki McLeod
Published in the Majorca Daily Bulletin on Sunday 23rd November 2014