First staged as a small workshop performance in 1994, RENT has since gone on to conquer Broadway, the West End, and even feature film. On August 8 Jonathan Larson’s acclaimed musical comes to Prague’s Divadlo Na Pradle for a month-long run, staged by some of the top Czech theatre talent working today, under the direction of American Steve Josephson. Josephson recently spoke with us about how his version of this modern-day re-telling of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La bohème was influenced in part by his own Prague experience.
RENT tells the story of a group of young musicians and artists, struggling to survive creatively and financially in 1990’s New York. AIDS, drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll all feature heavily in the touching plot which resonated with Josephson who grew up in New York during the ’80s, but also because of parallels he began to see with Prague, “A city which at first glance seems to be a relatively liberal place, with laid-back attitudes to issues such as homosexuality and drug use, yet on closer inspection has more of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude and a certain reluctance to discuss important yet uncomfortable issues.”
This sense of taboo has meant that Czech theatre producers have historically been afraid to put on provocative shows like RENT for fear of audience backlash, despite a real desire from the young and talented Czech performers to star in such an exciting and challenging production. It’s because of these factors that Josephson believes that RENT is “As important to the Czech Republic now as it was to the US in the ’90s.”
Josephson first came to Prague following an invitation from Mirjam Müller (film director and wife and creative partner of the famous Czech actor and rock singer Daniel Landa). Müller saw his critically acclaimed production of Ray Bradbury’s 2116 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2010 and was keen to involve him in the pair’s latest project, a large-scale rock opera “Klic Kralu” (Key of Kings) which opened at Divadlo Broadway (one of Prague’s five big musical theatre venues), in 2012. Josephson signed on as Creative Director and Choreographer.
This was his first introduction to the sheer volume and quality of talent in the Czech scene, a resource he was eager to encourage and develop further. “I believe that the singing and performing talent here in the Czech republic is some of the highest in the world, says Josephson. “These actors should be given opportunities to perform in English so that the rest of the world can see what the Czech-speaking audiences are treated to every week at countless theatres across the city.”
Josephson has also worked with one of the Czech capitals’s longest-standing English-language theatre companies, the Prague Playhouse, directing their 2012 summer production of Sweeney Todd, another Czech premiere, for which two actors were awarded nominations for the prestigious Thalie awards (rare for an English-language production). Earlier this year he directed the Tennessee Williams classic “The Glass Menagerie”.
The Prague premiere of RENT features a cast that comprises the cream-of-the-crop of the Czech and Slovak musical theatre scene. “It’s hard work coordinating rehearsal schedules because almost all of the cast members are also performing in rep at one or more of the big theatres here in the city,” says Josephson. Some of these shows include Josephson’s own “Klic Kralu” at Divadlo Broadway, as well as “Maugli” (Mowgli) and “Pomáda” (Grease) at Divadlo Kalich, and “Quasimodo” at Divadlo Hybernia.
Josephson has tasked award-winning choreographer and regular collaborative partner Tod A. Kubo with directing the dance element of the show. Kubo’s list of credits is vast, with hundreds of productions spanning Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. He told us that he is really excited to be in Prague and to be involved in such a ground-breaking premiere. For this particular project his interest lies in functional movement, using the way real people move on the street as inspiration for his on-stage choreography.
Josephson says he is taking quite a different approach to many of the other musicals currently on stage here in Prague which generally employ a fairly segregated performance style, with singers singing, dancers dancing, and actors acting. “For RENT we are using a much more Western performance style so all of the cast members have the opportunity to use their skills in each of the disciplines simultaneously.”
He adds that he likes his creative projects to be learning experiences for all involved – the cast, crew, and even audience. “I’m always interested in taking part in some sort of cultural exchange, otherwise what’s the point?”
The show will have Czech subtitles to encourage non-English speaking audience members to attend, although Josephson and his crew are already planning to stage a Czech-language version of the show in the coming year.
The performance will take place at the suitably warehouse-esque Divadlo Na Pradle which Josephson says is reminiscent of the original off-Broadway production back in New York. “We’ll be making the use of the balcony and gallery areas as part of the show so audiences will be really up-close and personal with the cast. it’s a relatively small space for so much energy so I think it’s going to be a pretty explosive experience!”