When Keith Young’s agent heard that Chris Columbus (Harry Potter, Stepmom, Mrs. Doubtfire) was directing a film version of the hit Broadway musical Rent and shopping for a choreographer, she quickly set up a meeting between them—it ended in a job offer for Young. “Chris and I were on the same page,” recalls Young, “and I was honored to be chosen. This experience touched me deeply—artistically and as a man.”
The story of Rent re-imagines Puccini’s La Bohème in a 1990s East Village setting, telling the story of one year in the life of friends struggling through the AIDS epidemic, drug addiction, poverty and relationships. It earned a Tony Award for both Best Musical and Best Original Score, and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Tragically, its brilliant writer, Jonathan Larson, was never able to see his masterpiece ascend into stardom. In 1996, at the age of 35 and on the evening of the show’s final dress rehearsal before the first off-Broadway preview, Larson died from an aortic aneurysm. Today, the bohemian rock opera still plays to enthusiastic audiences, making it the eighth-longest running musical on the Great White Way.
Young, whose choreography credits include a lyrical piece for Allan and Melody in a late August installment of So You Think You Can Dance, commercials for Fresca, and such movies as Something’s Gotta Give and What Women Want, spent roughly nine months working on Rent. He studied the script, saw the musical as many times as he could, researched Larson’s life and career and the history of the show, and worked out movement ideas on a skeleton crew. “Every single step, everynotion is dance oriented,” he says. “There are obvious scenes like ‘Tango Maureen,’ ‘Out Tonight’ and ‘La Bohème,’ but even walking down the street and how people hold themselves is an orchestration of movement. I had to be on the whole time.”
As homage to the musical, choreographed by Marlies Yearby, signature steps like Angel’s jumps in super-high platforms are included in the film. The character Angel, a drag queen street musician, is played by Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who also originated the role for Broadway and earned a Tony in 1996 for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
Young aimed to make the movement an inextricable part of the storytelling. “It was very important to me that the steps weren’t ornate, or gratuitous or like ‘a 5, 6, 7, 8.’ There is none of that,” he says, explaining his distaste for the musical-movie prototype, where characters break out into a dance that does little to develop character or advance plot. Making dance another layer of the character is, in part, inspired by his sister, who is deaf. “I watch all the work I do with the sound off. I want to know how she would see it—if she would get the impact, the conflict.”
Among the film’s larger production numbers is the beloved tango, which takes place just after Maureen dumps Mark for Joanne (Tracie Thoms), a public interest lawyer. “It’s a rough day. Mark’s fantasies become masterful and nightmarish at the same time,” says Young, “so he dances it out.”
For the scene, Young collaborated with cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt (Closer, Angels in America) and hired 50 dancers. “Maureen is like the one in Mark’s fantasy—she breaks your heart, she’ll leave you,” says Young, “so I wanted her to go from guy to guy, flippantly using them.” Most of the dancers hired were L.A.–based. “I had to get dancers who were camera wise and understood being on set, that this isn’t theater, you don’t have to play to the balcony. Most dancers in L.A. understand that.”
Taking on a project such as Rent, with its stirring score, cult following and message of love, was a big job—one that Young is still weighted by. “As an artist on the job, I always feel a depth of responsibility, but this one in particular, because it’s so timely with the way things are in the world. Every day I wonder, did I serve the project? Did I do as well as I could? I became close with Jonathan’s family, so it became important to me that they were happy—that if Jonathan were around, he’d approve of what I’ve done.”
Young hopes that the movie will reach an even larger number of people than did the musical, especially those living in “the red states,” he says. “Those are the people we have to reach—the people who may run from AIDS and other life struggles. It’s important to find a way to humanize these things, and I was honored to be a conduit between [them].”
Young sums up his experience as follows: “Chris said something to me on set that made the hair stand up on the back of my head. He said that his entire career so far was preparing him for Rent. And I have to say the same thing. Everything I’ve done has led me here and hopefully Rent will prepare me and fuel my compassion for whatever is next, even if it’s just waking up the next day.”