The Welsh Centre, a predominantly brown and faintly musty building on London’s Gray’s Inn Road, hardly screams glamour. But today it’s buzzing with the kind of crowd you’d expect to see propping up at some exclusive metropolitan cocktail bar. Guys in low-slung jeans saunter among slim, silky-haired girls. Famous Basildon blonde Denise Van Outen stalks about in knee-high boots and Siobhan Donaghy, ex-Sugababe, flits through like a pale and lovely, flame-haired ghost. At the centre of the butterfly-bright activity is William Baker, style guru and creative right-hand man to Kylie Minogue, and the director of Rent, the newly adapted 21st-century ‘remix’ of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 multi award-winning rock opera.
Fashion, pop & theatre
Baker, all casual chic in pale knits and designer denim, is feeling less than his best at today’s rehearsal. He’s spent the previous night DJing at a London Fashion Week after-party and has, he says, the “hangover from hell”. It doesn’t show. As we discuss his update of a show that took Broadway by storm but never really found its feet in London, he is passionate, articulate and, for all his fashion-fabulous approach to art, deadly serious.
Baker hails from Manchester, but moved to London as a teenager to read theology at King’s College – a degree choice prompted not by faith, but by a taste for religious imagery and language. He supplemented his student loan with a Saturday job at one of Vivienne Westwood’s boutiques – and it was there, in a fortuitous twist of fate that has transformed both their careers, that he met Kylie. They “hit it off”, he began styling her, and the professional relationship blossomed until he was directing her stage extravaganzas, working alongside her musical director Steve Anderson, who has re-orchestrated Larson’s songs for this Rent.
It may seem a leap from the pop world to the theatre, but while he admits he’s learning on the job, Baker says he feels surprisingly comfortable making his theatre debut. “I’ve always treated Kylie’s arena shows as musicals,” he explains. “I approach pop music through the lyrics, so it creates a narrative. I’ve directed Rent the same way I do a pop concert – staging first, then characterisation, starting with the physicality, the geography and the choreography of it. I always work visually.”
A necessary update
Larson’s Rent, based on Puccini’s La Bohème, depicts the loves, lives and struggles of a group of young, arty East Village Manhattan friends. It’s a mix of pop culture and social concerns, the high-energy music and free-spirited, bed-hopping lifestyle offset by poverty, street violence, heartbreak, rent demands and AIDS. That “darkness and light” appealed to Baker, and he is convinced that an update is just what the show needs to make it successful here in London.
“It’s always tricky with something contemporary; even after a year it dates, because fashions change, musical tastes change – everything changes so quickly.” Accordingly, Baker and Anderson, the show’s musical supervisor, have overhauled the score. Gone are what Anderson calls “those Nineties American rock, Bon Jovi-style guitars”; in their place is a “richer, lusher sound” he terms “pop orchestral”. The remixed Rent has also been pruned down to a running time of just over two hours, and British actors will speak in their native accents. Also, for the first time in a West End theatre, the production will operate a general admission ticket admission policy, with one-price stalls tickets allocated on a first come, first served basis, just like a gig or pop concert.
But Baker’s reasons for wanting to make the show feel enduringly significant run deeper than aesthetics. “I lost a friend to AIDS a couple of years ago,” he confides quietly. “I’m a Thatcher kid, so I still remember the ‘Don’t die of ignorance’ campaign, the iceberg shattering and gravestones toppling. Many of my friends are older than me, and some of them lost a lot of people to it. Until recently, I had never experienced that kind of devastation first hand, and I don’t know whether I would have done this show if I hadn’t lost my friend. If even one person still has to die of AIDS, it’s still relevant. The gay community’s blasé attitude to disease in general, the promiscuity and irresponsibility about drug-taking and sexual health gives it a strong reason to exist.”
Darker, sexier characters
This is, then, a much darker Rent – one where heroin addicts don’t perform high kicks, death doesn’t arrive laced with sentimentality and HIV therapies have been updated. Baker has also reconsidered the characterisation. “I wanted something very real and very intense. That’s difficult to do with a musical, because they’re so often all ‘ta-dah’ and jazz hands,” he says.
So Mark, the show’s central narrator figure, has gone from being “a bit geeky” to “hot! a confused boy, very attractive and compelling, struggling to express his emotions”, while Mimi, formerly an “almost S&M-type nightclub dancer” is now played by Donaghy as a burlesque performer – “a kind of cross between Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge and Kate Moss, a flawed beauty”.
Taking on another of the re-imagined roles is Denise Van Outen, who, fresh from a hush-hush business trip to Hollywood, is just starting rehearsals. She plays Maureen, an edgy bisexual performance artist. Looking bronzed and stunning but feeling, with her first-day nerves and a newly fitted invisible brace on her teeth, like “the new girl at school”, she’s still getting to grips with the part. “Maureen’s quite feisty, a bit of a show-off. She likes to be the centre of attention. The idea is to make Rent funkier and edgier and the show’s themes, especially AIDS, have changed 11 years later.”
Van Outen works it
Does Van Outen relate? “Yeah,” she giggles. “I think that’s why William picked me. But Maureen’s probably a bit more ballsy than me. Like, she’ll walk into a room and everyone has to know she’s there. I know my television persona’s like that, but I’m not so much. Often at parties I’ll be hiding in a corner. People are always surprised.”
Last seen on the West End stage in 2003 in a reworked version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black’s one-woman song cycle Tell Me on a Sunday, Van Outen’s stage credits also come as a surprise to those who only knew her as a television presenter, or from her recent stint as a panellist on Any Dream Will Do. The theatre section of her CV includes A Slice of Saturday Night, Les Misèrables, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Stop the World ¬ I Want to Get Off. But she really razzle-dazzled everyone when she returned to the West End in 2001 to play celebrity murderess Roxie Hart in Chicago, later reprising the role in her Broadway debut.
Van Outen, then, is clearly a grafter – “hard work is my philosophy” – and to get stage-fit for Rent, she’ll be walking home to Hampstead from rehearsals every night. “You can’t beat the buzz of live performance and I love the discipline of it. When I’m working I don’t drink, I never go into smoky atmospheres. Then the minute it’s over I head straight for the bar!” Above all, though, she’s just glad to be in an acting job – “I never stop counting my blessings”.
To judge by the blogging activities of the self-styled ‘Rent-Heads’ – obsessive fans of the show – Van Outen’s not the only one relieved that she’s playing bisexual Maureen. Online rumours about the musical’s reinvention are rife, with one armchair pundit concerned that the role would be cut altogether. (“NOT COOL MAN!”). Baker, however, has little patience with those who consider Rentsacrosanct.
“I think that’s very narrow-minded. Jonathan Larson created something that was very cutting edge and very of its time; what we’re doing is making it of this time. I think he would want that – he would want his show to be dynamic and dramatic, he would love his songs being updated and made more powerful. It’s not like we’re murdering them.
“And anyway,” Baker adds, with a persuasively charming grin, “Why do it the same? What would be the point?”
Rent opens on 15 October 2007 (previews from 2 October) at the Duke of York’s Theatre. A longer version of this article appears in the October issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!