“It was a kind of pilgrimage,” says Guthrie, whose production arrives in Edinburgh next week. “I spoke to Jonathan Larson's family, who've seen hundreds of productions of the show, in depth, and I saw loads of places Rent is set in. I saw the diner that only closed a couple of years ago, and I got taken to a couple of places that are still exactly the same as they were then.”
Guthrie was also gifted a very special recording of Rent.
“It was of Jonathan Larson playing an early version of it by himself on a keyboard,” says Guthrie. “It was a real privilege to be able to hear that, and to get a real sense of Jonathan and where Rent came from.”
Larson first became involved in what would evolve into Rent in 1989, when he joined forces with playwright Billy Aronson to create a musical based on Puccini's opera reset in modern day New York. It was Larson who suggested it should be set in Manhattan's East Village, where punks, drag queens and other misfits formed an underground society against a backdrop of poverty and homelessness. Larson wanted to bring musical theatre to a generation weaned on MTV, and eventually stepped out on his own, with Aronson retaining a credit for the show's original concept and additional lyrics.
Larson survived by waiting tables as he worked on the show, which after extensive workshopping, opened off-Broadway in 1996. Larson didn't live to see his show go on to global success. In the early hours of the day of what should have been Rent's first preview, he died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. While this added an extra poignancy to a show that was in part about loss, it was the dramatic power of Rent that saw it transfer to Broadway and travel the world.
Guthrie's fascination with Larson's show dates from a student production he directed at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
“I'd never seen Rent,” he says, “but I knew it had this incredible history, and I picked it because it seemed to suit the students. I listened to it, and I started reading La Boheme, and working on it I began to see it in a completely different light. I think it's a show with tremendous heart. It's about having hope in the face of difficult circumstances. It's about family and trauma, but there is always hope within that.
“I also think it's got a tremendous story. The first half has so many different types of songs to introduce all these characters, and is such a treat, and then because you care about them by now, watching what happens in these people's lives over a year becomes a visceral and beautiful experience,and the message of living for today is something we all need to learn from.”
As producer Robert Mackintosh came on board with Theatre Clwyd and Wales Millennium Centre for his production, Guthrie recognised even more that Larson's work transcended its 1990s setting. Guthrie quotes the opening line of the show's title song; 'How do you document real life / When real life's getting more like fiction each day?'
Raised in Sauchie in Clackmannanshire, Guthrie began his directing career while studying drama at Guildford School of Acting in London. As he prepared for his first ever directing gig, a production of Frank McGuinness' Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, there were shades of Rent style starving artistry in his own lifestyle.
“I worked sixteen hour days in Tesco's to make enough money to pay for that show,” he says. For his second show, a production of Willis Hall's The Long and the Short and the Tall presented at the Pleasance in London, “I was living off one pound twenty-five a day to save money, so, like others, I suppose I sort of lived the lifestyle in the way Mark, the narrator of Rent does, but we always knew we could call family to help.”
Guthrie has gone on to work at the National Theatre Studio, and was resident staff director at the National Theatre, where he directed John Lythgow in Lithgow's one-man show, Stories by Heart. Guthrie worked with Sam Mendes on the Old Vic's year-long international tour of Richard III starring Kevin Spacey. Guthrie has directed open air Shakespeare in Singapore, and recently completed the forthcoming film version of Alan Hruska's play, The Man on Her Mind, which he directed onstage in 2012. Guthrie also directed Charlotte Church in The Last Mermaid as part of the Wales Millennium Centre's Festival of Voice.
The last time Guthrie brought a show to Edinburgh was with German writer Manfred Karge's one woman epic of post World War Two survival, Man to Man. Guthrie co-directed the Wales Millennium Centre production with Frantic Assembly's Scott Graham for a successful Edinburgh Festival Fringe run. With Man to Man set in the Brandenburg slums, there are more similarities with Rent than might be immediately obvious.
“My taste is settled in the two,” says Guthrie, “and the link is bohemia.”
Like Germany, New York has changed since Rent first appeared, both in terms of gentrification and what up to America's recent presidential election appeared to be an acceptance of those who live outside society's mainstream. Where, then, are the new bohemians?
“They still exist,” says Guthrie. “They'll always be around, especially now. It always seems to be the case that it's the darkest times of human experience that have bred the greatest art, and what more bohemian lifestyle can you get than a group of actors on tour looking after each other and giving everything they've got every single night.”
“Jonathan Larson created a show about real people with real problems, but who felt that they belonged. We have some people in the audience who come to see it again and again. When something touches the human spirit in that way it's extraordinary.
“Rent is an imperfect masterpiece, because Jonathon Larson wasn't there to see it through to any changes he might have made, but it is a masterpiece, and the imperfections are there to be embraced. We're all imperfect. That's what makes people interesting. That's what makes us alive.”
In terms of where the world is now, then, there are real similarities with the world Larson wrote about.
“It's cyclical,” says Guthrie. “As one generation gets older, it forgets all the things the previous generation went through. That's what theatre does so brilliantly, and it's what Rent does so brilliantly. It reminds us of what it takes to live the life that you want to live.
“We're at a point now where it's not just that we don't know what the next twelve months will bring. Now, we don't even know what tomorrow will bring. As a director I'm finding it fascinating to watch, but as a person I find it pretty scary. That's what Rent's about. It's saying it's alright to be scared, but don't let it control you, don't let it rule you, and don't let it stop you being who you are.”
Rent, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, February 14-18.
The Herald, February 14th 2017