AS everyone has surely heard by now, Jonathan Larson's -- the seventh musical ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama and the first to do so in advance of its premiere on Broadway -- is a rock musical in the tradition of but with even grander pretensions to opera, "sung through" by an energetic young cast that plays East Village versions of the artists and paupers in Puccini's . The painter Marcello and the poet Rodolfo have been transformed into Mark, a documentary filmmaker, and his roommate Roger, a rock singer and songwriter and a former junkie. Their friend Tom Collins, a computer whiz fired from MIT and now homeless, is based on Puccini's philosopher, Colline. Musetta, Marcello's former lover, is Maureen, a performance artist who has decided she's a lesbian. The seamstress Mimi, Rodolfo's tubercular inamorata, is still Mimi, but now she's an exotic dancer trying her best to stay off the needle. She's also HIV-positive, as are Collins, Roger, and a Latino street drummer and drag queen named Angel, who corresponds to Puccini's Schaunard.
This Mimi doesn't die -- or not exactly. She's brought back from a near-death experience by her self-absorbed Roger, who tells her, "Hey, babe, don't die -- you ain't heard my song yet." The one who does die is the drag queen, who, like so many fatally ill people on stage and screen nowadays, is a life force whose role in the grand scheme of things is to instill in others the courage to live.
A rock opera isn't exactly a new idea. Whether we're talking concept albums or actual Broadway productions (Tommy, you'll recall, was both), there have been too many of them to count, none of them very good. Andrew Lloyd Webber's scores borrow the volume and aerobicized pulse of disco, and twenty-six years ago Stephen Sondheim built his score for Company around brass figures
and bass lines that would not have sounded out of place on a Dionne Warwick record (almost nobody noticed, because he did it without saying so in Playbill). Staging La Bohème in modern dress isn't exactly unprecedented either, though one has to wonder if those who have tried it realize that Puccini's opera was a period piece to begin with (first presented in 1896, it was set sixty years earlier, in keeping with the Henri Murger serial novel on which it was based). Legend has it that operagoers were initially scandalized by Puccini's glorification of people they regarded as lowlifes. The truth seems to be that La Bohème had a lukewarm reception because its Turin premiere closely followed the Italian premiere of Wagner's ; despite Puccini's artful synthesis of traditional Italian and modern French elements La Bohème must have sounded positively quaint by comparison. So might Rent to anyone passingly familiar with current trends in performance art or rock-and-roll. Except for a few bars of "Musetta's Waltz" played twice on guitar to comic effect (if you're like me, you first heard it as "Don't You Know," a Della Reese hit in 1959), Rent borrows none of Puccini's music, just his characters and stray narrative details. Using the story of a great opera for a new musical might be as pointless as watching a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie for the plot. But this is something that could be charitably overlooked, if it were Rent 's only problem.
I'VE seen the show twice now, the first time last winter, at a close friend's urging, when -- already a hot ticket -- it was still being presented off-Broadway, at a downtown performance space blocks from Larson's grimy Alphabet City setting. There and on Broadway, where remarkably little about the show has changed, the first act ended with a bouncy song called "La Vie Bohème," Larson and the director Michael Greif's one stab at a big production number. This finds the entire fifteen-member cast at a banquet table following an offstage demonstration against a landlord (Mark and Roger's former roommate, turned yuppie) who's trying to evict them from their apartments and to remove an encampment of the homeless from the vacant lot next door. The scene corresponds to one in which Puccini's bohemians feast in a Latin Quarter café and then flee into the crowd when presented with the bill. "La Vie Bohème" is nothing if not catchy, but having it buzz around in my head all through intermission allowed me to place exactly where I had heard that sporty, nonstop bass riff before -- in "Cool Jerk," a 1966 dance hit by the Capitols, which I suspect is also where Larson first heard it. Todd Rundgren's remake from seven years later is another possibility, given that almost every number in Rent sounds vaguely like a tune Larson would have heard on the radio as a teenager in the 1970s. (A tail-end Baby Boomer, he died in January, just short of his thirty-sixth birthday, after attending the final dress rehearsal for his show. So much has been made of his death in conjunction with his creation of characters facing imminent death from AIDS that some people probably think he was a casualty of the disease. But the aortic aneurysm that killed Larson isn't part of his show's zeitgeist.)
A story endlessly retold in the reams of copy devoted to Larson following Rent 's debut has it that he broke up with a girlfriend when she doubted
his ability to write an authentic gospel tune -- the implication always being that "Seasons of Love," Larson's second-act opener, proves that he was right to ditch a woman of so little faith. But "Seasons of Love" is just Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" stripped to the bone and reharmonized into something bland and blue-eyed enough to serve as a jingle for Hallmark or the friendly skies.
I don't think Larson was guilty of plagiarism; he was just being derivative in much the same way I was when, in my younger and more vulnerable years, I unwittingly wrote . Like the books we love, our favorite songs won't let go. Larson's previous shows, Superbia, tick, tick . . . BOOM! and J. P. Morgan Saves the Nation , opened and closed quickly, in out-of-the-way venues. I haven't heard their scores, so I don't know if Rent marked a departure for Larson. Given his worship of Stephen Sondheim (another recurring theme in the articles about him), my guess is that he was a songwriter working more or less within the conventions of Broadway who, having decided to write a rock musical, wound up imitating the rock songs he remembered from his adolescence, which was probably the last time he had paid much attention to rock. Because I read over and over that Larson waited tables for ten years at the Moondance Diner, near the foot of Sixth Avenue, while waiting for his big break, another of my hunches was that the golden oldies on the diner's jukebox permeated his consciousness. A hike to the Moondance hours before I saw Rent on Broadway disproved this theory, because the place doesn't have a jukebox. Even so, in the theater that night I felt as if Iwere listening to a seventies jukebox.