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Theater -- September 1996

Victim Kitsch

With its pop sentimentality, Rent neutralizes
avant-garde art into a form that hopeful critics
take for Broadway's salvation


by Francis Davis

Kitsch collage
AS everyone has surely heard by now, Jonathan Larson's Rent -- 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 Hair 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 La Bohème. 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

Broadway Renaissance or Wishful Thinking?
A Web-only sidebar featuring selections from the music of Rent and links to reviews.

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 Götterdämmerung; 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

Listen to an excerpt from "Seasons of Love" (in RealAudio).
(For help, see a note about the audio.)

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 The Great Gatsby. 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.

With its echoes of Meat Loaf, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Gamble and Huff, Flashdance , and The Rocky Horror Picture Show , Rent is a musical in which the hits keep coming, but not ones we haven't heard before. The first time I saw Rent , I overheard a fellow intermission smoker exclaim to a companion, "To think that out of the death of theater, this can grow." It goes to show that everyone is a critic these days, though perhaps only when the licensed critics are unanimous.

ABOUT Rent they were almost unanimously ecstatic, paying it the ultimate compliment of pinning on it their hopes for the survival of music theater. Their logic went something like this: by virtue of being up-to-the-minute musically and in its depiction of characters for whom race, sexual orientation, and T-cell count present no barriers to friendship, Rent would sell tickets to young adults unlikely to pay to see Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria , Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly , or anyone in The King and I (true of most young adults, I would think). Another show making the transition from downtown to Broadway which was supposed to help get the fabulous invalid up and boogieing was Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk , the latest offering from George C. Wolfe, who in his capacity as producer for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival is emerging as the David Merrick of identity politics. Fast on its feet if somewhat soft in the head, Noise/Funk is a dance musical in praise of rhythm -- rhythm as a survival tactic, as a moral principle, as the secret ingredient in black life -- with very few songs as such. Still running on Broadway as I write, the show was assumed by critics to be of special interest to younger black audiences for having captured not just the sound of hip-hop but a good deal of hip-hop's combative street posture. Reviewers were enthusiastic about Noise/Funk , and especially about the hoofing and choreography of its star, Savion Glover, who makes palatable a series of brilliantly staged but preachy vignettes on four centuries of pain and degradation inflicted upon African-Americans, beginning with slavery.

Rent was praised to a degree that would have seemed unrealistic even for The Threepenny Opera . In the opinion of Time , Rent was only "the most exuberant and original American musical to come along this decade." In the eyes of The Wall Street Journal , it was "the best new musical since the 1950s." Michael Sommers, of the Newark Star-Ledger , enjoyed himself so much that he forgot to take notes, and Michael Feingold, of The Village Voice , was reduced to tears, presumably by Angel's death scene and its bitter reminder of Larson's own death hours away from triumph. The Voice was one of several papers to devote team coverage to Rent , with both the classical critic Leighton Kerner and the rock critic Evelyn McDonnell giving it their blessing. (McDonnell did complain that because "two of the main characters [Roger, the romantic hero, and Mark, who serves as the narrator] are straight white guys . . . for the umpteenth time, the stories of 'others' are made palatable by a dominant-voice narration." That Larson was a straight white guy himself is no excuse.)

The worth of Rent is one of very few issues on which the Voice and The Wall Street Journal have ever seen eye to eye. Not that the opinion of either paper counts for very much when it comes to theater. Only The New York Times can make or break a show, and the smitten paper of record began blowing kisses Rent's way even before the show's official downtown opening, on February 13. A lengthy advance feature on Larson and Ben Brantley's initial rave review were only the beginning. A Sunday Arts and Leisure section preceding the Broadway opening looked like a Rent supplement; in addition to yet another feature recounting the show's past from the moment of conception on, the section included head shots and thumbnail biographies of all the cast members and a large front-page color photo of them in costume, performing "La Vie Bohème." The whole thing was reminiscent of those team photos that lesser newspapers tuck into the Sunday funnies to celebrate a victory in the World Series or the Super Bowl.

Rent emerged as a legitimate source of news when it became the prize in a bidding war between Broadway's two largest theatrical organizations, and then when it won four Tony Awards, including one as the season's best new musical and two others for Larson's book and score. (It was such a shoo-in that the producers of Charlie Rose and The Late Show With David Letterman didn't wait for the awards ceremony to book the show's principal cast members for post-Tony appearances.) But hardly a day seemed to go by early last spring without some mention of Rent in the Times , whether it was only Margo Jefferson telling us how much like genuine Lower East Siders the cast looked in their "grunge-meets-salsa-meets-B-Boy-meets-Riot Grrrl clothes" or Frank Rich arguing on the op-ed page that even though

some of the turn-of-the-millennium fears given powerful voice by the dispossessed bohemians of 'Rent' resemble those of what we now call Pat Buchanan voters . . . [Mr. Larson] takes the very people whom politicians now turn into scapegoats for our woes -- the multicultural, the multisexual, the homeless, the sick -- and, without sentimentalizing them or turning them into ideological symbols or victims, lets them revel in their joy, their capacity for love and, most important, their tenacity, all in a ceaseless outpouring of melody.

Rent was soon everywhere, including the cover of Newsweek. Just over a week after the show's April 29 Broadway premiere the cast -- even at that point the most overexposed group of fictional young people since the cast of Friends -- turned up in the Times once again, this time striking poses in a nearly full-page Bloomingdale's ad announcing the opening of a Rent boutique. It was less a case of life imitating art or of couture imitating thrift-shop dishabille than of advertising imitating editorial.

I'VE been telling friends that Rent is not as good as the Times says it is but probably not as bad as I make it sound. A number that almost everyone but me finds especially moving, "One Song Glory," has Roger, the

Listen to an excerpt from "One Song Glory" (in RealAudio).
(For help, see a note about the audio.)

HIV-positive songwriter, who we're told used to sing with a punk-rock band, expressing his desire to write one great song in the little time he may have left. "One Song Glory," like the song Roger ultimately writes, is a preening, melodramatic rock ballad of the sort that punk was supposed to stomp to smithereens. Still, this is one of those instances in which good theater doesn't necessarily require a good song. Tim Weil, the show's music director, has provided a starkly effective orchestration, with guitar reverb suggesting the steady drip of an IV. Blake Burba's lighting increases the chill by dwarfing Roger in his own shadow -- the shadow of death. Frank Rich wasn't the only theatergoer to equate Roger's desire for one final blaze of glory with what might have been Larson's, had the composer known that this would be his last triumph as well as his first.

The problem is that Roger could be Rent the show, and his bigger-than-life shadow Rent the phenomenon. So much has been written about Rent that audiences may find themselves a little sick and tired of it on their way into the theater. The show could fall victim to the media's tendency to follow each binge with a purge. Already some of Rent's most ardent early champions, including Brantley and Jefferson, have begun to question whether the show lost some of its purity or charm or social relevance in its transfer to Broadway. (The answer is no: it's a Broadway musical that happened to have its debut off-Broadway.)

I find it significant that the only Times writers to express strong reservations to begin with were the classical columnist Bernard Holland and the pop critic Jon Pareles. It may be that rock is impervious to emulation, something they both recognized. Rent may look like rock-and-roll, with its spandex- and flannel-clad cast wearing head mikes and shouting lyrics into one another's faces above a live band, but, like Hair almost thirty years ago, it sounds more like Broadway.

Judged as Broadway, Larson's score does not lack simple virtues. Stephen Sondheim praised his late disciple's music as "generous," a word that strikes me as particularly apt, though Sondheim probably meant something different by it than I would. Larson's melodies give themselves up very easily. Even someone who isn't especially taken with the songs might hum them on the way out, and this is all that many theatergoers ask of a musical. Larson's songs stick in your head, and not all of them are unwelcome there. (That they're also extremely easy to sing probably means that Rent will eventually be a favorite of college music and theater departments.) But this generosity is achieved at a cost. Larson's melodies are too close to the surface. Nothing harmonically complicated of the sort that goes on in Sondheim's songs goes on in Larson's. Although his lyrics are occasionally clever (when he's not making lists or settling for easy rhymes), his meanings are very close to the surface too. Unlike Sondheim's songs, Larson's are never shaded by the context in which they're sung. His lyrics are never revealed to be delusional; they mean exactly what they say. These may be faults common to all young composers, however talented, but still Larson seems not to have learned very much from his mentor. This doesn't seem to bother reviewers and audiences, who distrust what they perceive to be Sondheim's frosty intellectualism.

In Rent's book Larson's generosity takes the form of bigheartedness toward his characters. Only two are beyond redemption, both of them peripheral and, in this context, stock villains: a drug dealer who tempts Mimi back onto junk and a pastor who refuses to bury Angel and condemns Collins as a "faggot." Even Benny, the nouveau-yuppie landlord, does a good deed or two by the end, and the casting complicates our reaction to him by giving the part to an extremely affable black actor named Taye Diggs. If nothing else, Rent is laudably unstereotypical in its characterization. Collins, the homeless MIT hacker, is black, and one of the other black characters (Joanne, the performance artist's lesbian lover) is an attorney. The show's music is another story: as soon as we hear the opening bars of "Seasons of Love," we just know that one of the black actresses is going to step forth to supply a few gratuitous melismatic flourishes. This has become such a cliché that it even turned up in the 1995 Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, on the song "Brotherhood of Man."

Larson's bigheartedness, which I imagine was a joy to his friends, worked to his disadvantage as a playwright. In Rent he indulged in a sentimentality of the sort that has always gone over big on Broadway, regardless of what social ills are being addressed (it's the same sort of

Listen to an excerpt from the title song Rent (in RealAudio).
(For help, see a note about the audio.)

sentimentality that keeps some of us from enjoying La Bohème ). The show's title comes from an early song in which Larson's would-be artists defiantly refuse to pay their back rent. That they identify with their neighborhood's teeming homeless population is a given, yet the issue of social class is virtually ignored. Typical of Rent 's lack of political sophistication, Larson's bohemians -- the voluntarily, and probably only temporarily, poor -- oppose gentrification without realizing that aspiring artists like themselves are inevitably gentrification's advance guard.

This is a show in which the observation that "the filmmaker cannot see, the songwriter cannot hear" passes for a profound insight. It's as though Larson believed that his characters faced no problems they couldn't solve by getting in touch with their feelings. Angel, the drag queen envied by artists for being his own canvas, is a character we've met countless times, and so is Mark, the filmmaker who wishes to document life but is afraid to participate in it. Mark, the show's narrator, is a stand-in of sorts for Larson and a surrogate for the audience. He's also the one principal character who isn't gay, HIV-positive, a woman, or a member of a racial minority. It's a difficult role, in that it asks the actor to be as self-effacing as a person in such company might be, for fear of being denounced as "privileged." Anthony Rapp, an energetic blur of an actor who's the best thing about Rent , may have succeeded too well in conveying his character's desire for inconspicuousness. The Tony nominating board overlooked him in favor of four others in Rent 's ensemble who sang louder and did a showier job of emoting: Adam Pascal, as Roger; Daphne Rubin-Vega, as Mimi; Idina Menzel, as Maureen; and Wilson Jermaine Heredia, the only one of the four nominees who won (in the featured-actor category), as Angel.

Unlike Pascal, who according to his program bio used to sing and play guitar with a rock band called Mute, and Rubin-Vega, who once reached No. 1 on Billboard's dance chart, Rapp is a child of the theater and not pop music. Yet he's the only performer in Rent who looks comfortable singing rock on stage -- maybe because he's the only one with sufficient stage experience to realize that behaving naturally while singing material of any kind in a theatrical context requires a great deal of acting technique. He obviously glanced at rock videos; with his hunched shoulders and slightly pigeon-toed

Listen to an excerpt from "La Vie Bohème" (in RealAudio).
(For help, see a note about the audio.)

gait, he has exactly the right look. Rapp is called on to deliver Larson's attempts at recitative, and he displays a real knack for this style of singing. He makes even "La Vie Bohème" satisfying, which is no easy trick, given its endless and dated roll call of artists who were evidently favorites of Larson's but who have little resonance for today's young adults (Bertolucci? Kurosawa? Stephen Sondheim? Susan Sontag?).

Music and contemporary youth culture aren't the only areas in which Rent seems hopelessly out of touch. The character of Maureen, the performance artist, epitomizes everything that rings false about the show, even though it's fun watching Idina Menzel perform Maureen's act at the demonstration against Benny, the landlord. Maureen represents Larson's chance to poke fun at the excesses of performance artists like Annie Sprinkle, who puts her feet into stirrups and invites her audiences to conduct a gynecological examination, and Karen Finley, infamous for supposedly committing unnatural acts with yams. But Maureen's act is annoyingly tame: she doesn't scream obscenities, smear anything on herself, or bleed on anyone. And since performance artists are exhibitionists practically by definition, wouldn't one who has only recently come out make her lesbianism the focus of her act?

LARSON could have demonstrated with the character of Maureen how well he knew his way around the Lower East Side, but he seems to have been too genuinely nice a person to take much glee in wicked satire. Besides, it's tough to be a satirist when you're always going for the goo. In a song called "Will I" an unnamed AIDS victim who is eventually joined by the entire company wonders if

Listen to an excerpt from
"Will I?" (in RealAudio).

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

he'll lose his dignity along with control of his body. The song is meant to be moving, but finally it's only embarrassing. The friends I've lost to the epidemic, no matter how needy they were at the end, had too much dignity to make such a naked appeal for pity (or perhaps I just prefer to think so). Larson wanted to blast audiences out of their apathy, with the help of rock-and-roll. But his show comes dangerously close to romancing the virus -- to downgrading it to one more symptom of post-adolescent disengagement. In the sixties, Hair , while inviting theater groups to cluck in wonder at that era's young people, with their free love, their psychedelics, and their loud music, reduced all the world's evils, including the carnage in Vietnam, to the musical question "How can people be so heartless?" Rent , for all that's supposed to be new about it, similarly invites theater groups to cluck in wonder at today's young people, with their bisexuality, their faulty immune systems, and their performance art.

Say what you will about Hair (and I'll say worse), that prototypical rock opera was transgressive in ways that Rent only imagines itself to be. In its own day Hair was as notorious for its nudity and its quasi-tribalism -- elements borrowed from experimental theater, notably Julian Beck's Living Theatre -- as it was for its facsimile of the big beat. In some ways Hair was nothing more (but also nothing less) than an amplified, optimistic, mainstream version of the Living Theatre's Paradise Now .

Rent serves a similar function in regard to today's experimental forms of performance art, but does so far less obviously and in a manner that promises to be far less liberating for mainstream theater. Two years ago Arlene Croce, the dance critic for The New Yorker , created a tempest by condemning as an example of an unfortunate trend a work by the HIV-positive dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones that she admitted to not having seen. This was Still/Here , a performance in which Jones's choreography was interspersed with videotapes of people with fatal illnesses talking about their impending deaths. I think Croce misrepresented Still/Here , which I found to be moving largely for the videotaped interviews to which she categorically objected (the dancing itself struck me as mannered and earthbound). But I think she was right to complain of being "forced to feel sorry for . . . performers, in short, who make out of victimhood victim art" and in defining this art as "a politicized version" of the "blackmail" practiced by even as great an artist as Charlie Chaplin when he asked audiences to share in his self-pity. Like Noise/Funk , with its pep talks on black pride and its calculated appeal to a peculiar sort of pleasure that disguises itself as outrage at injustice, Rent neutralizes and mainstreams avant-garde victim art by sentimentalizing it into what I'm tempted to call victim kitsch.

Will Rent revitalize Broadway by persuading young adults who have grown up with rock-and-roll that music theater has something to offer them? I doubt it, because rock is itself a form of theater for such young adults, just as the street is a form of theater for the B-Boys and gang members whose moves are emulated in Noise/Funk. Thirty-nine years ago did teen hoods flock to Broadway to see their likenesses sing and dance in West Side Story ?

Shows like Rent and Noise/Funk represent Broadway's attempt to colonize off-Broadway -- to reap its perceived riches. A relic of art before the age of mechanical reproduction, the theater has been dying for as long as anyone can remember, though despite Broadway's constant state of peril it contributes greatly to New York's tourism industry and the city's sense of itself as an artistic mecca. Music theater now seems in greater peril than ever, in large part because of the staggering cost of staging a new show and the consequent high cost of tickets (for $67.50, the price of a good ticket to Rent , you can see ten movies or buy five CDs). Originating shows downtown and then moving the most successful of them to Broadway must appeal to producers as a sensible means of minimizing start-up costs.

But this doesn't explain why Rent has sparked such enthusiasm among reviewers and others with no direct stake in its box office. The only explanation I can think of is that they love music theater so much they wish it to have what Larson's Roger wishes for himself -- one great song on which to go out. Either that or both they and Broadway are so out of touch that they mistake the mere hint of social relevance for genius, and the slightest twitch for resurrection.

Illustration by Stephen Kroninger


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1996; Victim Kitsch; Volume 278, No. 3; pages 98-106.

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