Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Contemplation on Rent

This post will be completely self-indulgent, but I figure, what's the point of having my very own space in the Internet, if not to state my opinions as if they were facts?  Blogs and talking heads would be completely useless, resulting in even more unemployed masses,  if people finally realized that just anyone can open their mouth and utter a statement that sounds truthful enough that it could border on fact, but, in reality, is not.  This has rose-colored saunter down memory lane over the last couple of weeks feels like it was inevitably leading here.  Discoveries of old mixtapes, high school photos, reminders of the fact that I have a 10 year high school reunion coming up, the listening to of too much Tori Amos, all of those bits and pieces of my old self, the part of me before college, seem to be held together by the glue that is called Rent.  Even that intense burst of teenage comet crushdom known as NSync, are eclipsed by my once, and still intense love for this musical.  So here is my offering in that vein, a loving, remembering rant on Rent.
If this were 15 years ago, Rent would be in the midst of it's off-Broadway run.  The story of Rent has even become somewhat mythical, mainly due to the unexpected death of its writer and lyricist, Jonathan Larson, from an aortic dissection, the night before the musical's off-Broadway debut, January 25th.  That's right, it's been 15 years since Contempo Casuals, Post-Grunge, the Real World all ruled their respectful fields.  And in a way, Rent grew just as much out of those things as out of its original source material, Puccini's "La Boheme".  But if you want more about the accurate, or perhaps not so accurate, since it's been edited by human hands, you can browse the Wikipedia page at your own leisure.
There will be those who will automatically scoff since this falls under the category of musical theater.  As someone who was raised on Rodgers & Hammerstein, I don't understand this notion.  There's some protest to the idea that people burst into song, well that's the whole point, people, it's theater (which means the only requirement is that it tell a story to a live audience) with music.  But the fact of the matter is that, when it debuted in 1996, Rent was the most culturally relevent show that I had ever heard of.  In fact, at the time I was 13.  I was in the midst of a pretty great 7th grade, but I had my ear to the ground, and sure enough, the vibrations of Rent were starting to make their way towards Connecticut.
It would still be another 3 years before I actually saw it in person, and that was the touring company at the Oakdale theater.  At sixteen, it seemed profound to me.  It was adult, and I knew that mostly because the F---word was used more than once, there was a distinct discussion of "masturbation" and "dildos", all in the same song no less, which was mortifying at that age as I sat next to my mother.  I was, perhaps, a little sheltered in my only child world, but even thinking about it now, it would still be a little mortifying, if I'm honest.  But it's frank acceptance and discussion of sexuality was closer to the way my friends and I talked, and so I got it.  And it was that familiarity that made me feel more adult, and more a part of this world.
By the time it got to "Out Tonight", I knew, without a doubt, that more than anything in this world, just once I wanted to be MiMi.  I glossed over all of the terrible things in her poverty-ridden life.  The fact that she worked at a shady club and did a dance involving handcuffs, the fact that she was addicted to some sort of strong narcotic, because several are mentioned in "Christmas Bells" although it's generally accepted that heroin, (smack) was MiMi's drug of choice.  None of these things really mattered that much to me.  I would be the poster child for art influencing the young, if I weren't so anxious about disappointing others.  No, by the time she steps onto the fire exit in those skin tight pleather blue pants and her hair releases that glitter, I only saw three important things about MiMi.   She was 19, living in New York City, and she knew how to get what she wanted.
In the same way, all of the characters represented something about me.  Mark was into film, Joanne was intelligent, Roger was the artist, Collins was the Robin Hooding-vagabond, Angel was the free spirit, Maureen was the indecisive attention-seeker.  All of those generic categorizations melded harmoniously in songs that I soon knew every word to.  I mean every word.  I mean all 4 simultaneous lines going on at the same time kind of memorization, and then at a certain point, it just began to be one of those things that I kind of identified myself with.  That's when I realized what the fanbase for Rent was really like.
For an entire generation of fangirls, myself included, Rent has become our version of Woodstock.  It was on the cultural barometer.  It was about being proactive, not reactive; it was about friendship, the kind of transcendent friendship that you so desperately need during your teens, and as I've found, well beyond.  It's about being culturally aware, dropping the names of poets and authors and musicians that I'd rarely heard talked about up until that point, but suddenly began to think were cool.  It's about AIDS, and escaping, and acceptance and optimism but most of all it's about love.  For a hopeless romantic like me, what more did I need?  There are moments in the songs, specific moments, that when I hear I feel the same exact way I felt when I first heard it.  When Mimi pleads "there's only us, there's only this, forget regret or life is yours to miss" it feels like not just the moment she's asking Roger to listen to her, it feels like it's the moment that was written to speak to a generation.  When Collins sings "when your heart has expired" during the reprise of I'll Cover You, it always sounded to me like what I imagined having your soul stripped away would feel like, when it's done by the right Collins, which is preferably Jesse L. Martin.  Adam Pascal will always be the Roger in my head and Anthony Rapp must have at least thought once about changing his name to Mark Cohen.  In point of fact, I'm one of those people who thinks that the original Broadway cast of this show is iconic, and yelp with delight when I hear that any alum is getting more work.  I've seen replacements and touring casts galore, and they've all felt special in a way, mostly because with live theater, there is an intensity and an energy that doesn't exist elsewhere, but I wish that I could have seen them all together when this was just the little show that could, before, it, you know, won a Pulitzer prize.
However, what ended up happening with Rent is that it felt like it created a community of its own.  Something that became much bigger than the show, especially for those who saw it more than once or twice or three times.  The lengthy success of Rent had as much to do with the time in which it was created as it did with its universal themes.  Without the Internet to keep people connected, the fan groups that formed with an intensity that can only be found in those slightly-fringe, but accepted, cult pop culture phenomenon, might not have continued for 12 years.  Maybe it's even more important than Larson first wrote, this idea of "connection in an isolating age".
I could be wildly over-exaggerating.  I'm sure there are critics who call Rent trite and screechy and lots of terrible other things, and in thirty years, people may or may not remember it and kids may or may not think it's dated, but there's something weirdly personal about this show, and for its fans that's what's always brought us back, no matter how many years have passed.  When I first saw it, this was the group of people I wanted to hang out with, and weirdly enough, it kind of turns out that I have.  Maybe it's a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of thing.
Perhaps Benny's right.  Perhaps Bohemia is dead and it was always a fallacy we created on nostalgic nights like this to remember the best of ourselves that never really existed in the same time and place all at once, but I guess that's why I'm glad the arts exist.  There's now something so solidly comforting in listening to that soundtrack and remembering all the optimism I had when I was 16 and hoping that it's still there, somewhere deep down.  Often, I'm like Mark asking myself "How did I get here, how the hell?" But those times when the future seems so unknown and the past seems so far away, it's nice to listen to the reminder that maybe there really is no day but today.  However, I will always blame Rent for making me love the Rogers of the world, instead of the more dependable Mark's of the world.


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