Monday, June 07, 2004

Why I'm Late for Rent

THERE ARE AT LEAST THIRTY-TWO REASONS I SHOULD HATE Johnathon Larson's 1996 musical, Rent. For starters, I hate musicals.

Generally, I'm a relativist, but in this way I'm an absolutist. Typically after about the 4th or 5th singing number, I'm absolutely screaming on the edge of my seat, Shut up and just SAY the lines, already! I mean, some emotions - like say, joy or sorrow - are pleasantly enhanced by song, but other emotions - like say, You just stole my woman, I'm bout to give you a beatdown, beyotch! - seem, IMO, just downright inappropriate.

Let's just be real about character here for a moment: Sure, it makes perfect sense for a woman to be frolicking in the colorful hills of Austria spontaneously combusting in song, but a Puerto Rican gangbanger flicking knives on the Lower East Side? Hello! Why are you singing?!!!

But I digress. I realize that this ranting is slowly eating away my cultural points. And I do have a point - a point with which I'm about to (hopefully) redeem myself.

There are at least thirty-two reasons why I should have hated the musical, Rent, starting with the non-stop singing - that would be, 32 musical numbers non-stop. My God, 32?

But despite my prejudice, I must report that I've been converted. Saturday night at the Fox, I saw the touring production of Rent, and it was sensational, fantastic even. After the opening number I was fully transported - something lacking in my previous forays into musicals - my disbelief suspended in a two-act dream of song and dance that I hated to see come to an end.

Reading the eight-armed plot beforehand, conveniently summarized in the playbill, significantly enhanced my experience. Which I discovered is another thing that put me off about musicals before. All the singing, the dancing, all the flash-flash-flash all seemed at expense of the story. But not here.

The story here is a modern adaptation of Puccini's opera, La Boheme where the setting is 1990's Lower East Side New York instead of 1830's Paris and the looming disease, AIDS instead of tuberculosis. And homosexual relationships have complicated parts of the love triangles of the struggling artists.

Benny, a former tenant of the building where the production takes place, has come into some money and buys the tenement where he once resided. The money has rendered the artist heartless as he wants to change the building into a mixed-use condominium/high tech cyberstudio. But to do so, he must evict his penniless artist friends - including an S&M dancer, a filmmaker, a performance artist, a musician, a hacker/philosopher, and a drag queen among others - who haven't paid rent in a year. Act One concludes as the artists organize and stage a performance protest in an adjacent vacant lot, during which the landlord Benny padlocks the building, leaving them all out in the cold.

Act Two follows the artists' tumultuous lives through the following year - one dying of AIDS, another nearly OD'ing from heroin - as they deal with hard times and loss and how to make a meaning of it all.

The musical numbers were an emotional rollercoaster ride - the blockbuster opening number, "Rent,"; the coy and seductive "Light My Candle" between Roger and Mimi, a heroin addict; the breezy Santa Fe (a take-off of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose"); the hilarious over-the-top performance-art tribute to cows - yes, cows - "Over the Moon" by Maureen; the sweeping and poetic, "Seasons of Love"; the stirring "Goodbye, Love" and "What You Own" after Angel's death.

And despite the somber events of Act Two, Rent ends on a high note, which speaks to the resiliency of artists and the greater resiliency of the human spirit. That the playwright died himself during the final week of previews in its first Broadway run and that he never got to see the avalanche of awards Rent would receive gives even more poignancy to the production's perspectives on artists' lives.

And as universal as the starving artist theme is, there's something about Rent that's decidedly New York, that could only be New York. Something hard yet vulnerable, ugly yet beautiful, hopeless yet utterly hopeful.

Something that made me believe in musicals.

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