When the musical Rent first appeared off Broadway in 1996, it immediately became a hit. Tragically, Jonathan Larson could not appreciate the over-whelming success of his play, since he had died on the evening of the final dress rehearsal. His death made the play that much more poignant in its focus on the diseased and drug-addicted young people of New York City's East Village. Still, in its examination of the lifestyles of the young men and women who inhabit the slums of the Village, the play becomes a celebration of life and the heroic struggle to survive. It was published by William Morrow in 1997.
Rent is loosely based on the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini's La bohème, an opera that focuses on the experiences of bohemian artists living in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. Larson places his play in New York City a century later than Puccini's work. It opens on Christmas Eve and chronicles the characters' lives over the course of one year. The fast-paced production moves through a collection of vignettes that are united by a rent strike against the landlord of the run-down tenement where some of the characters live. During the course of the play, the characters protest the landlord's plans to evict them and face other obstacles that are more difficult to fight, including drug addiction, AIDS, and troubled relationships. The characters do not overcome all their problems, but those that they do overcome provide them with a sustaining sense of community and the will to endure.
Jonathan Larson was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on February 4, 1960, to Allan and Nanette Larson. His family loved the arts, and Larson received much support and encouragement from them. The house was often filled with music, including his piano playing, which he was able to pick up by ear. In high school, Larson was called the "piano man" by his fellow students. While attending White Plains High School, Larson was very active in the music and drama departments. He became friends with a fellow student named Matt O'Grady, who would later be the inspiration for many of his characters as well as for the writing of Rent, Larson's most notable and only published work. In 1978, Larson attended the acting conservatory at Adelphi University on Long Island, New York, on a four-year, full-tuition merit scholarship. At Adelphi, he wrote his first musical, Sacrimoralimmortality, an unpublished work that attacked the hypocrisy of the Christian Right. He also began a relationship with Victoria Leacock, a woman who later worked on the production of two of his (unpublished) plays, tick … tick … BOOM! (an adaptation of his one-man show, 30/90) and Superbia.
After receiving a BFA with honors from Adelphi, Larson moved to New York City under the advisement of his mentor, the composer Stephen Sondheim, who told Larson that there are more starving actors than starving composers in the world. Larson lived a bohemian lifestyle in New York, where he took jobs waiting tables and gathered material for his works. He had a series of roommates, more than thirty different people, to help him pay the rent. He later incorporated these roommates into his works as characters. Paula Span, in her biographical notes on Larson for the Washington Post, notes that Larson "harbored a serious, soaring ambition." James Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, where Larson developed and staged Rent, called this the need "to somehow reunite popular music and theater, which divorced somewhere back in the '40s." As Nicola put it, "This might be the guy who could do it."
In 1989, Larson was approached by the playwright Billy Aronson, who asked him to collaborate on a new version of Giacomo Puccini's La bohème, an opera depicting the lives of struggling artists trying to cope with poverty and disease. The collaboration did not last long, however, and the two men parted ways. In 1991, after Larson had seen many of his friends diagnosed as HIV-positive, he decided to take up the project again, this time on his own. He named the new version of the play Rent.
Larson died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm on January 25, 1996, the night before Rent was to premiere. Rent became a huge success, posthumously winning Larson the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four Tony Awards. His other works have earned him six Drama Desk Awards and three Obies.
Rent opens on Christmas Eve at Mark and Roger's apartment. They are freezing, since there is no heat in the building. The landlord has turned it off. Mark is filming with a movie camera, and he explains that he is shooting without a script, to see if anything comes of it. He notes that Roger has not played his guitar for a year and that he has just gone through drug withdrawal. Roger's dream is to write one great song.
Mark's mother leaves a message on the telephone answering machine, expressing sorrow over the fact that Mark's girlfriend, Maureen, has left him. Mark and Roger's friend Collins rings the doorbell, but before he is let in, two thugs mug him. Benny, their landlord, then calls, asking when Mark and Roger will be paying him rent, which they have not paid for a year. After Benny inquires about Maureen, Mark tells him that she has left him for a woman named Joanne. Benny warns that if Mark and Roger do not pay the rent, he will evict them.
Mark wonders how anyone can "document real life / When real life's getting more / Like fiction each day." Roger asks how a person can write a song when he has lost his creativity, and Mark adds that they are hungry and cold. They both wonder how they will pay the rent. Mark, along with half the actors, asks how a person can "leave the past behind / When it keeps finding ways to get to your heart." With the other half of the company, Roger asks how someone can "connect in an age / Where strangers, landlords, lovers / Your own blood cells betray." Both Mark and Roger note that one way to connect is through artistic expression, Mark using his camera and Roger his guitar. The entire company then declares that they are "not gonna pay rent."
Angel appears on the street and offers to help Collins after he is mugged. When the two discover that they both have AIDS, they decide to go together to a support group meeting. Upstairs, Roger declares that he has wasted opportunities in the past and is determined to write one good song "that rings true." Mimi, a neighbor, enters, shivering, with a candle. As they talk, she insists that she dropped a bag of heroin somewhere in the apartment. Mimi tells Roger that she is a stripper, and Roger admits that he used to be a junkie. He finds the bag and puts it in his pocket, but Mimi grabs it on her way out.
After returning from the support meeting, Collins introduces Angel to Mark and Roger on the street. Angel is dressed up in Santa drag and clutching twenty-dollar bills in each hand. Benny appears and tells a homeless man to get out of his way, the very sort of callous attitude that Maureen will soon be protesting in her performance demonstration outside his building, where she, Mark, Roger, and Mimi live. Benny tries to bribe Roger and Mark, insisting that he will help their careers if they can get Maureen to stop her protest. Later, after Joanne reveals that Maureen has not been faithful to her, Mark and Joanne sympathize with each other for loving someone who is too egocentric to return their affections.
When Mimi returns to Roger's apartment, he tells her that if she's "looking for romance," she should "come back another day." He explains, "Long ago—you might've lit up my heart / But the fire's dead—ain't never gonna start." Angel tells Collins that he will be Collins's "shelter," and they pledge their love to each other.
Maureen enacts a protest performance, criticizing Benny, who, she claims, has abandoned his principles "to live as a lapdog to a wealthy daughter of the revolution." After Benny insists that the bohemian lifestyle that they have all been living is dead, the cast sings "La Vie Bohème," an anthem to that lifestyle. Roger invites Mimi to a party after the performance but then ignores her. When Mimi asks whether she has done something wrong, Roger apologizes, explaining that he has "baggage" and that he is a "disaster." Maureen's performance triggers a riot, which Mark captures on film as Mimi and Roger embrace. In response to the protest, Benny locks them out of the apartment building.
On New Year's Eve, Mimi announces that she is going to get off drugs and go back to school. Later that night, Maureen tries to persuade Joanne, who has broken off their relationship, to come back. Maureen insists that she will "learn to behave" and asks for "one more chance." That same night, after seeing some of the footage of the riot, a representative from a television newsmagazine leaves a message on Mark's answering machine, offering him a job. He says that the show is "so sleazy" but considers the offer anyway.
Benny apologizes for locking them out of the building, hinting that Mimi influenced his decision Page 250 | Top of Articleto let them back in by seducing him, which Mimi angrily denies. The main characters conclude that friendship depends on love and trust and on "not denying emotion," and Mimi and Roger embrace. When Roger goes back into his apartment, Mimi's dealer appears on the street and hands her a bag of heroin.
By Valentine's Day, Roger and Mimi have been living together for two months, and Maureen and Joanne are back together. When Joanne accuses Maureen of flirting with another woman, Maureen insists that Joanne take her as she is. The two argue and decide they will split up once again. That spring, Roger determines to break off his relationship with Mimi and go to Santa Fe to write his one great song before he dies of AIDS. In the fall, Angel dies, and the cast mourns his death.
On Halloween, Mark meets the producer for the TV newsmagazine, after he has signed a contract to work for them. He is conflicted about his new job, admitting that he has sold out to corporate America. After Angel's memorial service that day, Roger tells Mimi that he is leaving for Santa Fe. Later, Mimi and Joanne discuss their troubled relationships, and each wishes that she had someone who would truly love her for who she is. In the next scene Mark quits his job and plans to finish his film.
On Christmas Eve, Roger returns, declaring that he has written his song at last. Maureen and Joanne appear in the apartment, carrying Mimi, who is dying of AIDS. As Roger begins to play his song, "Your Eyes," which Mimi inspired, her fever breaks, and the two declare their love for each other.
Benjamin Coffin III
Their former roommate and present rent-gouging landlord, Benjamin Coffin III, wants to raze the building in which Roger, Mark, Mimi, and Maureen live. His aim is to gentrify the neighborhood by pushing out the bohemian element. He tries to appear generous when he tells Roger and Mark that he let their rent slide for one year, but his mercenary side soon emerges.
After Benny married into a wealthy, upper-class family, his father-in-law sold him the building and the neighboring lot, which he hopes to turn into a cyberstudio. Roger points out his callous materialism by declaring, "You can't quietly wipe out an entire tent city / Then watch 'It's a Wonderful Life' on TV." But Benny responds that if they want to write songs and produce films, as they claim, they will understand, and if they do not, he will kick them out. When Benny tries to bribe Mark and Roger into persuading Maureen to stop her protest, he reveals that he will do anything to succeed. By the end of the play, he has softened, as evidenced when he decides to pay for Angel's funeral.
Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, narrates the play as he films the lives of his friends. He insists that he can survive the bleakness of his environment through his art. It soon becomes apparent, though, that he is more comfortable viewing the world through his lens than in actively engaging in it. At the beginning of the play, the audience discovers that Maureen has left him for Joanne, which has made him bitter.
Mark, along with Roger, becomes defiant and declares that he will not pay the rent when Benny presses them, insisting instead that he will fight the system. However, when his film of the riot caused by Maureen's protest performance garners him a lucrative job offer with a sleazy network television newsmagazine, he briefly joins the system he criticizes to ensure himself financial stability. By the end of the play, however, he regains his values and gives up the job.
Tom Collins, a black computer genius, teacher, and anarchist who has been expelled from MIT, is the intellectual voice of the company. In the opening scene, he is mugged, reflecting the harsh reality of the world in which the characters live. He is brave enough to allow himself to fall in love with Angel, knowing that since both of them are infected with HIV, their relationship will not have much of a future.
Roger has been off heroin for six months, but he is infected with HIV. His main goal in life is to write one great song before he dies, but he has not been able to play his guitar in a year, fearing that he has lost his creative energy. He falls in love with Mimi but is too afraid to commit to her, knowing that she also is infected with HIV.
Roger has already lost the woman he loved to the disease, after she committed suicide. He tells Page 251 | Top of ArticleMimi, "Long ago—you might've lit up my heart / But the fire's dead—ain't never gonna start." In an effort to protect himself and to find the spark he needs to write his song, he leaves. He eventually returns, however, with a song of which he is proud, saying that Mimi has inspired his creativity. As he sings the song to Mimi, her fever breaks, and the two are reunited.
Joanne, a lawyer from an upper-class New York family, is in love with Maureen, who is unable to commit to her. Her character, which does not develop during the play, serves as a complication for Mark after Maureen leaves him for her.
Maureen, a bisexual performance artist and rock singer, protests Benny's renovation of the building with a performance piece that highlights his insensitivity toward the homeless. Her performance rallies the tenants, but her selfishness is displayed in her relationships with others. Maureen is a self-involved hedonist who resists anyone's attempts to persuade her to commit to a relationship. She has cheated on both Mark and Joanne. Although she and Joanne reconcile at the end of the play, there is no evidence to suggest that her character has changed enough to ensure that the two will be able to work out their problems in the long term.
Mimi Marquez works in a strip club and struggles with her addiction to heroin, which has resulted in her contraction of HIV. She falls in love with Roger, who is unable to commit to a relationship with her. Still, she is sympathetic to his reluctance, as she expresses when she sings to him: "So let's find a bar / So dark we forget who we are / And all the scars from the / Nevers and maybes die." When she declares to Roger after he rebuffs her, "I live this moment / As my last / There's only us / There's only this," she voices the ultimate spirit of the play.
Angel Dumont Schunard
The most generous and selfless character, Angel hands out money to the neighborhood while dressed in Santa drag. He first offers comfort to Collins by inviting him to an AIDS support group and later gives his love to Collins, along with all that he has, while declaring, "today for you—tomorrow for me." His death, brought about by complications from AIDS, is mourned by all of the characters and inspires them to live each day to the fullest.
The characters must deal with an overwhelming sense of betrayal—by their bodies, by the materialistic society in which they live, and by people they have trusted. Their bodies betray them after they contract HIV, slowly shutting down as their immune systems weaken and allow them to fall prey to various illnesses. Their society has let them down in its promotion of its vision of the American dream, which depends solely on upward social mobility and financial gains. The artists of the East Village are ignored in this system, unless they sell out to soulless corporations, such as the sleazy television newsmagazine that hires Mark to exploit the plight of the homeless for profit. One of the homeless people whom Mark films makes him realize that he has compromised his art when he angrily declares, "I don't need no [g―d―] help / From some bleeding heart cameraman / My life's not for you to / Make a name for yourself on!" He notes that Mark is just trying to use him "to kill his guilt." He has bought in to the same system as has Benny, who heartlessly pushes the homeless out of his way in his plans to change the neighborhood so that he can profit.
The most damaging betrayals come from individuals once trusted, like Benny, who exploits his friendship with Mark and Roger to gain success. After he marries into a rich, upper-class family, he becomes caught up in the materialistic system that measures success only through monetary gain. He tries to get Mark and Roger to persuade Maureen to stop her protest performance, enlisting their help in his capitalistic vision, and he threatens to evict them if they do not comply. Other betrayals are more personal. Roger feels betrayed by his girlfriend, who, unable to face life with AIDS, kills herself. He, in turn, betrays Mimi's trust when he leaves her, unable to allow himself to open up to another possibility of loss. Maureen betrays Mark and Joanne as the pressures of living in the East Village turn her into a self-serving hedonist.
La Vie Bohème
The characters lead a bohemian lifestyle as an escape from the harsh realities of their lives and as Page 252 | Top of Articlea form of artistic expression and individual style. Angel expresses himself by dressing as a woman, Maureen through performance art, Mark through documentary film, and Roger through rock music. They define their bohemian attitude by rejecting convention and pretension. They scorn the materialistic society in which they live and replace it with a strong sense of individuality.
Mark expresses this sensibility when he sings, "Playing hooky, making something / Out of nothing, the need / To express—/ To communicate, / To going against the grain." They align themselves with the avant guard, "To Absolut [Vodka]—to choice—/ To the Village Voice [a counterculture newspaper]—/ To any passing fad / To being an us—for once—/ Instead of a them—."
The narrative is driven by some thirty-five songs sung by fifteen cast members. The songs present the characters' poignant, emotional responses to their experiences. The most notable are Mark and Joanne's lament on having an egoist as a lover in "Tango Maureen"; Roger's struggle for artistic expression in "One Song Glory"; and his and Mimi's duets in "Light My Candle" and "I Should Tell You," which express their tentative love for each other. The songs communicate the characters' reactions to thwarted artistic expression, unrequited love, illness, and death. The lyrics and arrangements of the songs also reflect the ethnic diversity of the characters.
The play is fast paced, as it juxtaposes vignettes of the various characters' struggles to survive. This pacing reflects the energy and exuberance of the characters and reinforces their motivations: their desperate efforts to exist one more day with the threat of poverty and disease hanging over their heads and to live each day to the fullest. The fast cuts from scene to scene and from character to character underscore the sense that time is running out for them. Angel's death, placed in the middle of act 2, adds to the tension and helps force the characters to make important decisions about their futures.
Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca, Italy, on December 22, 1858, and lived until 1924. He began his musical career at age fourteen, when he became an organist at local churches in Lucca, the same time that he began to work on his own compositions. Manon Lescaut, his first successful opera, for which he gained worldwide recognition, was produced at Turin in 1893. His next opera, La bohème, is considered to be his masterpiece. However, its unique conversational style, which includes a mixture of gaiety and tragedy, was not well received when it was first produced at Turin in 1896. A later opera, Tosca, gained much more favorable reviews when it was staged in 1900. Puccini continued his success with the production of Madame Butterfly in 1904. His operas, known for their beautiful melodies and intermingling of passion and tenderness, tragedy and despair, have cemented his reputation as one of Italy's finest composers.
The promotion of traditional values in the 1980s received unexpected support as a result of the emergence of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). The American public became aware of AIDS in the early 1980s, but the disease did not take center stage as a serious issue until the film star Rock Hudson died from an AIDS-related illness in 1985. By the beginning of the 1990s, the disease had spread rapidly, generating tremendous public fear, since no effective treatment had been discovered. Most of the early cases emerged in the homosexual population and among intravenous drug users, but by the 1990s, it had spread throughout the American populace. Racial and ethnic minorities have been hardest hit, representing approximately three-quarters of all new AIDS cases.
Because sexual contact is a primary method of infection, the sexual revolution that had begun in the 1960s was threatened. Still, abstention was not a guarantee of safety. The disease can lay dormant in the body for several years before symptoms become apparent. People can become infected long before they know that they have the disease. The rights that homosexuals had started to gain also were put in jeopardy as a result of the spread of AIDS. The conservative right wing blamed gays for the spread of the epidemic, some insisting that AIDS was God's punishment for their immoral lifestyles.
Since the 1980s, the incidence of AIDS has grown rapidly, and the spread of the disease shows no signs of slowing down. By 1994, an estimated half a million Americans had been infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and the same number had died from AIDS. About forty thousand people are infected each year, and some twenty thousand people die from complications associated with the disease. The epidemic is worse in developing countries such as Africa, where people have little access to medications that can help combat the disease. The major factor in the reduction of the transmission of AIDS is education. The public needs to be aware of the risks and learn about methods to prevent disease transmission. Sexual abstention, condom use, and needle-exchange programs have all proved to be effective preventive methods.
Laurie Winer, in her review for the Los Angeles Times, notes that "Larson garnered the kind of rave reviews that young, struggling composer-lyricists pray and dream for." She calls the play "muscular, chilling and energizing" and argues that "what would have been merely moving in Rent is made almost unbearable bittersweet" by Larson's untimely death following a lifelong struggle to realize his artistic vision. She concludes, "Rent is a memorial service as a work of art, clearly and authentically created in love."
In his review for the Wall Street Journal, Donald Lyons adds to the chorus of praises for the play, claiming, "It's the best new musical since the 1950s." He declares that it presents itself with "clarity," "force," and "crisp definition." Commenting on the play's construction, he writes that it appears that "we're about to see a rehearsal, and what we do experience has the raw, ragged, slightly unfinished, excited, urgent feel of a late but coalescing run-through: This seeming artlessness is a sophisticated achievement."
Patrick Pacheco, in the Los Angeles Times, concludes that the play is "a raw and exuberant celebration of bohemian East Village artists … living on the edge." He claims that the topical subject matter, focusing on "the prevalence of violence and HIV … suffuses the musical with the fragility of life, the theme of Puccini's opera."
In his review of the play for the Washington Post, Chip Crews declares, "Bristling with energy and assurance, Rent roars across the stage like an urban brush fire." This show, he states, "leads with its heart—an angry heart, taking up the cause of street people, AIDS patients, the young disaffected of a society that [in Larson's view] has no place for them." Crews, however, finds fault with the development of the plot, saying that "the emotions here are very raw, so raw that they're never fully articulated." He insists that the fragmented narrative in the second act "begins to seem arbitrary and capricious. The breakups are too easy, the battles too melodramatic." He adds, "It's a fast, muzzy conclusion that does no justice to the pain they have suffered."
James Gardner, in his article for the National Review, also finds fault with the plot, writing that the play is "pretty much the same old showbiz fare, though with almost formulaic inversions. Instead of boy meets girl, you now have girl meets girl and boy meets drag queen." The play, he says, "wants desperately to be taken as the anthem of some nonexistent youth movement. But the bohemian life glorified in Rent looks no more vital than it did before," in the 1960s production of the rock musical Hair.
In his mixed review of the play for New Republic, Robert Brustein writes that the play is "good-natured, fully energized, theatrically knowing and occasionally witty." At the same time, he concludes that "it is also badly manufactured, vaguely manipulative, drenched in self-pity and sentimental." Its characters, he argues, are "poorly constructed," and it fails "to penetrate very deeply beneath a colorful and exotic surface." While "Rent has a lot to say about the need for human communication," Brustein determines that this "warm-hearted" book "is basically superficial and unconvincing."
Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she examines the theme of survival in the play.
The nineteenth-century American writer Stephen Crane's celebrated short story "The Open Boat," which focuses on four men in a small dinghy struggling against the current to make it to shore, is often quoted as an apt expression of the tenets of naturalism, a literary movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France, the United States, and England. Writers included in this group, such as Crane, the Frenchman Émile Zola, and the American Theodore Dreiser, expressed in their works an environmental determinism that prevented their characters from exercising their free will and thus controlled their destinies. These authors wrote of a world beset by poverty and war at the beginning of the industrial age.
Environmental forces also threaten to rob individuals of their free will in Larson's celebrated play Rent, as they struggle to overcome grinding poverty and a new kind of war at the turn of the twentieth century: the war on AIDS. Yet Larson does not adopt the same naturalistic bleakness as do his predecessors at the previous fin de siecle (end of the century). While the play's vignettes present a grim portrait of inner-city life in the age of AIDS, its vision is tempered by the heroic endurance of its characters, who ultimately choose not only to survive but also to embrace each day.
Chip Crews, in his review for the Washington Post, declares that the play "bristl[es] with energy and assurance" as it "roars across the stage like an urban brush fire." This show, he claims, "leads with its heart—an angry heart, taking up the cause of street people, AIDS patients, the young disaffected of a society that [in Larson's view] has no place for them." The characters' most immediate fear is being thrown out of their tenement by their former friend and current landlord, Benny, who has traded his friendships for success. Even Mark is tempted by the lure of money when he is offered a job by a television newsmagazine and must decide whether to abandon his artistic principles for a secure economic future. AIDS, however, is the most devastating threat hanging over their lives. Four of the eight main characters have the disease, and all have mourned the loss of loved ones to it. Roger lost his girlfriend, and in the course of the play, Angel, who has just established a loving relationship with Collins, succumbs to the disease.
Drug addiction is another force that threatens to control the characters' futures. They are surrounded by dealers, who feed on their need to find solace from the harsh realities of their lives; some characters, like Mimi, are not strong enough to resist. Mimi, who is forced to work as a stripper in order to survive, turns to heroin to escape and is unable to break her addiction to it, especially since Roger is unable to allow her to get close to him. Commenting on Roger's inability to establish a relationship with Mimi, the company sings, "How do you leave the past behind / When it keeps finding ways to get to your heart?" His only goal now is to write one good song "that rings true," but his creative energies have been blocked by the pain he has suffered. He rejects Mimi's love for the same reason, declaring, "Looking for romance? / Come back another day."
The company warns him, "Give in to love / Or live in fear," but he cannot open himself to the possibility of more loss. The company expresses the difficulty that all of the characters have in allowing themselves to establish real connections with one another, knowing that these relationships will most likely not last, when they sing, "How can you connect in an age / Where strangers, landlords, lovers / Your own blood cells betray." Ultimately, however, the characters do connect with each other, as they realize that their relationships with others and the expression of their creativity are the only things that provide meaning. In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Laurie Winer praises Larson's focus on "people clinging fiercely together while living a difficult, exhilarating existence on the brink of poverty." His characters unite in their distain for convention and pretension and in their celebration of their bohemian lifestyle, which enables them to freely express themselves. Winer concludes, "the Bohemians of Rent wear their youth, poverty and creativity like a cloak around them, shielding them from judgment by the enemy—anyone who has 'sold out' and has money."
The characters also come to understand that friendship "depends on true devotion" and "on not denying emotion." Collins and Angel had been brave enough to accomplish this, refusing to let the future determine how they will live their lives in the present. The selfless Angel, whose anthem is "today for you—tomorrow for me," initiates his union with Collins when he declares that he will be Collins's shelter, wrapping him in love. Collins reciprocates, knowing that their relationship will provide them with "a new lease" on life.
Love also ultimately proves to be an inspiration for Roger, who returns and declares that he has found his song, inspired by Mimi. His declaration of love enables her to find the strength to survive at the end of the play, which ends with a call to carpe diem (live for today). In the closing scene, the company sings "No other road no other way / No day but today." In the final moments of the play, Larson reveals to the audience the way in which seemingly overwhelming environmental forces can be checked through the saving power of faith: faith Page 256 | Top of Articlein self, faith in the creative spirit, faith in love, and faith in the present. As Winer concludes, "'Rent' is a rousing anthem to living each day as it comes."
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Rent, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following essay-interview, Istel looks back one year previous to when Larson was alive and enjoying the fruits of his labor. In Larson's interview with Istel, Larson expounds on musical theater and his musical influences and style.
Some 525,600 minutes ago, Jonathan Larson was listening to a sing-through rehearsal of J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation in a gutted, empty floor of a New York City Financial District office building. He was there by the confluence of talent, accident and perseverance that typifies most theatrical endeavors. Larson was offered the assignment—to compose music for En Garde Arts's outdoor production of Jeffrey M. Jones's postmodern pageant detailing the life of the famous financier of the title—only a few months before, after Jones's longtime collaborator, Dan Moses Schreier, dropped out. Artistic director Annie Hamburger suggested Larson as a replacement composer, after seeing (and hearing) the workshop production of Rent at New York Theatre Workshop.
For Larson it was the best of times. Rent, his rock version of La Boheme, was now scheduled for a full production in NYTW's upcoming season, and Anne Bogart had just commissioned a new composition for her next project. His children's video, Away We Go, was scheduled to be released in 1996. And here I was, a freelance writer for the Village Voice, invited to attend rehearsals, check in on a rainy tech dress and visit the recording studio where, with his arranger Steve Skinner, Larson mixed his music. He was clearly a man with a plan, bicycling around town to drop off the latest version of the finale he'd written for J.P. Morgan, calling to sing the latest addition to the score, written in a frenzy the night before the first preview. He fed me demo tapes and scripts like food. And in our interviews, he detailed his life's mission.
Last summer was Larson's 13th out of college, and after several modest but essential grants, awards and workshops, J.P. Morgan would be the first opportunity for large numbers of theatregoers and (especially important to Larson) critics to hear his practicum on how he planned to save the American musical theatre. The score for J.P. Morgan contains Larson's musical recipe: employ a full-range of pop vernaculars, from Sousa to soul to Seattle-flavored, electric-guitar-heavy grunge, mix them carefully with Skinner's help, and have them sung, Page 257
Top of Article
with gusto, by voices that haven't been unnecessarily vacuumed of emotion by excessive conservatory training.
In the "Notes on Design" to Superbia, an as-yet-unproduced futuristic parable which predates Rent, Larson states his goals succinctly: "The sound design is as important a factor as costumes and sets. The music mix must be clean, current and digitally enhanced—reflecting today's standards in pop music rather than 'Broadway' sound." However, as he himself made clear in our discussions, these stylistic concerns must at all times be in service of the story's narrative and the emotional development of each character.
Anyone who can manipulate multiple integers can do the math. Multiply the 60 minutes in an hour times the 24 in a day. Multiply that figure, 1,440, by 365 days. Whether you did it on a napkin in your kitchen at two a.m. or in your head on the subway to work, you've just done what Jonathan Larson did in the process of creating "Seasons of Love," the second-act song, quoted above, that serves as the heart and soul Rent. But as Larson asked, how do you calculate the ineffable—the worth of a person's life? And to extend the implications of his question: On what Richter Scale do we measure the impact of a work of art?
You can certainly tally the Pulitzer, Tony, Obie, Drama Desk and other awards. The trade magazines update the number of performances, the box-office gross, the amounts offered by Hollywood for the film rights, the sum David Geffen paid to produce the cast recording. You can measure the column inches of newsprint and front covers that Rent has inspired. But such calculations have been tragically complicated by Larson's death the night before Rent's first preview in January.
In the last few months, I have often wondered what the audience and critical reception of Rent would have been if that aneurysm hadn't developed in Larson's aorta. Were that the case, you obviously wouldn't be reading a year-old interview with him—Larson would have been more than willing to give an update on his mission.
More important, the whole endeavor of Rent—which most theatregoers now know relocates Page 258 | Top of ArticlePuccini's famous doomed romance to the East Village of New York, with its two main love interests, Roger and Mimi, straggling against the ticking of their HIV-positive clocks—would have been treated as Larson intended it to be, as a work of art, a stage drama, a fiction, a compelling critique of traditional definitions of "family values." It may have been dismissed as facile, derivative and exploitative of its subject matter, or it may have been seen as a vital, innovative rock opera that heralded a bright future for the composer. Either way, or somewhere in between, the composer's literal presence would have forced critics to actually listen to what he had to say.
But in article after article, Larson's real-life tragedy is inextricably linked to the onstage drama. A typical review details the circumstances of Larson's death, mentions the "important" entertainment industry people who were spotted in the audience, and ends with a cursory examination of the musical itself, commenting on the parallels with Puccini or the structural flabbiness of the second act. Peter Marks in a New York Times article in February, shortly after Rent's debut at New York Theatre Workshop, made this conflation clear: "Until a few weeks ago, hardly anyone had heard of the musical. Then its 35-year-old composer and librettist, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm on the night of the final dress rehearsal. And now, buoyed by waves of glowing reviews and strong word of mouth, Rent is the hottest show in town."
The paper of record was particularly prone to hyperbole, devoting practically an entire Sunday arts section to the musical. Frank Rich even used his op-ed column to stand in as musical theatre champion and lift the victorious arm of the latest contender: "Rent is all the critics say it is…. It 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 … all in a ceaseless outpouring of melody."
Larson, so eager to share his passion and music with the critics, would have appreciated this enthusiasm and validation of his life's work. Yet, I'd venture, he'd be troubled by the fact that few tried to really listen—to hear what he was trying to say. And as he says in the interview, he felt that writing a play or musical without a burning need to articulate some important concern was a waste of time.
While some lauded the grittiness and the authenticity of his musical, it's clear Larson was a severe romantic and shameless sentimentalist. After all, his answer to his own question:—"How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?"—was simple: love. His East Village Romantics are Rodgers and Hammerstein versions—they forsake their death wish and dissipation, join support groups and find love in the unlikeliest circumstances. And, in the most notable departure from Puccini, Mimi rises up from her death bed, her fever broken, her recovery assured. Ah, the American musical ending! This is pure art, as in artifice, and Larson, so well-versed in the musical and structural materiel of the genre in which he worked, knew it. How can Rich claim that Larson doesn't "sentimentalize" the characters? Of course, they're sentimentalized. Sentimentality is at the heart of every Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, and it's the pulse behind all the characters in Rent.
Larson's ability to infuse lyrical, wide-eyed optimism into the darker realities of contemporary life—homelessness, AIDS, dog-eat-dog capitalism—is exactly what helped move the musical uptown. In the past three decades, many films and plays have dealt with such themes with far higher levels of credibility—the Living Theater's 1959 production of The Connection comes immediately to mind. The Normal Heart conveyed the anger and frustration of living with AIDS more powerfully. Angels in America gave it a deeper, more insightful socio-historical context.
In his New Republic review, Robert Brustein perceived some of these criticisms, as he decried what he saw as sloppy sentimentalism and the way AIDS was used for "mawkish purposes." However, Page 259 | Top of Articlewhen he wrote, "Larson has been hailed for creating the downtown equivalent of Bohemian life. I fear he has only created another fashion…. Larson's New Age Bohemians display nothing but their lifestyles," Brustein was aiming at the wrong target. It was Rolling Stone, Time Out and the Voice, not Larson, that reduced Rent to fashion spreads. Tamed by the proscenium frame, these "lifestyles"—which existed before Rent—were suddenly ripe for the co-opting.
Personally, watching a chorus line of homeless people shuffling in a dance step on Broadway was acutely disturbing to me. However, it's clear Larson did have a vision with social and political implications. He was deeply disturbed by a society that could become obsessed with an exclusionary notion of "family values" while alienating itself from the fundamental human values of community, caring and love. Society's embrace of superficiality and the power of mass media are the culprits.
But Larson was faced with a profound paradox: how to condemn the pervasiveness of the media and the alienating effects of technology while exploiting their dramatic possibilities. Rent, like his early work Superbia, is a constant comment on how technology can alienate us. Take the phone messages from Mom that we hear punctuating the score; the way Mark, a documentary film maker, continually puts his camera between himself and those closest to him; the irony of his ex-girlfriend Maureen's performance art piece. Solo work like hers has been traditionally one of the most potent tools in postmodern theatre to burst the isolating media bubble we live in. Yet Maureen's piece can't take place until Mark fixes the sound system.
Larson's concerns about the society's slide into superficiality were evident in Superbia (the only other musical he'd written book, music and lyrics for), which he was still pushing to get produced when I talked to him (it had received a workshop production at Playwrights Horizons in 1988).
The futuristic setting is populated by two classes of people—the Ins and Outs. This Brave New World was founded by Mick Knife, a rock star, and is now controlled by the Master Babble Articulator, or MBA. It all seems a Tommy-like metaphor for how rock music becomes co-opted and audiences become slaves to fashion. Act 2 opens (ironically, considering the fate of Rent in the media) with an Award Show to name the new "Face of the Year." And at the heart of his musical, of course, is a romantic Romeo-and-Juliet like love affair between an In and an Out. Their one-night fling, however, is televised, like everything in this world. As Larson writes in his own synopsis, "The result is instant celebrity."
Larson's awareness of the perils of fame didn't ease his hunger for recognition. After my Voice piece was published a year ago he called to express appreciation for describing his one-man manifesto. I had made one mistake, though, that he corrected. I implied that Mimi died in Rent. "She doesn't die in my version," he reminded me. And that's the ultimate tragedy: that we can't rewrite his story to make a happy ending. The sad fact that Larson's demise is irreversible highlights just how far his art diverged from his life.
An Interview with Jonathan Larson On Pop Music in the Theatre
[John Istel]: Do you see your music as part of the American musical theatre tradition?
[Jonathan Larson]: My whole thing is that American popular music used to come from theatre and Tin Pan Alley, and there's no reason why contemporary theatre can't reflect real contemporary music, and why music that's recorded or that's made into a video cannot be from a show. Popular music being a part of theatre ended with Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair and rock musicals in the late 1960s. A number of things happened. One was that there had been singers in the '40s, '50s, even early '60s, who would sing anybody's material—Frank Sinatra, what have you. Then, beginning with the Beatles, you had songwriters and bands who were singing only their own material. So you didn't have that venue for theatre music to be popular.
What do you think about Randy Newman's latest musical project [Faust] and other pop stars working in the theatre?
New York magazine ran this article [about what was killing Broadway]. The last part had a 12-step program—12 ways to renovate Broadway. Number 12 was bringing new music to Broadway. They were getting all excited about Randy Newman, and Prince evidently is thinking about it, and Paul Simon is working on a new musical. That's exciting if they're successful and if they bring younger people to the theatre who wouldn't normally go. But it's almost going backwards to have a musical that is songwriter-generated because of the traps they can fall into.
They're used to a number of things: not collaborating, not making changes and writing in their own voice. There's so much that Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim have taught us about Page 260 | Top of Articlehow to advance plot and character and theme in a song. Often, you get contemporary pop writers who know how to write a verse and a chorus, but they don't necessarily know how to write an inner monologue where a character goes through a change by the end of the song so the plot and story continues.
On those messy concept albums like the Who's Tommy or the Kinks's Soap Opera there's so much left to the imagination or that isn't spelled out because you don't have to physicalize it.
Right. And that was the problem with Tommy. At least Pete Townshend knew he had to work with a book writer, Des McAnuff, who was a theatre person. Even if I don't agree with the story they chose to tell in Tommy, which was this sort of return-to-family-values thing at the end, at least he understood the concept of collaborating. It's easy to write 18 songs, but it's not easy to write a two-and-a-half hour piece that has an arc.
On the Maturation of a Musical Writer
What's Jonathan Larson's style?
I'm a rock-and-roller at heart and I'm influenced by contemporary music. There is a Jonathan Larson style, but I can't totally describe it.
Who were your favorite composers?
Well, I loved Pete Townshend growing up, and I loved the old Police and Prince—or whatever his name is—he's brilliant. I love Kurt Cobain and Liz Phair. Beatles. And in the theatre—Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim. I absolutely love them.
Were you a theatre major in college?
Yeah. I was an actor, too. I had a four-year acting scholarship to Adelphi. Adelphi was a lousy place to go to school in the sense that it's in suburbia and that's where I grew up. But it was run by a disciple of Robert Brustein's named Jacques Burdick, who basically made an undergraduate version of Yale Drama School. And I was mature enough coming out of high school to appreciate it. I got to do everything from Ionesco to Shakespeare to original plays or musicals.
The best thing, though, was that, like Yale, they had four original cabarets a year, and they were always looking for people to write them. So by the end of my time there I had written eight or ten shows. And I found that I liked it as much as performing. I had a skill doing it. When I came to New York, I had gotten my Equity card because I had done summer stock. I started going to cattle calls, but at the same time I had my first musical which was a really bad rock version of 1984, based on Orwell. It was getting a lot of attention and serious consideration—basically because the year was 1982. We came close to getting the rights, but it was a good thing we didn't because it was not a very good show. But it was my first real attempt to write a big show.
At Adelphi we wrote the original Nick and Nora Charles musical—it was called The Steak Tartar Caper—10 years before they did it on Broadway. We did ShoGun Cabaret—we were way ahead of our time.
Then, when I came to New York, Sondheim was always a big mentor. He encouraged me to be a writer as opposed to being an actor, and suggested that I join ASCAP and do the musical theatre workshop. ASCAP was sort of a 12-step meeting for people who write musicals, but you get to show your work to top-notch professionals in the field.
Two things amazed me at ASCAP: One was that I had written 100 songs by then, had seen them in productions, and had seen them work or not work with audiences. If Peter Stone, head of the Dramatists Guild, or Sondheim, said something that I disagreed with, I said, "I disagree and I'll tell you why." Some of my peers, and those even older, had never had their work performed. And they would be like, "Okay, I'll just throw out my project. You're right—it sucks."
On the Genesis of 'Rent'
Ira Weitzman put me in touch with Billy Aronson who had an idea—years ago—to do a modern-day La Boheme. Billy's done stuff at Ensemble Studio Theatre and with Showtime and TV, and he's a sort of Woody Allen type and he wanted to do a modern-day La Boheme, set it on the Upper West Side, and make it about Yuppies and funny. I said, "That doesn't interest me, but if you want to set it in Tompkins Square Park and do it seriously, I like that idea a lot." He had never spent any time in the East Village, but he wrote a libretto. He wanted to write the book and lyrics, and I was to set a few of the songs to music and see what everyone's response was. I also came up with the rifle of Rent. So I wrote "Rent," "Santa Fe" and "I Should Tell You."
I found different types of contemporary music for each character, so the hero [Roger] in Rent sings in a Kurt Cobain-esque style and the street transvestite sings like De La Soul. And there's a Tom Waits-esque character. The American musical has always been taking contemporary music and using it to tell a story. So I'm just trying to do that.
We made a demo tape and everyone loved the concepts, loved the music—but when they read the Page 261
Top of Article
accompanying libretto, they weren't too strong on it. So we just put it on hold. I loved the concept, but I didn't have a burning reason to go back to it. And then I did.
Two years later a number of my friends, men and women, were finding out they were HIV-positive. I was devastated, and needed to do something. I decided to ask Billy if he would let me continue by myself, and he was very cool about it.
I am the kind of person that when I write my own work, I have something I need to say. It surprises me that in musicals, even plays today, sometimes I don't see what the impetus was, other than thinking it was a good smart idea or it could make them some money or something.
On Composing in the American Musical Theatre
What's it like making a living as a composer in the theatre these days?
Well the old thing about how you can make a killing but you can't make a living is absolutely true. I'm proof of that. Now, I have the ability to compete trying to write jingles, trying to do other kinds of music that makes money, and I haven't put myself out there. My feeling is that it's not what I want to do, and I would be competing with guys who do want to. So I'm just working on musicals—it's like this huge wall, and I'm chipping away at it with a screwdriver. I just keep making a little more headway. I've had a lot of very generous grants, but they all go to the play. I get a little stipend, but I can't live off the commissions.
I work two days a week waiting tables at Moondance in Soho. I've been there for eight-and-a-half years but I don't mind it. In fact, I love the customers—the regulars are fantastic. The management and the owner totally support me. I can take a couple of months off when I need to do a show, come back, and I've actually gotten work there twice. There was a little piece on me in New York magazine a few years ago, and one of the regular customers who I'd known for years, Bob Golden, brought it up and said, "I saw that you were in New York magazine and that you wrote for Sesame Street." I said, "Yeah, it was mostly freelance." He said, "Have you ever considered making a children's video yourself? You can make Page 262 | Top of Articlea lot of money." I said, "I'd love to but I don't have the capital to put up." He said, "Well, I do."
And the next week I brought in a five-page budget and concept, and handed it to him with his eggs, and he totally went for it. It's a half-hour video called Away We Go. It stars a puppet called Newt the Newt. (Unfortunately, we came up with that name before it took on other connotations.) It's for very young kids—Sesame Street age. The great thing about that—besides that someone was trusting me and putting up the money—was I had something tangible that that no one could take away from me. Theatre is so ethereal. You have programs, and you have maybe a recording of the show, but that's it. It's such a weird medium.
Source: John Istel, "Rent Check," in American Theatre, Vol. 13, No. 6, July-August 1996, pp. 12-16.
Thomas J. Carroll
In the following review, Carroll reflects on Rent's social criticism and its depiction of modern Bohemian culture.
The power of any work of art is in its telling of the truth. At its best moments, the American musical theater tradition has done that well. The grappling with racial prejudice in South Pacific, for example, remains both effective and relevant, as does the biting critique of militarism in Hair. The flaws of either of those shows, or of many another significant musical, notwithstanding, American musical theater has often become a teacher of our hearts, dating to tell us truths we have needed to know, or to know again or to know more deeply.
As I flew to New York at the end of January for Jonathan Larson's memorial service, I did not realize that he had left for us just such a legacy in his new rock opera, Rent. When I had dinner with him a couple of summers ago at Manhattan's Ear Inn, Jonathan shared with me his enthusiasm over the progress of this new show he was writing. As he guided me around SoHo after our meal, he was giving me, I now realize, an introduction to many of the themes and issues that straggle toward resolution in Rent.
The initial preview performance of Rent was scheduled for Friday, Jan. 26, at the New York Theater Workshop in Manhattan. Only a few hours after the final dress rehearsal ended on the 25th, Jonathan died at age 35 of an aortic aneurism. A stunned and grieving company gathered that Friday evening to sing the score for the Larson family and many of Jon's friends. The memorial service for Jonathan at the Minetta Lane Theater on Feb. 3, even as it mourned his death, celebrated an artist's life.
Jonathan Larson pursued such a life, working year after year at a SoHo diner to make ends meet while he composed songs and crafted lyrics, producing a series of innovative shows. His creative efforts won him professional encouragement and support from Stephen Sondheim and the Richard Rodgers Foundation, among others. Passion for life, devotion to his work and a goofy and optimistic sense of humor kept Jon on the path that has led to the critical and popular success of Rent.
Based on a concept by Billy Aronson, Rent translates the story of Puccini's La Boheme, from the Left Bank in 1860's Paris to the East Village in today's New York. In the setting of that contemporary bohemian world Larson knew and loved, a company of 15 young actors explores the mysteries of life and love, of loss and death. The threat of tuberculosis has been replaced by the specter of AIDS. The relative simplicity of another century's bohemian life has given way to contemporary complexity.
Directly and poignantly Rent faces the effects of addiction and alienation, of dysfunction and codependency, of homelessness and gentrification, of sexual liberation and enslavement to habits and passions. The story is told through a succession of varied and well-crafted songs, each evocative and many moving. Together these songs vividly portray interwoven lives marked by desire and the hope for relationship, by shame and the quest for integrity, by despair and the yearning for glory, by suffering and the search for meaning.
Rent extends an opportunity: to see today's bohemian phenomenon whole, in all its attractions and sorrow. Larson pointedly ends Act I with a conjunction of two songs: "La Vie Boheme," which shouts Page 263 | Top of Articlethe satisfactions of life on the edge, and "I Should Tell You," which finds two fearful characters trying to reveal to each other that they both are H.I.V. positive. Rent draws us into the humanity of each straggling character and allows us to see that their pains and fears are not so different from our own.
Rent tenders an invitation: to find good in all things, even in the outcasts of society. Larson begins Act II with a stirring gospel anthem, "Seasons of Love," reminding us that the one appropriate measure of any person's life is love. That message may seem banal, but the challenge to us remains: It is only with the eyes of love that we can see love for what it is. Rent opens to our view the attempts of a few souls on the fringe of society to discover how to love. If learning to love and choosing love are, for each of them, ongoing tasks, we must admit that they are the tasks of our everyday lives as well.
Rent yields a truth: that for each of us each day is a judgment day, a proof of who we are. The inestimable value of that opportunity in each day is affirmed in Rent's final refrain, "No day but today." In the course of "Rent," each of Larson's characters is brought face to face with the finality of each moment and with the precariousness of life. As each character chooses between evasion and love, stagnation and creation, hatred and forgiveness, death and life, we encounter again the challenge of the Book of Deuteronomy: "Choose life."
Larson's is not the strident voice of a "fundamentalist liberal" who approves of everything avant-garde while repudiating everything traditional, nor is Rent dominated by rage or bitterness. It is instead a thoughtful voice, asking us to have reverence for all of creation, even for those we feel certain we can justly criticize. And Rent overflows with positive energy, with confident affirmation of the good that is to be found in life and in people.
Larson intended to win a younger audience to the tradition of musical theater and was confident that, with its vital cobination of contemporary music and issues, attitude and wit, Rent would lure them in. The enthusiastic response to Rent in these past months suggests that his hope was not in vain. Rent has left its first home at the New York Theater Workshop and made the move up to Broadway. The Nederlander Theater has once again opened its doors, welcoming a new voice, a new optimism, a new word of truth. Another mark of approval has just come to Larson with the posthumous award of the Pulitzer prize for playwriting.
Source: Thomas J. Carroll, "Legacy," in America, Vol. 174, No. 16, May 11, 1996, pp. 22-23.
In the following review, Sullivan explores parallels and differences between Rent and La Boheme.
Once upon a time—a time of intellectual and political ferment—disaffected youth abandoned their parents, their studies and their comfortable middle-class surroundings to congregate in low-rent districts, shun social convention and imbibe as freely as possible life, love and other intoxicants, devoting themselves loudly and explicitly to the creation of new Art and a new Age. You could call it San Francisco in the '60s, or New York and Paris in the '20s, or you could locate the source of the myth of Bohemia, as many have, in the Paris of the 1830s. Henri Murger popularized that myth in his autobiographical novel, Scenes de la vie de Boheme (1845), and the legend found further expression, and has lived on for subsequent generations, in theatrical variations: Puccini's durable opera La Boheme (1896) and, 100 years later, Jonathan Larson's musical phenomenon Rent.
With the driving energy of its musical through-line and a glorious ensemble of vibrant young actors, Larson's Broadway hit has a lot going for it. But as John Istel details in this issue's cover story, "Rent Check," most of the show's press has revolved around the poignant life-meets-art tragedy of composer/lyricist/librettist Larson's death on the eve of his show's success, obscuring the serious issues Larson intended to address. One of those issues was the reduction of contemporary life to a basic level of economic exchange—rent.
While the parallels between La Boheme and Rent have been widely discussed, the divergence of the two stories may better illuminate Larson's meaning. For instance Benoit, the landlord in La Boheme, is a relatively minor comic character, but Benny, the landlord and developer in Rent, drives the plot. Though he once shared Bohemian digs with the filmmaker and songwriter at the heart of Larson's story, Benny has married rich and has bought their building and the adjacent vacant lot with its "tent city" of the homeless. Now he wants back rent and something more: To clear the tent city so he can build a state-of-the-art "cyber studio."
Gentrification is a familiar story for Bohemians. Small, undervalued enclaves reclaimed by Page 264 | Top of Articleartists are often ripe for picking. But Larson's Rent is concerned with more than the depletion of physical space: He warns of commercial encroachment to what we may refer to as our Bohemia of the mind—the private domain in which personal character and style are defined. There's a knowing concern in Larson's phrase, "You'd find an old tablecloth on the street and make a dress—and the next year, sure enough, they'd be mass-producing them at the Gap," particularly when juxtaposed with the pointed fatalism in his lyric, "Bohemia, Bohemia, a fallacy in your head. This is Calcutta, Bohemia's dead." When Larson's alter ego, the filmmaker Mark, says "How do you document real life, when real life's getting more like fiction each day?", he poses a central challenge for artists living and creating in consumerized world, and a terribly perplexing question for young people searching for identity.
Puccini's Bohemians, while economically marginalized, were bold and playful, confidently flouting social convention by creating for themselves determinedly distinctive personalities. Rent, on the other hand—its frenetic pace in sync with America in the accelerating '90—depicts the coming generation's often desperate attempts to create a vision of themselves before the masters of market segmentation appropriate, pertect and sell it back to them.
It is impressive that Jonathan Larson's message has traveled from the margins of society to the center of Broadway's popular culture. Some will say the meaning of Rent is affected by the change of venue, and there is probably some truth in that, but to explore how ideas are assimilated into American culture is a subject for another day. For now, two facts seem clear: Rent's success reflects the momentum of a huge young talent; and, as Stephanie Coen's article "Not Out of Nowhere" shows, this young talent was encouraged and nurtured along the way. While Larson lived and absorbed the contemporary Bohemian ethos, Rent exalts, artistic director James Nicola and the staff of New York Theatre Workshop played an essential role in helping Larson flesh out his tale. (Rent represents the fullest expression to date of Nicola's vision of integrating New York Theatre Workshop with the community in which it resides, New York's Lower East Side.) Equally important, the early boost given Larson by his mentor Stephen Sondheim, and the recognition given Rent by the Richard Rodgers Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, serve in retrospect as harbingers of the production's spectacular move.
With an increasing number of Broadway shows such as Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, Seven Guitars, Master Class and Rent—having benefited from development in nonprofit venues, this has been Broadway's best year in the last 15. Even Broadway's self-celebrating Tonys bear out the importance of our theatres, with six of eight productions nominated for best play or revival of a play, and five of eight nominated for best musical or revival of a musical, having originated in the American nonprofit sector.
The nonprofit theatre knows how to provide the Bohemia of the mind most young talents like Jonathan Larson need to create. While innovative approaches to development and cost containment, like the Broadway Alliance, may keep creative commercial producers on Broadway, alliances between the nonprofit and commercial sectors will increasingly be the route taken by new ideas and new impulses as they travel from the hearts of theatre artists to the center of American culture. Every day, as the physical and mental boundaries of Bohemia contract, threatening the very future of independent thought, those of us committed to an expanding non-profit culture must appreciate and meet the needs of artists, and keep alive the Bohemian in us all.
Source: John Sullivan, "Bohemians of the Moment," in American Theatre, Vol. 13, No. 6, July-August 1996, p. 3.
In the following review, Brustein laments the "messianic fervor," due largely to Larson's sudden death, surrounding Rent. Brustein finds fashion, but a lack of real art, in the play.
The American theater chases after a new musical sensation with all the messianic fervor of a religious sect pursuing redemption. And when the Page 265 | Top of Articlecomposer/librettist dies the day before his show begins previews, we have all the conditions required for cultural myth-making—a martyred redeemer, a new gospel, hordes of passionate young believers and canonization by The New York Times, which devoted virtually all the theater columns of a recent Arts and Leisure section to Rent, the "rock opera for our time."
Jonathan Larson's premature death at the age of 35 from an aortic aneurism was a misfortune from many points of view. He was a young man on the brink of a strong career who did not live to enjoy the early fruits of his talents, a promising artist who would undoubtedly have gone on to write much more finished works. I hope it will not be construed as coldhearted when I say that his death was also a sad day for contemporary criticism, being another instance of how it can be hobbled by extra-artistic considerations.
Rent (now playing at the New York Theatre Workshop before it moves to Broadway) is an updated version of La Bohème, substituting the multicultural denizens of New York's East Village for Puccini's Latin Quarter Bohemians. It is good-natured, fully energized, theatrically knowing and occasionally witty. It is also badly manufactured, vaguely manipulative, drenched in self-pity and sentimental in a way that makes Puccini and his librettists (Illica and Giacosa) look like cynics.
Rent is being advertised as "Hair for the '90s," and there are indeed certain similarities between the two musicals. Both idealize their socially marginal characters, both are poorly constructed, and both fail to penetrate very deeply beneath a colorful and exotic surface. Larson was a sophisticated librettist, if a somewhat sloppy architect (there is twice as much incident in his brief second act as in the much longer section that precedes it). But his score for Rent struck me as the musical equivalent of wallpaper, the rock version of elevator music ("tame and second hand," as Bernard Holland wrote in the only Times dissent). Compared to Galt McDermott's exhilarating compositions for Hair, Larson's songs—except for the moving "Another Day"—show little lyric genius. Their impact derives less from intrinsic inspiration than from extrinsic amplification. Whenever the show begins to flag, the appealing cast lines up downstage to holler into microphones.
The cast, in fact, is highly amplified throughout the entire evening, often leaving us in bewilderment over whose lips are issuing the sounds. The principals wear head mikes, which not only makes them look like telephone operators but makes any physical contact between them (such as a hug or a kiss) sound more like a scrape. Rent has a lot to say about the need for human communication, but nothing very human is allowed to emerge from all this acoustical racket. "You're living in America where it's like the Twilight Zone," notes one character, while another (cribbing from Philip Roth) asks, "How do you document real life when real life is getting more like fiction every day?" What isn't probed is how these people also contribute to a sense of the American unreality, especially when they are so superficially examined.
Although warm-hearted, Larson's book is basically superficial and unconvincing. In this piggy-back Bohème, the painter Marcello becomes Mark, a documentary filmmaker; Rudolfo the poet turns into Roger, a rock composer; Colline the philosopher emerges as Tom Collins, a black anarchist expelled from MIT for his work on "actual reality"; and Schaunard, the musician, metamorphoses into Angel, a black sculptor by profession and transvestite by disposition. As for the women, Musetta evolves into a bisexual rock singer named Maureen who has left Mark for Joanne (Puccini's Alcindoro transformed into a black lawyer from Harvard), while Mimi, the mignonette, has turned into Mimi Marquez, a Latino strip dancer and heroin user (when she enters Roger's apartment with frozen hands, carrying a candle, she's looking for her stash).
The background for all this interracial, inter-sexual character grunge is a rent strike. Blacks, Latinos and whites alike, whether gay, bisexual or straight, all stand in common opposition to the uptight Benjamin Coffin III, who, though also black, is, like his Puccini prototype Benoit, a grasping land-lord and rent gouger. What they protest is his hard-heartedness toward the homeless ("Do you really want a neighborhood where people piss on your stoop every night?") and his desire to gentrify the surroundings ("This is Calcutta. Bohemia's dead").
Aside from this easy mark, and similar simplistic oppositions, what virtually all these people have in common is AIDS (an analogy for Mimi's tuberculosis in La Bohème). Some have contracted the disease from sexual activity, some from drug use, but in Rent it seems to be an East Village epidemic. During an AZT break, the entire cast pops pills. Most of them are dying. Angel, minus his wig and connected to an IV, is provided with a protracted death scene, after which Mimi memorializes him as "so much more original than any of us." Page 266 | Top of Article(Following Kushner's Angels in America, Phyllis Nagy's Weldon Rising, the PBS documentary The Time of Our Dying and other such theatrical artifacts, it is doubtful how "original" black drag queens really are any more.)
The death of Angel (the angel of death?) sets the stage for Mimi's demise. She and Roger have finally consummated their love after discovering they are both HIV positive and therefore can't contaminate each other. Still, Roger decides to leave for Santa Fe to write one great song before he dies. Upon his return, he learns that Mimi has been living on the street, in deteriorating health. Maureen carries the dying girl into Roger's apartment, and all the comrades gather round for the obligatory death scene. Roger declares his love in song ("Who do you think you are, leaving me alone with my guitar"), Mimi falls back on the couch, and the concluding strains of La Bohème—the most powerful music of the evening—swell up over the sobs and groans.
Fear not. Unlike bel canto opera, American musicals allow resurrections and require happy endings. Mimi awakes. Her "fever has broken." Love has triumphed over immune deficiency. And the show concludes with the lovers in each other's arms, as movie memories are projected onto an upstage screen.
We don't ask our musicals to be like real life unless they pretend to be: Rent is offered to us as an authentic East Village tranche de vie. This pretense makes the final Puccini musical quotation seem cheap and the ending sentimental. George Meredith once defined the sentimentalist as "He who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for the thing done." He accurately describes the emotions forced upon the audience in Rent: a ghastly disease is exploited for mawkish purposes.
Michael Greif's highly charged production employs a host of gifted young performers: Daphne Rubin-Vega as a dejected Mimi in skin-tight Spandex pants; Adam Pascal as the rock-and-rolling Roger; Anthony Rapp as the camera-toting Mark; Wilson Jermaine Heredia as the transvestite sculptor Angel; Idina Menzel (a Sandra Bernhard look-alike) as the sexually ambivalent Maureen; and Taye Diggs, Fredi Walker and Jesse L. Martin in other roles. The energy of the entire cast is prodigious. I hope that energy can be sustained over what promises to be a long Broadway run.
Larson has been hailed for creating the downtown equivalent of 13 Bohemian life. I fear he has only created another fashion. Bohemia used to be celebrated not just for flamboyant life-styles but also for artistic innovation. Many Bohemian artists (Ibsen, Manet) dressed like burghers and lived exemplary lives. It was Flaubert who famously said that he was peaceful and conservative in his life in order to be violent and radical in his work. Alas, Larson's New Age Bohemians display nothing but their life-styles. As for their art, it's just a little daunting to note that most of them have no greater ambition than to dominate the rock charts.
Source: Robert Brustein, "The New Bohemians," in New Republic, April 22, 1996, pp. 29-31.
In the following review of Rent, Gardner comments on "the essential bad faith of the musical," finding nothing new in the play or its concept despite the hype.
I have this theory: in any given musical after 1970, there will come a moment in which the protagonist is on stage alone and sings the words, "Who am I?" This may be called the hokey-identity-crisis moment, when the character is torn between his principles and his self-interest, and tempted to take the easy way out, which threatens to damn his soul and shave twenty minutes off the second act.
In Rent, the new great hope of the American musical theater, this does not happen—or at least not quite. The protagonist, Mark, an aspiring video artist who cannot pay his rent and has no electricity or food in his house, is offered a lucrative assignment from some cheesy network news magazine. Will he take the job and end his financial plight, or will he preserve his principles—though we never quite learn what those are—and turn the job down? At this point, Mark, on the verge of accepting, turns to the audience Page 267 | Top of Articleand says, "What am I doing?" Then his roommate, Roger, an equally insolvent rock poet, comes on stage and asks, "Who are you?" Now since he has known Mark for years and is not suffering from any psychotic disorder, despite a healthy drug habit, we assume that this question is meant metaphorically.
My point: there seems to have been a tacit agreement among twenty or thirty powerful people on Broadway that Rent is to be the Next Big Thing and everyone else is docilely toeing the line. And yet, despite its studied hipness and its aspirations to be the voice of the Nineties, Rent, which is an updating of La Boheme, is pretty much the same old showbiz fare, though with almost formulaic inversions. Instead of boy meets girl, you now have girl meets girl and boy meets drag queen. The audience is almost explicitly invited to say, "Look at that! Lesbians. Say!" And whereas earlier generations acknowledged the archetype of the annoying mother-in-law, as in Barefoot in the Park, here one is beset with the Annoying Jewish Mother archetype who endeavors to stifle with self-centered affection the young hero's artistic ambitions. Then there's the overbearing landlord with the heart of gold, who, in a cutesy reversal of type, is a black yuppie. Combine that with myriad references to AZT, Prozac, and Pee Wee Herman and you can positively hear the Generation Xers in the audience as they "relate." The low point in this process comes in the form of Mark's nutty ex-girlfriend, Maureen. Protesting the landlord's desire to transform their tenement into a studio space, she does a performance piece which we know we are supposed to find silly, though in fact it is not much sillier than the rest of the musical. Well, at one point Maureen imitates a cow (I forget why) and delivers what is perhaps the one genuinely funny line in the play, "C'mon. Moo with me!" This would be fine except that then, sure enough, the majority of the terminally hip audience started lowing like a stable of prize Guernseys.
As for the music, it is standard rock fare of the sort that pleases some people more than me. For what it's worth, I found myself enjoying Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, also rock operas, far more than I did this, which means that I am not totally averse to the art form. The staging, furthermore, seems surprisingly drab and lifeless, an impression that the dull, vaguely industrial set does little to mitigate.
Like most people who saw Rent, I was expecting a great deal, since the musical had won the Pulitzer Prize and had been praised by all and sundry. Furthermore, knowing the genuinely tragic circumstances of the life and death of the author, Jonathan Larson, his having waited on tables in obscurity for years while struggling in vain to get his musical produced, and then dying at age 35 of an aortic aneurysm the day it was supposed to open—I wanted to like the play. And I was and remain sincerely happy for the author that all these people, who probably wouldn't even have tipped him properly if he had waited on their tables, were now clamoring to get the few remaining tickets, not to mention the few remaining Rent T-shirts and Rent buttons that were being hawked at the entrance.
But I found that I could never get past what seemed to be the essential bad faith of the musical, its trying to be the Hair of the Nineties. You just know that the chorus that ends the first act, "La Vie Boheme," wants desperately to be taken as the anthem of some nonexistent youth movement. But the bohemian life glorified in Rent looks no more vital than it did before, and Broadway itself, whose fortunes this musical was said to revive, appears about as moribund as ever.
Source: James Gardner, "Lowering the Rent," in National Review, Vol. 48, No. 10, June 3, 1996, pp. 56-57.
Brustein, Robert, "The New Bohemians," in the New Republic, April 22, 1996, pp. 29-30.
Crews, Chip, "'Rent': Electricity Included; Raw Emotion Keeps Musical on Track," in the Washington Post, April 30, 1996, Section E, p. 1.
Gardner, James, "Lowering the Rent," in the National Review, June 3, 1996, pp. 56-57.
Larson, Jonathan, Rent, William Morrow, 1997.
Lyons, Donald, "'Rent,' New Musical Is Deserved Hit," in the Wall Street Journal, March 6, 1996, Section A, p. 18.
Pacheco, Patrick, Review of Rent, in the Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1996, p. 4.
Rich, Frank, "East Village Story," in the New York Times, March 2, 1996, Section A, p. 19.
Span, Paula, "The Show Goes On; Reeling from Triumph and Tragedy, 'Rent' Rockets onto Broadway," in the Washington Post, April 18, 1996, Section C, p. 1.
Winer, Laurie, "'Rent' Goes Up—to Broadway; Pulitzer Prize-Winning Musical Celebrates Life, Even under Specter of Death," in the Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1996, p. 1.
Bordman, Gerald, and Thomas S. Hischak, The Concise Oxford Companion to American Theatre, Oxford University Press, 1987.
The comprehensive guide to American theater includes articles on relevant topics, such as "AIDS and the American Theatre."
Galvin, Peter, "How the Show Goes On: An Interview with 'Roger,' 'Mimi,' and 'Mark,'" in Interview, Vol. 20, March 1996, p 105.
This interview with three of the original cast members—Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Anthony Rapp—focuses on the cast's reaction to Larson's death.
London, Herbert, Decade of Denial: A Snapshot of America in the 1990s, Lexington Books, 2001.
London charts the decade, which he considers to be a media-driven age, consumed by greed.
Shilts, Randy, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, Stonewall Inn Editions, 2000.
The authors trace the impact of social and political forces on the development of the AIDS epidemic.
Tommasini, Anthony, "The Seven-Year Odyssey That Led to 'Rent,'" in the New York Times, March 17, 1996, Section 2, pp. 7, 37.
Tommasini traces Larson's creation and development of Rent.