Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Everything is RENT
Today, I take one of my rare breaks from politics to share this essay with you. As you may know, today the film adaptation of Rent opens in theatres. Because my ten-year love affair with this show has had such an impact on me -- I'm pretty sure Burning Bush wouldn't have happened without it -- I thought I'd tell the story of why. On Friday, back to satirically skewering the corrupt Bush regime with the dazzling wit and insight you've come to expect.
When I was a teenager, I belonged to a peculiar brotherhood of hardcore musical theatre fanatics. We lived in and around Coral Springs, Florida. The core of my group consisted of four guys, all vigorously heterosexual, who knew by heart every lyric Stephen Sondheim had ever written. Sondheim, to us, was God. We had utter disdain for the more populist musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber -- except for Evita, and maybe Jesus Christ Superstar. The Boublil and Schoenberg musicals (Les Miserables and Miss Saigon) were a guilty pleasure at best. At worst, they were the death of an art form. Each of us had areas of musical theatre which were our special domains. Given my love of old-school jazz, I had a sweet tooth for Cole Porter and his contemporaries. Corey was the keeper of "pulp musicals" like The Rocky Horror Show. West was fond of obscure musicals with absurd premises, like Das Barbecu, a country-and-western adaptation of Wagner's Ring Cycle. And Brian, whose knowledge and depth of interest eclipsed everybody's, was a living encyclopedia of musical theatre.
In other words, we were pretty much like any other bunch of teenagers, in terms of our relationship with the music we loved. It was just funny that our adolescent rebellion had this particular soundtrack. It's not that we didn't listen to the music everyone else was listening to -- R.E.M., U2, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Alanis Morissette, and everything else that was big at the time. It's just that almost none of it meant as much to us as our favorite musicals. Like every other suburban teenage posse, we cruised around town, evaluating girls, terrorizing staid grown-ups, and blasting music. Unlike everyone else, though, we were blasting the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Into the Woods.
We regarded New York City as a fantasyland, from whence these wonders came. We knew what was playing on Broadway, what was playing off-Broadway, what was playing off-off-Broadway, and what was coming up. So it was inevitable that we would know about Rent before everyone else did. I'm sure that Brian, at least, knew all about the show well before its off-Broadway debut. It's probably from Brian that I first learned the general details. Pretty soon, as the hype around the show began to saturate the media, we all knew more about the circumstances surrounding Rent than we did about Rent itself. We were starting to hear these names a lot, the original and eternal CAST OF RENT -- Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and so on.
But more than theirs, we heard the name of Jonathan Larson, Rent's composer and lyricist, who labored in obscurity for years, hoping to bring musical theatre up to date. This rock opera based on La Boheme was his big break, and it gave him permission to finally quit his job as a waiter at the Moondance Diner in Soho. Immediately following the final dress rehearsal, he went home to his tiny Greenwich Street apartment, had an aortic aneurysm, and died. He was 35.
The inspiring and devastating events of Jonathan Larson's life and death crept into our consciousness. He was a product of suburban Long Island, and a theatre kid who was obsessed with musicals, just like us. He was always putting on shows. After college, he wound up in that mythic Greenwich Street garret, with the bathtub in the kitchen and the friends on the floor. He had to open the window and throw down the key so his guests could let themselves in. He willingly slung burgers and omelettes, even though he hated it, and then he'd go home and write until he had to go do it again. In an effortless flight of beginner's brilliance, he wrote a rock musical version of 1984 in 1982 and sent it to Hal Prince and the estate of George Orwell. The rights, as it turned out, were unavailable; so was Hal Prince. In a rush of seasoned craftsmanship, he reworked his 1984 into an original dystopia called Superbia, but nobody would produce it. So he produced it himself, and for a single night at the Village Gate it was an enormous hit. But the next day he was completely broke, and nobody would produce it.
At every opportunity, he described himself as an artist. He never called himself a genius, but he seems to have known he was one. At parties, when people would ask him what he did, he'd say, "I am the future of the American musical." Some of his friends agreed, but theatrical producers were staunchly unconvinced. When he tried to publicize his one-man show tick, tick...BOOM! by faxing the title to every agency in town, he received phone calls from terrified professionals wanting to know why they were being threatened. There were small triumphs -- a grant here, a workshop there -- and he actually knew Stephen Sondheim! -- but there was little satisfaction, and less money. His friends got married and bought houses and had children. He continued to bathe in his decrepit kitchen. He'd make a big pot of spaghetti on Monday and live off it all week. He could have made money writing advertising jingles, but he was determined to reserve his creative energy for his own work.
In 1989, when a playwright named Billy Aronson suggested that they collaborate on a contemporary version of La Boheme, Larson produced a few prescient demos. One song went: "If I threw my body out the window / Brain all splattered, guts all steaming in the snow / I wouldn't have to finish shooting films that no one wants to show / RENT!"
He and Aronson weren't seeing things the same way, though, and they abandoned the project until 1991, when Aronson gave Jonathan permission to continue alone. He gave Aronson a signed statement assuring him that he would be compensated "if any such miracle as a production happens." There was a workshop production at New York Theatre Workshop in 1994, and responses ranged from "You are the future of the American musical!" to "This is a mess!" But it was a turning point. NYTW had a rich legacy of nurturing groundbreaking projects, and therefore it had no money. Its artistic director, Jim Nicola, offered to pay Jonathan nothing at all to perform drastic rewrites under the auspices of the workshop. He also offered him the services of a dramaturge named Lynn Thomson. This went on for what was probably the best, worst, most euphoric, most frustrated, hungriest year of Jonathan's life. (Jonathan had many interesting thoughts about how a year might be measured.) By the fall of 1995, Rent was financed and in rehearsals. Jonathan was in ecstasy. He said the cast was "the sexiest, most talented, most exciting group of people" he had ever seen assembled. Anthony Tomassini, who happened to be writing a piece for the Times about the enduring appeal of La Boheme, attended a run-through and predicted a big hit.
There were chest pains, though, culminating in the unspeakable tragedy of the evening before Rent opened. That the man who was the future of the American musical should leave Earth twenty-four hours too soon to hear the applause is too much to bear. For years I could not even really think about it. At least he saw the final dress rehearsal. He spent the last night of his life sitting in a theatre, watching Rent. It was performed that night for him alone. The show's fate, at that point, was still uncertain, but we can assume that Jonathan Larson loved it. By the time his masterpiece moved uptown to Broadway and glory -- April 29, 1996 -- he had been dead for three months, and a Pulitzer Prize winner for two.
As moved as I was by all of this, I initially decided to be skeptical about the work itself. It was obviously poised to become an earth-shattering hit, which in my snob's-eye view counted against it. I also knew that rock music, for all its power, almost never worked in musical theatre. The almighty Sondheim had very clearly set down the many rules by which good musicals were written. I never failed to preserve, protect, and defend those decrees. But the only musicals which really seemed to meet those standards were the ones written by Stephen Sondheim.
So I was very hard on most shows. I professed deep love of the medium, but I suffered endlessly over the drek that dominated. By Sondheimian mandate, rock shows were often the worst -- not because the music was rock, but because content didn't dictate form and so forth. For me, Evita and Superstar barely worked. Tommy had great music, but it wasn't a good musical. Hair was important, but it was a concept musical whose songs bore no storytelling burden. It seemed to me that theatre rock only worked in its lightest form, as in Little Shop of Horrors. Compared to most musicals, parts of Little Shop's score sounded something like rock 'n' roll, but not nearly enough to entice "MTV ears" (Jonathan's phrase) into a Broadway theatre.
Most of my friends knew they were going to love Rent. I wanted to like it, but didn't think I would. The first time we actually heard any of it was on June 2, 1996, the night of the Tony Awards. As budding theatre people, my friends and I had always watched the Tonys as though they were the Olympics. For the first time, we had a place to watch them which wasn't someone's parents' house. West, cold and bored in Chicago, had decided to drop out of college and move back to Coral Springs to write and produce theatre. I, warm but heartbroken in Orlando, had made the same decisions, and by the summer we had installed ourselves in a two-bedroom bachelor pad just off the western extreme of Sample Road. Most of our friends were a year younger, still in high school, and living with their parents. So everyone was always at our place. Watching the Tonys.
Rent did well. It won Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). Julie Larson McCollum tearfully accepted her brother's Tonys, and dedicated them, basically, to us. The cast performed "Seasons of Love," which didn't grab me on first listen, and an abbreviated "La Vie Boheme," which was more exciting. Later on, when as a devoted fan I studied that performance on videotape, I wound up memorizing lines that weren't even in the show. (An emaciated Anthony Rapp turns smugly to the posh Tonys crowd and announces, "We're in the Life Cafe on the corner of Tenth Street and Avenue B!")
On August 27, 1996, the two-disc cast album was released in stores. Hearing Rent for the first time was an experience friends described as a second loss of virginity. Appropriately, then, I was in bed when it happened to me. Kim, who'd purchased it on CD the moment it was available, told me I had to give it a chance. She'd made me a cassette. I climbed into my waterbed, put the tape in my boom box and the headphones on my ears, and gave Rent a chance.
The first thing I heard was the sound of a guitar being tuned. And then, over that, the plaintive Rapp sneer. "December 24th, nine p.m., Eastern Standard Time," he sang. What an inspired opening, I thought! "From here on in," the lyric continued, "I shoot without a script / See if anything comes of it / Instead of my old shit." By the time the opening number -- "Rent" -- track four -- had started, so had a new chapter of my life.
As we listened to the two discs again and again, my friends and I came to understand the intricacies of Rent's complicated, crowded plot. Its characters, and the people who played them, immediately became icons to us. They carried Jonathan's torch, and they perfectly straddled the two worlds to which we most aspired -- starving artist and red-carpet celebrity. They sang about the Village Voice, and their picture was in Vanity Fair. There were television appearances, each carefully preserved and memorized in my living room. They appeared on Leno, and Adam Pascal's voice cracked badly on the word "everything" in the important line "EVERYTHING IS RENT." My friend Amy said it only increased her desire to have sex with him.
Rent was a permanent atmosphere throughout the autumn of 1996. In my circle, it was playing everywhere, like it was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the year was 1967. On a typical Saturday, I'd be at home, listening to Rent, and Amy would come pick me up. In her car, we'd listen to Rent. We'd go to meet other friends at a diner and talk about Rent. Maybe we'd swing by someone else's house, where Rent would be playing on the stereo. Kim might drive me home, and we'd listen to Rent in her car. As soon as I got back to my apartment, I'd listen to Rent. Jen had a tape deck in her car which had broken with Rent inside; you could listen to Rent, but you couldn't take it out or put anything else in. It didn't matter at all. Act One of Rent was the only music playing in Jen's car for more than a year. But the only thing that made it different from any of my other friends' cars was that you never heard Act Two.
On what we blissfully called "work days," West and I would wake up, meet in the living room, listen to Rent, and talk about the show we were rehearsing. It happened to be my first musical, a very non-rock show called The Men in Mabel's Life. In the car on the way to the theatre, we'd listen to Rent. We would all spend the day singing songs from The Men in Mabel's Life, and then we'd go home and sing songs from Rent.
Usually we couldn't listen to it without singing it. There's nothing special about singing along with music, of course, but if the music is a piece of theatre, and the listeners are theatre kids, it's a performance. Picture ten of us in that apartment, dancing on tables and singing "La Vie Boheme" at the top of our lungs -- with harmonies, and assigned roles. I always had to be Mark. Tanya spent the better part of an evening memorizing the complicated passage which begins "So that's five miso soup, four seaweed salad..." Julie, a gifted operatic singer, seemed able to sing every harmony in "Seasons of Love" simultaneously. Our next door neighbor, a saint, not only didn't mind all this noise, but actually claimed to enjoy hearing us. One evening, she appeared at the door holding the cast recording of Grease, and asked if we would mind singing it. She could not have asked a more willing roomful of people.
One night in the parking lot of T.G.I. Fridays, Amy and I were sitting in her car, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights 100s and trying to sing "What You Own" without cracking. (If not for the cigarettes, we could have done it.) Exasperated, not with the challenges of the score but with the unrelenting power of the play, Amy shrieked, "I want to possess this show!" It was a key moment in our infatuation with Rent. We repeated it over and over. It's pretty much how we all felt: we wanted to claim Rent as our own. It was a lifestyle, a set of values. We quoted from it without even meaning to. Nobody could get through one conversation without saying "The power blows!" or "Great! Fuck!" If you found yourself saying "I know," it always came out in Taye Diggs' voice, and had to be followed with the line, "Still her production manager?" We even relished the occasional moments in the show which we didn't like. Benny's cautionary "think twice before you poo-poo it," perhaps the worst line in history, became a knowing refrain in our everyday chatter.
Emerging as it did in the mid-nineties, our Rent mania happened to coincide with our discovery of the Internet. I'd first heard of the Internet in 1994, when I was a senior in high school. By the time most of us had web access at home, Rent was the order of the day. I learned about the Internet by using it to learn everything I could about Rent. The early fansites were rebekah.org, a prototypical blog and Rent resource managed by Rebekah Jude Allen; and Jimbo's lifecafe.com, a goldmine of details. All the tools of online intercourse were completely new to us in 1996 -- chat rooms, instant messages, message boards, e-mails. We read about the experiences of people who had seen the show and run home to write about it on the Internet. This seemed like a miracle at the time. Someone managed to discover Anthony Rapp's e-mail address, and some of us wrote to him. We received gracious individual responses.
One night, we decided to cause trouble in a Rent chat room by announcing that Adam Pascal was leaving the show, to be replaced by Brian. We had them going for a while, and Brian's name was put through many a search engine. Another time, my friends and I wrote a satirical document called "The Life Cafe Menu," full of insider references and bad puns. Among the items on the menu were "Sirloined My Coat," "Adam Pascalloped Potatoes," "Filet 4 U Tamale 4 Me," "How Could We Lose Angel Food Cake," and "Think Twice Before You Pu Pu Platter."
Eventually, it was inevitable that someone among us would get to go to New York and actually see the show. Any trip to New York was a holy pilgrimage, but this was something even holier. Going to New York to wait outside the Nederlander on the Rent line was the nineties theatre kid's equivalent of following a rock band on tour. It's now a normal practice for Broadway and off-Broadway shows to offer inexpensive "rush" tickets to students and other vagabonds willing to wait on line for the box office to open. Rent was the first show to do this, and the famous Rent line became a crucial element of the show's legend. It helped guarantee Rent a loyal and youthful following, and helped the members of that following get to know each other. People would camp out all day and all night. When the box office opened at 10:00, forty first-row and second-row tickets were sold for $20 each. You could only buy two. The cast was thereby guaranteed a bevy of enthusiastic fans up front, and the people on the line knew they were getting tickets. People initiated enduring friendships on that line, and fell in love and broke up, and took turns going in pairs to Smilers or the Port Authority to pee.
Eventually, when the city's criminal element realized that there was a line of kids with cash in their pockets sitting on West 41st Street every night, the line was abolished and replaced with an evening lottery, in which names were drawn from a bucket and rush tickets sold to the winners. The lottery was managed by the same guy who'd supervised the line. He became a celebrity in his own right, among Rent fans. Some got closer to the show by getting closer to him. The democracy of the line was no more. It was much easier to win the lottery if you were a beautiful girl.
My first friend to make the odyssey was Ilissa, with whom Amy and I were appearing in a local production called Broadway Fables. Not only did Ilissa do the line and see Rent, but she lingered outside afterward and met the cast, and had pictures to prove it. She had even been so fortunate as to share a cab with Anthony Rapp and his boyfriend. She showed them a copy of our Life Cafe Menu, and Anthony Rapp's boyfriend loved it so much that he shared it with some other fans; pretty soon it wound up on Jimbo's website. We were thrilled to have contributed something to the phenomenon. I have since heard other early Rentheads refer to the menu as a badge of insider status. Rent fansites carry it, uncredited, to this day.
When Amy got to New York to see Rent, she, too, met the cast and spoke at length with Anthony Rapp's boyfriend. She also became immersed in the society of the line, and through associations kindred there she obtained a cassette recording of the 1994 workshop. Soon I was listening to it more often than the Broadway cast recording. My friends got sick of it. I remember one of them, Franco, yelling at me in an exasperated tone, "If we're going to listen to Rent, can we please listen to Rent?"
My constant retort to these comments was "It's interesting because of the artistic process!" I loved the workshop because it told me so much about Jonathan Larson. Its strengths -- most of which survived -- were inspiring, because they were the direct result of an ambitious waiter staying up all night in his apartment. Its weaknesses were even more fascinating, because they underlined the quality of the finished product. From October of 1994 to January of 1996, Jonathan had significantly reworked about half of his material. He had ruthlessly discarded good songs, and written better ones. He had transformed promising chaos into an epic step forward for an art form. He had married Sondheim's principles with those of Lennon and McCartney.
The workshop tapes taught us that "One Song Glory," a song about a young man's desire to write one great song before he dies, was originally called "Right Brain." The music, and most of the lyrics, matched the version we knew, only instead of the riveting chorus "One blaze of glory / Gloooooryyyyyy!" a Roger we didn't know sang, "Can't find the right brain / Right braaaaaaaaaiiin!" The workshop tapes disturbed some people when they first heard them, partly because the original version of the song "Rent" had those gory, suicide-fantasy lyrics. I learned a lot about writing (and rewriting) from my extended cross-analysis of the two versions of Rent. Those early couplets, in which Mark and Roger fantasized about ending the starving artist's plight by killing themselves, became a series of questions instead of answers. The new first line was: "How do you document real life / When real life's getting more like fiction each day?"
By the time I got to see Rent for myself -- April 18, 1997 -- Daphne Rubin-Vega had become the first original cast member to leave the show, replaced by the capable Marcy Harriel. The fab fifteen was otherwise intact. Needless to say, seeing it was a profound and joyous experience. I sat in the mezzanine with my father and stepmother. After the tune-ups, right before the opening number, I heard something I'd never heard before in a musical -- a count-in! Until the song "Rent" began, as I knew, the only accompaniment would be the sound of Roger tuning his guitar. The house lights stayed up during these informal opening moments, until Adam Pascal played the "Musetta's Waltz" theme from La Boheme on his guitar. Then, silence. Everything suddenly went dark. It was at this point that Anthony Rapp exclaimed, with his unmistakable gift for emphasis, "THE POWER BLOWS!" And then, just before the stage was bathed in multicolored lighting and the full rock band onslaught of the song, you could plainly hear arranger/bandleader Tim Weil shouting to the onstage band, "One! Two! Three! Four!" Two musical worlds collided in harmony.
I've seen Rent many times since then, and it's usually great. Although no cast could ever equal the original, many successive performers have done quite well by the piece. I saw one of the national tours in 1998, and came away with the impression that Rent's luster paled somewhat on the road. The show's international success demonstrates that its appeal is universal, but perhaps its abundance of New York color plays better across an ocean than across a state line. Part of what made the Broadway production so convincing was that they'd remade the Nederlander to evoke the East Village. It was weird to sit in the plush Bushnell Theatre in Hartford, ensconced in opulent Victorian majesty, with an Alphabet City playset on the stage. The grimy upstage wall of the Nederlander, in all its naked glory, was perfect; it made the show look real. The meticulously rendered flat which impersonated it on the road had the opposite effect. However, I've spoken with people who were lucky enough to see Rent at NYTW, and some of them could never accept it as authentic after it moved to Broadway. They thought Rent's only true home was an experimental space in the East Village, and that it lost its soul at the Nederlander.
It has been suggested that the dazzling success of the show is a violation of Jonathan Larson's integrity. There is something strange about it. The costume designer, Angela Wendt, had found much of her inspiration in the closets of the original cast. That red and blue sweater was Anthony Rapp's -- but it was faithfully reproduced for dozens of future Marks, whether it worked for them or not. Years from now, when the show closes on Broadway, I'm sure it will be produced in new and innovative ways in regional theatres; however, no production will carry the stamp of its creator more visibly than the original. But mass-production is what happens when a piece of theatre achieves mainstream acclaim, and it's ridiculous to suggest that Jonathan wanted his work to remain obscure. He desperately wanted the success that Rent has had. He stuck to his principles -- and one of his strongest was the desire for his work to touch as many people as possible. He fiercely protected his creations from commercial interests which threatened their spirit, but I think the Rent phenomenon has mostly honored that spirit in a manner he'd approve of. I sympathize with the purists who bemoan the casting of semi-celebrities in the Broadway production, and who shudder at the thought of the upcoming film version. But I believe that if Jonathan were here to enjoy all of this, he would be enjoying it like crazy. He'd be gleefully sizing up his Oscar chances. More to the point, he would have what he spent his wonderful, short life wanting -- millions of people singing along.
As for me, Rent really did change my life. By the time I finally took my seat at the Nederlander in the spring of 1997, I wasn't just in New York to see the show. I was looking for an apartment to rent.