Four years ago, I was in the audience the night after the Broadway opening of a play I called "a monumental step charting what may be the most significant movement in musical theater in the last 25 years." Back in the Rockies, where Rent opens next Tuesday for a six-day run, I'll stand by my claim, adding the endorsement that in the 400-some shows I've seen between viewings of Rent, no theatrical experience has been more exhilarating or encouraging. The effects on the American theater may still be difficult to detect, but the impact this play has had on contemporary culture is undeniable and irresistible.
The rock opera for the '90s by Jonathan Larson is loosely based on La Boheme, moving the 19th century opera about lovers torn apart by disease and death to New York's East Village where Larson focuses on characters living on the fringe in a converted warehouse flat, dealing with addiction, living with AIDS, overcoming angst, and trying to find and hold onto their dignity. Rent is the rite-of-passage of a new generation, originally written, produced, directed and performed entirely by a company of performers 36 years old and under. It has drawn a new, younger audience to the theater, kindling a rock 'n' roll fanaticism in audiences and even finding legions of groupies flocking to the shows and following companies the way other generations scrambled to see Elvis, the Beatles or the Dead. It is one of the most significant and far-reaching artistic expressions of a heretofore dismissed segment of the population, cast off as immature, apathetic and without vision but who are now seizing the mantle of creative innovation in our culture.
The play revolves around three pairs of lovers -- one straight, one gay and one lesbian -- and a perpetual third-wheel character who narrates the story as he documents it on film, connecting with the audience but avoiding intimacy with other characters by hiding in his art. The characters that Rent asks us to embrace include Roger, a brooding guitar player whose dead lover slit her wrists, leaving him a note saying "We've got AIDS"; Mimi, a crack addict stripper who induces him to "light her candle" and has her songs interrupted by a beeper reminding her it's time for an AZT break; Tom Collins, a gay professor who falls in love with a good-willed transvestite street drummer named Angel; and Maureen, a performance artist who calms her jealous lesbian lawyer lover by telling her "there are always going to be women in rubber flirting with me."
There's no easy way to understand why we fall in love with characters who could too easily be defined by their weaknesses, their addictions, their otherness, except to realize that director Michael Greif and writer Larson have made these characters look strikingly familiar, bringing out the human quality and universal dignity that make them seem like the people I grew up with, went to college with and worked with not so long ago. Larson and Greif have taken the high road, defining the characters by their capacity to love and hope. "525,600 minutes/How do you figure a last year on earth?" the company asks, and through suffering, loss and a universal sense of their limited future, the characters reinforce the song's answer, "Figure in love."
Because the play addresses issues such as AIDS and homosexuality, there are those who feel it needs to be defined by such issues. This perception misses the point, however. The "alternative lifestyles" celebrated in Rent are neither token appearances nor one-note statement vehicles. The subculture represented by the cast of characters are merely modern-day representations of the Bohemian experience -- street musicians, underground filmmakers and computer-age philosophers. The neighborhood is made of addicts and illness, of homeless and hustlers, of petty thieves and dealers. There's even a taste of erotic pole dancing and a trio of cops singing "I'm Dreaming of a White Right Christmas." Ultimately, Rent's characters are an inspiration for those flirting on the fringe of the counterculture, the hippest cast of characters of the past decade, liberating all the old taboos and celebrating la vie Bohme. The exuberant first-act finale raises a glass to everyone from Maya Angelou, Pablo Neruda and Akira Kurosawa to Pee Wee Herman, Auntie Em and the Sex Pistols, and to everything from "apathy, entropy, empathy, and ecstasy" to "creation, vacation, and mucho masturbation," rhyming all the way.
Larson, like his mentor Stephen Sondheim, challenges the form without abandoning it, finding the heart of his play in the fast-paced witty lyrics that set rhymes about Cap'n Crunch to innovative melodies that filter tangos, ballads, voice mail, show tunes, gospel, and even Puccini through a '90s alternative rock edge to masterfully sculpt a seamless and memorable collage of "found art." Both Sondheim and Larson have a knack for songs made out of dialogue, and for finding cultural icons of their times to weave into thematic symbols running through their work. If the score for Sondheim's Company could open with a busy signal, then Larson could interrupt an untunable guitar with a madrigal of voice mail, subtly establishing the "we screen" attitude early in a play searching for "connection in an isolating age," but thwarted by communication blocks in the uncompleted refrains of "I should tell you ..."
The emphasis on mortality echoes Larson's own celebrated life. After 10 years of waiting tables, Larson's success was marked by a Pulitzer Prize for drama, Tonys for best musical, best book, and best score, but also tragically by his sudden death at age 35 from an aortic aneurysm hours after the play's final dress rehearsal, an unfathomable loss to the future of the American theater.
A line from the show describes one of the principal characters by explaining that Angel would find an old tablecloth on the street, make a dress, and sure enough, next year they'd be mass producing them at the Gap. The idea echoes the path Rent has taken from an experimental workshop production to a mainstay hit on Broadway and touring productions on five continents. Like the unknown garage band that suddenly hits it big, there's been no shortage of apprehension about Rent's ability to survive its own success. Fear not. The touring production gracefully maintains the grass-roots quality and the workshop atmosphere, blending a confident sense of professionalism with the raw, edgy street sensibility that fuels the play's core. Production elements and effects are kept minimal, keeping the focus on the solid musical values and social consciousness responsible for the show's explosive impact on its audiences.
Rent may not be for everybody. But if the second act finds a few missing tuxedos and evening gowns, rattled by the electric atmosphere or offended by the no-holds-barred subject matter, the theater will be all that much more comfortable for the rest of us. Though the explicit language, mature content, and graphic situations are all handled with humor, with depth, and with principled artistic standards, these elements will, nevertheless, prove insurmountable obstacles for some. The rest of you know who you are. You're ready for adventure; you're not afraid of ideas; you're open to excellence. And when you return from the theater, you'll be dancing on your dining room table, diving into Gertrude Stein or riding your bike midday past the three-piece suits. Viva la vie Bohme!