Sounds of the city

Much is being made of the twentieth anniversary of Rent‘s opening on Broadway. My wife is casting a national tour. The Pulitzer Prize going to Hamilton reminds many of the similar stir created by the 1996 winner. Rent, too, was the creation – book, music and lyrics – of one multi-talented thirtysomething, but in the tragic case of Jonathan Larson, he did not live to see his masterpiece completed. He died on the eve of the first off-Broadway performance. And I believe that everything that’s wrong with Rent is something he could have and would have fixed on the three month road to Broadway.

Yes, once again, you’re detecting I hold an opinion that’s different from much of the rest of the world. Practically everybody loves Rent, thinks it brilliant, even flawless. Such praise, twenty years ago, seemed a natural reaction in the wake of the horrid tragedy of Larson’s death. But perhaps we can now view his famous chef d’oeuvre with dispassionate objectivity. There isn’t a whole lot of “there” there.

But there’s plenty of death, or (seemingly) fatal illness. Two of the three creators of the vastly more effective The Book of Mormon put it best in their send-up, Everybody Has AIDS.

No, there’s nothing funny about AIDS, per se. But there’s something positively wacky about building an entertainment around HIV+ characters. Rent says all the obvious things: that death is sad, that we must live each day we’re given to the fullest, that we must be kind to each other. The message is weak tea compared to the more truth-to-life and heart-felt Falsettoland, which takes one extended family – where everyone’s far more quirky and endearing than anyone in Rent – and shows, specifically, how the new disease upends them.

Rent commits the cardinal sin of musical tragedies: it is moving, at times, simply because AIDS is sad. We cry because AIDS kills, and, for most of us, has killed someone we cared for. Key to Rent’s initial success, of course, was the news story, telling of its author’s death from an aortic aneurysm. A talented young man, taken from us long before his time: that’s truly tragic. Angel in the show is a talented young man, and I’ve always wondered whom the tears are falling for as we mourn him; Larson? And then we have Catwoman, er. Mimi, who dies before our eyes, just as in the opera the show is based on. And then she doesn’t. This is perhaps the falsest ending in all of musical theatre. We weep over a girl’s death, and then – poof! – she lives. How could you not feel cheated by that?

Mimi happens to be the character I cared about least. She’s sexy, all right, in a contemporary way, but she takes far too few actions that engender my sympathy. The romance with Roger is not one I root for. They meet, hit it off, and then I’m supposed to care about their romance as if they’ve had a wealth of experiences together? This plotline is the least interesting aspect of Rent, and you’d think I, a songwriter, would empathize, since I’ve often struggled, like Roger, to create the perfect song for the object of my affections. Now, I like his first act solo, One Song Glory, but the completed product, a cliché-ridden ode to Mimi’s eyes, is a musical low point. “You blew it, man!” I wanted to say to Roger. But really I wanted to say the same thing to Larson after Mimi’s amazingly boring ballad, Without You. It’s monotonous and uninteresting, and I feel quite certain that had Larson lived to shepherd Rent to Broadway, both second act stage-weights would have been replaced.

His posthumously produced Tick Tick Boom has a score that does a number of effective things. It has comedy songs that actually get laughs, for instance. Rent has a duet, The Tango Maureen, which has a set-up that seems likely to yield yocks, but not a single solid joke in the entire lyric. (Some interstitial dialogue lands, thank God). Then, there’s La Vie Bohème, an energetic list song for the full company. It does little more than name-drop beloved artists from different disciplines. I found it kind of fun, but wholly implausible. Here we have a bunch of young East Villagers who know their Neruda from their Sontag from their Merce Cunningham. I’ve got to call shenanigans on this. There simply don’t exist all that many people who are aware of each name in that hall of little-fame.

And one of them, a would-be filmmaker named Mark, is a true idiot. Fans of the show don’t seem to recognize how stupid he is, but let’s take a look: He wants a career in cinema. He is offered a job as a camera-man on a TV show. Anybody with half a brain would jump at that chance. Work there and you’ll make connections, get experience, and be off on the road to achieving your dreams, right? Mark’s main drama is that he’s conflicted about whether to take the job.

Which brings us to entitlement. These artistes are squatters near Tompkins Square Park. They either can’t pay, won’t pay, or are scrambling to pay rent in the Village. They’re in no position to turn town a decent-paying job, or are they? Seems to me they’re pretending to be like the poor people. Which is really offensive to those who care about the plight of the actual poor.

Now, I think there’s a wonderful point to be made about young artists who turn down opportunities, staking some claim to nobility, who intentionally live like they’re poor. That’s an interesting idea for a show. Unfortunately, Rent is not that show. But I’ll always believe that, had its creator lived, the late-period incubation would have produced a work worthy of all that praise and those prizes.

A friend of mine linked to this blog with the quip, “Noel Katz, doing what he does best, eloquently shitting on things you thought you liked.” Hmmm. He’ll revise that once he sees the revue of my songs playing May 25 at The Duplex in Greenwich Village and then June 13 as The Gardenia in Hollywood, The Things We Do For Love.


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