Saturday, November 8, 2008

My Love-Hate Relationship with Rent

There are a lot of things I hate to love (Starbucks coffee, Center Stage, and Lucky magazine come to mind) and that I love to hate (Twilight, Sweet Valley High, Legally Blonde the Musical, feta cheese... the list is long). However, one thing that goes both ways is Rent, Jonathan Larson's magnum opus rock opera based off of La Boheme. While there is a great deal that I like about the musical, there is also a lot that bothers me whenever I take the time to really think about it. Here is my take on Rent:

What Works
  • A lot of the music is good and some of the songs are fantastic. "What You Own," "Seasons of Love," and "Finale B" are perhaps three of the most successful numbers, and they not only encapsulate what is going on in the play but they also work on their own. Even though "Seasons of Love" can get be very saccharine and was overplayed there for a while, its main lyrics are particularly strong.
  • The carefree spirit of the play (which isn't quite apparent in the movie version) is infectious and makes a great contrast with the carefully staged shows that have become common on Broadway. It is the anti-Disney and the anti-Andrew Lloyd Webber show (and I mean that in the best way possible).
  • In regards to being a show that supposedly "defines a generation" and speaks for the angst of a particular generation, it is far, far superior to Spring Awakening. While both musicals are period pieces, Rent just feels more genuine when compared to SA's formal, 19th-century dialogue and raunchy rock numbers. Also, while Larson had a great respect for Broadway (and was an admirer of Stephen Sondheim), the creators of SA seemed more than a little holier-than-thou in regards to their view of musical theatre.
  • The show's policy to sell $20 premium tickets the day of the show was a great way to introduce theatre to a new generation and to let the people who the show was about get a front-row seat to it.
What Doesn't Work (At Least for Me)
  • Yes, a lot of the music is good. However, since it is a rock opera and mostly sung-through, some of the songs are less than successful. Also, the show tends to have one volume (loud). When I saw it on Broadway, I was seated under a speaker and couldn't hear for the rest of the night.
  • There are holes in the plot that you could drive a truck through. Although this is part of the show's appeal (Larson died before seeing his show open and become a cultural phenomenon), I can't help but wonder why no one connected to the show realized that some characters, such as Benny, just seem to disappear and reappear at will.
  • This show has one of the most dislikable cast of characters ever assembled on stage. While the original cast of actors was (and still is) very talented, the characters are so incredibly unsympathetic that I have always had a hard time connecting with them. Maureen is self-absorbed and unfaithful, Tom decides that hot wiring an ATM is better attempting to teach his students, Mimi doesn't really seem to have any sort of revelation that her behavior is dangerous (and is rather predatory to boot), and Roger is a pill beyond comparison (read Mrs. Giggles's awesome review of the film version to get an idea of why I hate Roger). Even though Angel is sympathetic, he is made into such a martyr figure that he is more of a symbol than a true character.
  • Overall, the show seems hypocritical. Though these characters espouse the idea of acceptance, they really don't seem all that accepting. While they lionize people like them (who squat in buildings, leech electricity and whine about how poor they are while not putting forth any real effort to find and hold a job), they are awfully judgmental towards people who attempt to act responsibly. Benny, who is the play's supposed villain because he has sold out and turned his back on the bohemian lifestyle, doesn't anger me nearly as much as the other characters. While he sometimes is a jerk, he also pays for Angel's funeral, thus proving that having a real job that makes real money can come in handy in some situations. Of course, the other characters don't thank him for his gesture and make a rather disparaging remark about how nice it must be to have money.
  • The show's main idea, that it is acceptable and even admirable to be completely irresponsible as long as you are doing it in the name of "art" and are not selling out by (gasp!) getting a job doing something you don't like, angers me to no end. I appreciate art and the struggles that people have to endure in order to create art. However, I don't see it as an excuse for not being responsible and contributing to society in a positive way. I know sound like an old fogey, but even as a teenager (the show came out when I was in high school), I never understood why these characters couldn't get jobs and do their art in their off hours, like most people do (incidentally, Jonathan Larson worked at a diner before he got the funding that would allow him to concentrate on writing).
  • Although not nearly as bad as the atrocity that is the film version of A Chorus Line, the movie version of Rent is a veritable cornucopia of bad decisions. From allowing Chris Columbus (who directed the first two Home Alone movies and Adventures in Babysitting) to be at the helm to the fact that the film version came about 10 years too late for the original Broadway cast (most of whom were in the film) to be believable as starving artists, a lot of mistakes were made. However, the one that annoys me the most is Columbus's decision to change his original ending (which only proves how wrong he was for this particular film).
I know that my pro/con list is rather imbalanced. As you can tell, I have major issues with some of the underlying themes. Nevertheless, I can appreciate it for what it is and I can even forgive it for bringing the rock opera back to the Broadway stage. However, I still refuse to accept the fact that Roger is all that and a stack of pancakes - trust me Mimi, "Your Eyes" is NOT worth coming back from the dead for. "One Song Glory," Roger's song about his desire to write a great song, is ironically the superior song. However, given Roger's self-absorption, perhaps none of us should be surprised that his best song is about himself. Shut up Roger!