By Andrew Milner
In early 1996 I heard a lot about Rent. First, that its creator Jonathan Larson had died right before it opened off-Broadway. Then, that the initial reviews were phenomenonal. John Lahr of The New Yorker, who doesn't like much of anything, gave a thumbs-up. Super-snob John Simon had a number of problems with the production, but admitted there was lot he admired. Even The Village Voice, which seemingly slams every major mainstream theater work, ran a glowing feature article (Might that have had something to do with its being mentioned in Larson's "La Vie Boheme," I wonder?). Two days before it opened on Broadway, and just a few days after Rent won the Pulitzer Prize, I trekked to New York to catch a preview. I waited outside half-an-hour for one of the last tickets while saw-horses attempted to organize the throngs. The opening was delayed about 10 minutes simply to let the standing room only crowd in.
By the end of the performance, Rent had a bigger impact on me than just about anything else -- theater, movies, books, TV, computer -- I've experienced, and that includes much of the superb work Stephen Sondheim has done. In a "been there, done that" culture, there was something genuinely honest and refreshing about Larson's ultimately optimistic look at young life in New York. I enjoyed all of it, even the few parts that didn't quite work.
As the months have passed, as the awards have piled up, as the cast album has sold thousands of copies (two of which I possess), as the amazing original cast has passed into theater legend and as touring companies have taken the play to new audiences across the country, the more I have come to realize how much Rent owes to Sondheim's work. I'm not suggesting that Jonathan Larson was simply being derivative, only that he put his own individual stamp on subjects that Sondheim has written about in his own way.
On the surface, Company would appear to be Rent's polar opposite. Company is set on the Upper West Side, while Rent takes place on the Lower East Side. The characters in Company are comfortably upper middle class, while Rent's characters are at the poverty line. The characters in Company are middle-aged whereas the cast of Rent is essentially under 30. (Significantly, neither musical features any elderly people, nor are there any children.)
In the original 1970 production, Company's characters were non-ethnic and presumably straight. Indeed, in one scene Robert confesses that he doesn't know very many blacks or Puerto Ricans. (More recent productions of Company have starred minorities -- the London revival had a black Robert -- and George Furth added a scene in the 1995 New York revival where Robert admits to past homosexual experience and wonders aloud what it would be like to be gay.) Conversely, Rent's cast is the embodiment of multiculturalism, peopled by blacks, Hispanics, gays and lesbians.
Where, then, are these shows similar? One area is how Sondheim and Larson present New York. Both shows have a harsh view of the Big Apple, as opposed to, say, On the Town. In "Another Hundred People" Sondheim writes of New York being "a city of strangers," of "crowded streets and guarded parks" where couples communicate via telephones and answering services (pre-voice mail). Indeed, the opening musical leitmotif in Company is based on a busy signal. Likewise, Rent opens with Mark and Roger screening calls via their answering machine, and telephones feature prominently throughout Rent (Mark is called by a sleazy TV producer, whom he eventually calls back to quit his job with her; Tom Collins is mugged during his call to Mark and Roger; Mark's mother and Joanne's parents are seen only through their abrupt calls). And one of the central plot points in Rent is Ben's plan to tear down Mark and Roger's apartment to build a virtual reality studio. Both shows symbolize how distant person-to-person communication has become in current urban life, and how simply using this technology is itself distracting. Significantly, the climax of Rent is a song, "Your Eyes," which Roger sings to Mimi face-to-face. In real-time, as computer people might put it.
The Pulitzer Prize winning Rent also has common themes with the last musical to win a Pulitzer, Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George. Both have a visual artist -- Rent's Mark, Sunday's George -- as a central character, each of whom is bent on finishing a major work to the exclusion of personal relationships. Sondheim's George Seurat is finishing "An Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte" while seemingly ignoring his lover/model Dot. George assures Dot she will be in his painting, while she accuses him of merely hiding behind his canvas. There's a very similar scene in Rent, where Roger angrily denounces Mark, who has rather prententiously filmed his friends for a documentary: "They say Mark lives for his work, and Mark's in love with his work/Mark hides in his work...From facing your failure, facing your loneliness, facing the fact you live a lie...You pretend to create and observe/When you really detach from feeling alive."
Both Rent and Sunday state that the artist must resolve personal (family and/or romantic) problems before they can expect to create. Seurat's great-grandson in Act Two of Sunday has been obsessed with laser technology at the expense of his marriage and personal friendships (his colleague quits, saying he's returning to the less stressful world of NASA). The 20th century George is at a crossroads when he is met by the ghost of Dot, his great-grandmother, who urges him to "Move On" in the eloquent Sondheim song. Conversely, in Rent Mark has an ephiphany during "What You Own," asking himself why the last Christmas Eve (the first act of the show) was so important: "Connection in an isolating age/For once the shadows gave way to light/For once I didn't disengage"). He recalls meeting and befriending Angel, Tom's lover who would die of AIDS. Only when Mark acknowledges his friendships can he then complete his documentary. As both acts of Sunday concluded with the cast assemlbing onstage to recreate Seurat's "La Grande Jatte" setting, Rent closes with Mark's finished documentary shown onstage as the cast sings a reprise of "No Day But Today."
As I said earlier, none of this is to take anything away from Larson's accomplishment. He was a remarkable composer and writer in his own right, and he was able to take themes which Sondheim had earlier put a spin on and reinterpret them in his own distinctive manner. The result is a courageous and articulate look at the much-maligned Generation X. Amid the negativity and cynicism of contemporary culture, Rent is an honest voice of optimism. Rather than curse the darkness, Jonathan Larson wrote a show centered around lighting a candle.
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