at the Shubert Theatre

By Albert Williams

There are no miracles; we all know that. Misers aren’t transformed into philanthropists overnight by ghostly visitations, manic-depressives aren’t saved from suicide by angelic interventions, department-store Santas don’t possess magical powers, and teenage junkies with AIDS don’t come back to life on their deathbeds. There are no miracles; yet our culture thrives on them, and never more so than at this time of year. Christmastime is replete with the literature of the miraculous, and even if we can’t actually believe in A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street–or in the tale of a virgin giving birth to a messiah in a stable, for that matter–we find hope in these stories: if they can’t totally convert or redeem us, maybe they can make us a little bit kinder to each other, and to ourselves.

So it is with Rent, composer-librettist Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical, which opened downtown last week–just in time for the winter holiday season–in a first-rate national-company edition of the hit Broadway production. Directed by Michael Greif (known to Chicagoans for staging Mad Forest at Remains and Randy Newman’s Faust at the Goodman), this rock ‘n’ roll reworking of Puccini’s opera La boheme celebrates what Larson’s lyrics refer to as the “leap of faith” required for “living in America at the end of the millennium.” Though it addresses such troubling topics as drug addiction, AIDS, and homelessness, Rent also unabashedly embraces a belief in the miraculous, climaxing with its fatally ill heroine’s return to the land of the living after a journey to the other side, where a dead drag queen named Angel–who may actually be one–tells her it’s not yet her time to die. Despite its trappings of grungy youthful alienation, Rent is at heart an exercise in old-fashioned optimism that owes as much to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel–in which a dead hero returns to earth to make fleeting contact with his survivors–as to Hair (like Rent, a counterculture musical emblematic of its time).

Like Hair, this musical hangs its slim story on the sometimes amorphous interactions of a group of friends and lovers living on the fringe. In place of Hair’s West Village hippie tribe, Rent focuses on three couples–one straight, one gay, and one lesbian–living in Alphabet City in New York. The action is framed by two successive Christmas Eves; instead of the Parisian garret inhabited by Puccini’s bohemians, Rent’s protagonists reside in and around an unheated industrial loft at 11th Street and Avenue B. Roger (the counterpart of La boheme’s romantic Rodolfo) is a once rising rock star, emotionally withdrawn since a bout with heroin addiction and a diagnosis of HIV infection; he sits in the loft all day plucking away at his guitar, consumed with writing “one song to leave behind…to redeem this empty life.” Roger’s neighbor, Mimi, is a dancer at a local S and M nightclub (“I didn’t recognize you without the handcuffs,” Roger sings when he first meets her) who like Roger is HIV-positive–but unlike Roger is still a junkie. Despite their immediate attraction, Roger and Mimi remain diffident at best: Roger keeps his distance, afraid of becoming addicted again and jealous of Mimi’s relationship with their landlord, a piece of “yuppie scum” named Benny (in La boheme he’s Benoit).

Roger’s ex-roommate, a gay philosophy teacher named Tom Collins, is in love with the drag queen Angel (the two meet when Angel helps Collins after he’s been mugged); the duo are determined to make the most of the uncertain life span AIDS has left them. The third couple are Joanne, a leftist lawyer, and Maureen, a performance artist whose piece protesting gentrification causes a riot among the homeless squatters Benny is trying to evict from their tent city in the lot adjacent to his loft. (The episode seems modeled on real-life riots in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village several years back.) Linking the three couples is Mark (the counterpart of Puccini’s Marcello), a filmmaker trying to document the lives of his friends (one of whom, Maureen, is his ex-lover; “so let her be a lesbian,” coos Mark’s mom on the phone). An audiovisual geek from way back, this nice Jewish boy (from Scarsdale, yet) is both absorbed by and disengaged from the people he’s filming, epitomizing the “I am a camera” detachment of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories–on which another of Rent’s influences, the musical Cabaret, is based. Mark is clearly Larson’s surrogate, at once romanticizing, criticizing, and documenting a life he can never quite be part of.

Aside from the squatters’ riot, nothing much “happens” in Rent; the characters drift together, apart, and together again, singing Larson’s rousing yet surprisingly subtle songs as they wrestle with their anxieties, including the specter of untimely death. AIDS hangs over the people in Rent the way Vietnam did in Hair; while Hair’s hippies were trying to make a better world, the folks in Rent–whose title symbolizes not only the characters’ financial struggles but the transience of life itself–are simply trying to make connections in an age of isolation and find a little dignity in the face of untimely death. In this desolate context, Rent’s embrace of the miraculous may strike some viewers as unrealistic, just as Tony Kushner’s AIDS fantasia Angels in America did. But an impressive and expressive young cast (Christian Anderson is particularly good as Mark) embody in well-crafted, heartfelt performances the sincerity and intensity of Larson’s optimism in the face of sorrow. Greif’s technically assured staging–which shrewdly juggles darkness and light, simplicity and spectacle–also ably supports Larson’s vision. Long shadows loom over the sprawling loft setting (designed by Paul Clay and lit by Blake Burba), suddenly dispersed by a blaze of candles during a power blackout; lovers exchange a tender kiss to the accompaniment of a screaming guitar and a flashing red police light; a minimalist song of lost love frames a striking triptych tableau, in which Collins cradles the dying Angel while the other couples embrace in beds on either side.

There’s an inherent irony, of course, in a visually impressive, big-budget Broadway musical about starving, strung-out artists struggling against the forces of commercialization. I went expecting to hate every minute, my skepticism fueled by the show’s humongous hype. Happily, Rent transcends its overbearing mega marketing; at its core this is a gentle, hopeful, engagingly irreverent, emotionally intimate work–a refreshing contrast to the facile cynicism of the Shubert Theatre’s previous musical-theater offering, Chicago, and the pompous bombast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera and its ilk. While other Webber wannabes were writing pop operas about legendary female popes and medieval hunchbacks, Larson was writing about real life here and now.

Rent may be derivative in many respects: Larson himself credited playwright Billy Aronson for the idea of a La boheme update, dramaturg Lynn Thomson unsuccessfully sued for authorial credit and a percentage of royalties, and lesbian AIDS activist Sarah Schulman has claimed that Larson borrowed thematic and plot devices from her novel People in Trouble. But the heart of a musical is its score, and Rent’s songs display Larson’s unusual gift for fusing contemporary sounds with traditional musical-theater values. Rock purists may complain that Rent is more pop than punk, not gritty enough to accurately represent the show’s milieu, and Larson’s lyrics often cross the line from simple to simplistic. But onstage the score works in a way that rock seldom does in the theater–as a convincing and coherent vocabulary for the show’s engaging, eccentric characters. (Technical adjustments in response to opening-night complaints make the music sound punchy without excessive volume, and much more powerful than the sterile-sounding original-cast album.) If Larson hadn’t died of an aortic aneurysm during Rent’s tryouts at the East Village’s New York Theatre Workshop–just a couple of weeks short of his 36th birthday–one could talk joyfully about the incalculable potential of this passionate, positive young writer, rather than sadly of his incalculable loss.

“In metropolitan America, the culture of soggy belief is long gone–or at least, far underground,” writes cultural commentator Todd Gitlin in the October issue of American Theatre. “To exaggerate only a bit, the periphery is the center. And no generation has floated farther from what used to be called the mainstream than the under-40….Middle-class culture is soaked in an all-pervading irony….Moral earnestness is hopelessly retro; to confess deep belief is to be a drag….But when belief is discounted to start with, what weight does disbelief have? Amid the routine insouciance of everyday amusement, how shall today’s theatre provoke thought, or illumination, or unmechanized feeling?”

Rent provides a response to Gitlin’s queries by treating tough, timely topics in a brave, heartfelt, but accessibly entertaining manner. Its takes on homosexuality, drug addiction, AIDS, sexual jealousy, gentrification, and the plight of the homeless are soft, even superficial–but this flaw has an upside: the show is accessible to viewers with widely varying perspectives, and its very sketchiness is likely to engender postshow debate. (This is one of the few hit musicals of the past decade I can think of that’s actually worth talking about afterward.) If seeing Rent makes just one “yuppie scum” landlord or lawyer a little more compassionate to his tenants and clients, or if just one parent talks to rather than screams at his or her kids about drugs and sex (this is a perfect piece for families with adolescent children), it will have made an important contribution. And if some young songwriter gets pissed off about what he or she thinks is the show’s softness and writes something tougher and truer, then Rent may actually spark the reinvigoration of musical theater its promoters promise. So who says there are no miracles? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rent theater still by Joan Marcus.