A few weeks ago, a piece of theater made it onto the cover of Newsweek. And seeing the two no-name actors from the new musical Rent emblazoned there was about as surprising as it would be to find General Norman Schwarzkopf on the cover of American Theater. That same week the cast appeared on Good Morning America, where Charlie Gibson, the Emperor of Vanilla, gushed all over them. Were two of America’s stodgiest, most conservative mass-media outlets genuinely swooning over a rock-and-roll musical about AIDS and the avant-garde in the East Village, the land of skinheads, squatters, and overdoses, the hazardous playground where I spent many a delirious youthful summer night running with a pack of hard-core punks and drag queens? Charlie Gibson? I was suspicious. I smelled glitz, kick lines, and big money, despite 31-year-old producer Jeffrey Seller’s protestations to Newsweek. “If I really wanted to make money I’d go to Wall Street,” he said. “I came to Broadway because I was excited by the question, ‘Can you challenge the mainstream?'” Seller, it seemed, was throwing a gauntlet down directly before me. And with a Chicago production in the planning stages, I felt a duty to do some reconnaissance.

But Newsweek assured me I would never get in. The magazine listed some of the bigwigs who couldn’t score tickets: Michelle Pfeiffer, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Ralph Fiennes. I called a few New York theater editors I know, and they were gracious enough not to laugh in my face. I thought about calling up the Nederlander Theatre’s box office and doing my best Richard Christiansen imitation. Then I got a call from a graduate-school friend currently touring the north spiral arm of the Milky Way with some show I didn’t bother to see when it opened in Chicago. Miraculously, he didn’t hate me. More to the point, his agent turned out to be the general manager of the Nederlander. The agent could probably get me a ticket, but I would have to pay for it–through the nose, it turned out. And I would have to pick it up at the box office by Friday at six.

I was on a plane Friday morning.

In the East Village, on First Avenue between Fifth and Sixth Streets, a few feet of chain-link fence keep sidewalk traffic out of a tiny, unremarkable vacant lot sandwiched between two tenement-style walk-ups. Mounted atop the fence are several oil drums halved radially and adorned with hand-fashioned silver spikes. Connecting the drums and spilling down the fence is a delicate tangle of metal debris–a crushed wrought-iron stair railing, a rotary saw blade, rusty scraps of sheet metal. A crude handmade sign credits the construction to a group of artists calling themselves Kalemkeris, Swing & Co.

Grace from garbage, lyricism from leftovers: the Lower East Side in a nutshell. The assemblage embodies the neighborhood the way the Flat Iron Building once embodied Wicker Park. On a breathtakingly beautiful spring afternoon, dozens of pedestrians pass by, many armed with 35-millimeter cameras and sturdy walking shoes. Like the typical Friday-night Bucktown crowd hoping to take a piece of bohemia home to Schaumburg, they seem on safari for the “real” East Village experience. They pay the installation scant notice. They do, however, keep a watchful eye on the scruffy punks, androgynous glamour creatures, leather biker thugs, and wobbly drug addicts who share the sidewalk with them.

Thirty-five and a half blocks uptown, a similar contraption blown up to a monstrous size looms above the Nederlander Theatre’s enormous stage: all contrived destructiveness like the multimillion-dollar cyber tornadoes in Twister. Machine parts, twisted bicycle wheels, a flattened shopping cart, and various unidentifiable bits of detritus have been assembled with all the grace and lyricism of an Arnold Schwarzenegger action sequence, erupting in multiple directions like a well-orchestrated industrial accident. This set piece is supposed to transport a disposably incomed Broadway audience to the scuzzy, decayed jumble of the East Village in the same way that Papagus is supposed to carry the Lincoln Park dweller to Greektown, or Foodlife shuttle the weary Michigan Avenue shopper to the third world. The consumer pays a premium for safety, predictability, and asepsis.

If you know someone who knows someone (or, like me, know someone who knows someone who is someone), you can shell out $67.50 for a good seat. For that price you get three hours of singing and dancing homeless, HIV-positive, make-believe fringe dwellers–each with his or her own state-of-the-art headset microphone–decrying the relentless commercialization of bohemia. This band of struggling artists, musicians, academics, hipsters, and gender benders are preparing to do battle with their former colleague, Ben. He has sold out, they remind him every chance they get; he now works in cahoots with a developer who wants to tear down the neighborhood performance space and turn it into the headquarters of a software business. The bohemians stage a protest, which erupts into a riot. They are fighting for their lifestyles, like their real-life Chicago counterparts trying to prevent the inevitable encroachment of trendy restaurants and upscale boutiques into their once sacred Damen and North turf.

Rent will win every award known to man (it already got the Pulitzer and Tonys for best musical, best original score, and best book). Playwright Jonathan Larson’s tragic death from an aortic aneurysm on the day of the show’s final dress rehearsal helped propel a well-scored but unfinished–and at times embarrassingly contrived–musical into a national sensation. The media onslaught assures us that Rent is the harbinger of a new theatrical era, “a musical for the 90’s [that] jumps the generation gap,” as Newsweek pronounces. The New York Times declares that Rent offers hope for the future of American theater. On the night I attended, the audience displayed the kind of enthusiasm normally reserved for rock concerts and papal visits, convinced long before they’d reached their seats, I’m sure, that they would witness the theatrical equivalent of the Second Coming. But like the fake boarded-up windows outside the Nederlander, each adorned with a bit of fluorescent-orange pseudograffiti, and the $60-a-square-foot leopard-print rug meant to slum down the lobby, Rent is pure premium baloney, the epitome of everything corrupt and disingenuous in the American theater. It is Rich Melman meets Randolph Street Gallery, Epcot meets Ogoniland. It should give every theater lover good reason to despair. And it’s headed our way.

Consumerism, the faux bohemians onstage declare, is the ultimate enemy of the human spirit. “When you’re living in A-MER-I-CA / At the end of the MIL-LEN-NI-UM / YOU ARE WHAT YOU OWN!” two of the leads bellow in what should be the evening’s most biting piece of social criticism. To help you remember the sentiment, you can buy your own Rent baseball hat in the lobby or, as a program ad reminds you, pick up Rent “t-shirts and stuff” at Bloomingdale’s. In fact, the Rent logo is plastered all along the store’s Lexington Avenue windows. Behind the glass, in well-appointed stalls not much bigger than most Wicker Park artists’ studios, mannequins slouch in fashionably trashy Rent knock-off duds ripe for spring picking. “We’re scrambling to find more inventory,” the store’s fashion director pants to the Wall Street Journal. Chicago theater companies take note: if Roadworks had devoted only half the time to marketing that they did to making a searing, heartfelt piece of theater in SubUrbia, they might have convinced 7-Eleven to come out with a Roadworks 16-ounce suicidal teen tumbler.

Back in the Nederlander: Ben, who wants to open a “cyber company,” is roundly denounced for making a buck peddling a phony version of reality. Worse, he will exploit the East Village’s ultrahip reputation to reap a personal profit. The gaggle of show-biz execs clustered around my fifth-row seat cheered. Of course, none of the real-life bohemians whose hard-won credibility gives the show a good deal of its commercial appeal could ever afford a ticket to watch their lives reduced to melodrama; meanwhile Larson’s family collects his royalty of $30,000 a week. The show’s producers expect to rake in $8 million in annual operating profits, with an additional $10 million anticipated once the touring companies are up and running. Movie rights will net them another $4 million. The Wall Street Journal works itself into a tizzy praising their savvy and greed in a front-page feature, blissfully ignoring the fact that these men are precisely the type of people the show denounces. Maybe the paper was fooled by producer Allan S. Gordon’s proclamation in Newsweek: “We’re trying to reinvent how you spend money on Broadway. We have no limos.”

Numerous writers across the country have praised Rent for its potential to revolutionize the economics of commercial theater. Rent is cheap, relatively speaking. It cost only $3.5 million to mount, compared to the $10 million price tags for shows like Miss Saigon and Big. Its weekly overhead is roughly half of Victor/Victoria’s. And the downsizing of Broadway behemoths, which have a nasty habit of becoming touring behemoths, would be welcome indeed. The fact that backers need to recoup ever-more-massive investments all but ensures that commercial theater will come out with more and more revivals, blockbusters, and spectacles inspired by movies and cartoons. And these will be schlepped through the Auditorium and Chicago theaters until every off-Loop company is forced to surrender (a quarter of all Chicago theater tickets purchased in 1994 were for Phantom of the Opera and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat).

It seems to me that the first minor insurrection in this imagined economic revolution should be a lowering of ticket prices. Wouldn’t it make sense for the soon-to-be multimillionaires behind Rent to halve the ticket prices for their half-price production? Fat chance. From the start they’ve been intent on bilking the public for all they can get. Admission price for the show’s original off-Broadway run went up from $30 to $45 thanks to preshow buzz. Bringing the already-hyped, already-Pulitzered show to Broadway “was the equivalent of buying a stock at $10 on the first day and knowing it would close at $30,” producer Gordon said, his figures coincidentally corresponding exactly to the performance of Saks Fifth Avenue stock on the day the company first went public a few weeks ago. And as billionaire David Geffen, partner in the company that bought the rights to the original cast album, slobbered to the Wall Street Journal, “This is going to be a gigantic money machine.” Who needs integrity when you’ve got a percentage of the gross?

When the performance ended, the Nederlander audience leaped to its feet in a cartoonish exaggeration of a standing ovation. The cast seemed genuinely moved. The cheers went on for ten minutes. I wondered how quickly a cab could get me to the airport.

Back home, I headed over to Earwax Cafe to decompress. On Damen I walked past Gecan Realty, where a sign in the window proclaimed that “a Touch of the Mediterranean in Chicago’s Bucktown” was on the block for a cool half million.

Americans love the expensive fake. Communities are devolving into outlets, neighborhoods into malls, and cities into faceless replicas of one another (the new military-bunker Marshalls in the heart of Boystown may as well have been shipped in from Wichita). Rent–the American theater’s most fiscally solvent attempt at subversion–caters to our worst national tendencies, capitulating to the system it pretends to condemn. Like the crowds jammed into the new East Village Starbucks, we’re eager to pay for a sanitized, commercialized simulation of reality, even though the real thing is just around the corner for half the price–or for no price at all. You don’t need a ticket to gaze upon the art by Kalemkeris, Swing & Co., and it isn’t for sale. The commodification of bohemia, of individuality, of uniqueness indicates a nation with little interest in art that doesn’t turn a profit or fatten a portfolio.

I have an idea about what the Rent producers can do with some of the spare profits spilling out of the Nederlander like raw sewage into an already-polluted river. Take 2 percent of the gross–roughly $40,000 a month–and subsidize the rent of some real struggling artists in the East Village or Wicker Park or Deep Ellum or any other artists’ enclave in America. After all, without those artists and the vibrant, mystique-laden communities they’ve created, Rent wouldn’t draw flies.

Somehow I doubt anyone will run with my idea. Seller, one of the show’s three original investors, just bought a new apartment on Manhattan’s tony West Side–right next to the one he already owns. Next year, he tells the Wall Street Journal, he hopes to buy a country house. In the meantime Kalemkeris, Swing & Co. will just have to keep rummaging through the trash and hoping for a fatal embolism.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Marcus-Carol Rosegg.