Smells Like Bohemian Spirit

Life is hard and then you dance

For what it's worth, I also detected echoes of the following in Rent: KISS; Elton John; late-era Benny and Bjorn; the Pet Shop Boys; the Police; Rupert Holmes; Gamble and Huff; Huey Lewis and the News; and Supertramp. Of some 69 tracks listed on the double-CD package (multiple reprises included), just under a third can bear repeated listenings. It's consistently bombastic stuff, saturated with the kind of "ballsy" guitar that always seems to signify trouble before the commercial breaks on Melrose Place.

Better and worse in the same turn are the gospel-flavored arrangements littered throughout the score. The impression left by these melodic wonders, as we watch the pinch-hitting African uvulas quivering from the orchestra seats, is that black folks have an ever-ready access to the extremes of emotion, a tacit observation that Larson no doubt intends as a tribute.

This fallacy (and the play in whole) recalls Norman Mailer's infamous Beat-era essay, "The White Negro," and its equivalence of fear, moral degeneracy, and ecstasy-through-orgasm. "If the fate of 20th-century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence," Mailer writes, "why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on the uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self." In prose evoking half-digested Nietzsche, Mailer forecasts that the horror of the bomb will begin to bring the races together.

Larson attributes the same import to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, while adding his own communitarian pangloss. "In these dangerous times, where it seems that the world is ripping apart at the seams," Larson wrote on his computer soon before Rent opened (since reprinted in the just-published Rent coffee-table book), "we can all learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day, and [we] should reach out to each other and bond as a community."

Ultimately, Rent is eminently of its age: Its arch sincerity, stylistic schizophrenia, and well-intentioned (?) hypocrisies are, in every sense, our own. Could anyone conceive of a cheaper compliment than designating Rent the musical of the decade?

Rent runs at the Ordway Music Theatre through Aug. 17; call 224-4222.

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