Smells Like Bohemian Spirit

Life is hard and then you dance

How do you document real life when real life's getting more like fiction every day?

--Mark, the filmmaker, in Rent

For nine years songwriter Jonathan Larson waited tables at the Moondance Diner at Sixth Avenue and Grand Street in SoHo. The Moondance is a low-slung converted railway car in the familiar style of the 1930s: cramped booths; wipe-down chrome fixtures; coal-black griddles. I think I ate there once--raising the remote but not negligible possibility that a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony award-winning composer and librettist served me eggs over easy, hash browns, and white-bread toast. I hope I tipped well.

Though a generation of rail-car diners survives in varying states of renovation or disrepair, the visual essence of these joints has since proliferated in such chain restaurants as Johnny Rockets in the Mall of America. Of course, America's titular mall lacks the cultural cachet of the Moondance. Hash browns here do not necessarily equal hash browns there. What is at issue is that greasy question of authenticity; and so it is too with the bizarre success of Rent and the saga of its creation. For Larson's long enlistment in the service armies is central to his public mythology--if a far second in importance to his having dropped dead from a catastrophic aneurysm on the eve of opening-night success. Here we see the story of the artist and the artist's sacrifice; of a nerdy suburban kid playing tuba and humming Irving Berlin in the shower; of ceaseless self-confidence in the face of failure; of the diem boldly carped.

Which, as you probably already know, is likewise the plot of Rent. Little remains unsaid about Larson's debt to Puccini's La Bohème, and his exploration of the seamier sides of New York's East Village. Of Larson's six romantic leads, four are queer, three homeless, three HIV-positive, and two junkies in varying stages of recovery. Though a tuba-honking honky might sensibly shy away from such raw material, Larson, to both his credit and his occasional embarrassment, tries his best to pay testament to the ravages of the city. And the audience is invited along--straight outta Edina--to ride the heady roller coaster through the theme park that is Gritty Urban Life.

It's appropriate, then, that the most acute risk in Rent does not come from death, drugs, or even homelessness, but, instead, from emotional bankruptcy. There is no pain, we hear again and again, greater than that of not feeling pain. An likable drag queen named Angel must be sacrificed to allow the breeders to get the point; s/he's a dead man from her first life-affirming trounce across the stage. There's something almost vampiric about the way the cast feasts on Angel's potent life force.

Larson's cathartic campaign knows no end (although it's unnervingly entertaining to watch throughout). He implores us to say no to just saying no. "The filmmaker cannot see/The songwriter cannot hear," the lyrics go in one exchange. The song speeds to a climax: "When you're living in America/At the End of the millennium/ You're what you own/ So I own not a notion/ I escape and ape content/ I don't own emotion--I rent."

It would be too easy to point here to the varied stock of Rent merchandise and memorabilia for sale. In fact, it would be a fraudulent indulgence of faux naivete. So indulge me. Right now, one can wrap oneself in the motley, tight-fitting synthetics of actors playing hookers; or in the case of some of these maiden performers, riffraff playing actors playing riffraff. One can probably capture the essence of Rent in a bottle: smells likes bohemian spirit. That the public is eagerly enrolling in this rent-to-own scheme constitutes a paradox far trickier than Larson was ready to resolve with his broad-stroke appeals to empathy. We are buying The Real Thing--which Larson's play suggests, in no uncertain terms, is not for sale.

To reward us for this kind of leap of faith, Larson pulls a Lazarus routine out of his libretto, raising the deceased Angel for the finale. This is no mere "Season of Love," as the showstopping reprise goes, but a season of the living dead. Meanwhile, Mimi, the HIV-positive exotic dancer, is given a reprieve from her death throes; Puccini, one remembers, killed this character off. Why the revision, one asks. Well, why not? The audience loves the resurrection of Angel. And, frankly, it feels fucking good.

Larson's dramatic tenor is only exceptional in the context of the stage; every jukebox in America survives by making a two-pronged play for the heart and the crotch. Rent is mostly a musical trying to be a rock opera or vice versa; anyone who has ever head-banged to a Billy Joel album will quickly comprehend the split personality. When Larson gets hair-rock right--as in Mimi's riff-tastic "Out Tonight"--the results sounds like Poison. (He's aided impressively to this purpose by glamour-puss Manley Hope, who plays rock star Roger as if his brain served only to keep his cheekbones from collapsing together. Hope has a convincing way of bending his knees and thrusting his hips, over and over, that resembles a beery frat boy at a Clapton show--or an imminent case of lumbar collapse. And he makes devil-horns with his right hand when he goes for the high notes. Whether Hope is in on his own joke is another question.)

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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