SUCCESSFUL MUSICALS ARE habitually targeted for lawsuits--just ask Andrew Lloyd Webber--and the Broadway phenomenon Rent is no exception; dramaturg Lynn Thomson is currently suing for an increased share of the show's now huge profits. A dispute you probably have not heard about, however, involves writer Sarah Schulman and her semiautobiographical 1990 novel People In Trouble. Though Rent originated as an adaptation of La Bohème, a brief piece in New York magazine (1/13/97) detailed uncredited similarities between Jonathan Larson's and Schulman's works. Both pieces deal with a love triangle between a male artist, a self-centered female artist, and a lesbian social activist. In both, the woman artist stages a performance piece that leads to a riot involving a greedy landlord and his attempt to evict tenants. Both feature an interracial relationship between an HIV-positive drag queen and a political activist. In People, this pair uses stolen credit cards to buy groceries for the poor; in Rent, one rigs an ATM to dole out cash to the needy.
Speaking on the phone from her Lower East Side flat, Schulman sounds exhausted. Off the cuff--and on the page--she's given to large and elegant generalizations, some more convincing than others. Regardless, Schulman raises important questions that have been roundly ignored by the mainstream press. She's given up on pursuing a lawsuit, and instead has written a yet-unpublished book about (among other things) Rent and the commodification of queer culture.
CITY PAGES: When did you first suspect you'd been plagiarized?
SARAH SCHULMAN: It had been six years since my book was published. I had written four novels, three or four plays, and hundreds of articles since that time. It was very far from my mind. Then [operatic librettist] Michael Korie told me that he had had this discussion with Jonathan Larson in 1994, where Larson had told him he [was using my book]. I reread the novel, and I realized that the play was actually two plots: La Bohème was the straight plot and People In Trouble was the gay plot, and he had just wound them together. I told my publisher and they were like, "We don't care." Then [Angels In America playwright] Tony Kushner got a lawyer to talk to me for free. I found out that Rent was worth $1 billion, the movie rights had been bought by Robert De Niro, [and the music by David Geffen]. In other words, I was up against the most powerful people in America. After three months [my lawyer] said, "Well, we're going to represent the Larson family." It became clear that there was so much money involved that I was dealing with people who are extremely snaky.
CP: What about Rent bothers you?
SCHULMAN: It's constructed like a Benetton ad: There's the homeless Puerto Rican drag queen who's HIV-positive, the black upper-class lesbian, the straight white guy from the suburbs who's HIV-negative. And they're all presented as equal; they're all bohemians. This is a standard conceit of a dominant culture: to look at people who have different levels of social power and equalize them in a false way that removes the specificity of their experience. Also, there's the central romance, which is heterosexual. Then there's the gay male couple and a lesbian couple. This presents an illusion of tolerance. The audience feels good about themselves because they've come in and seen gay people kiss onstage. But the actual message is that in the gay male couple, the guy dies. The lesbian couple--all they ever do is bicker. The only people who have true love are the straight people. [Also], the gay people with AIDS die, and the straight people with AIDS live. So you end up with a story of the AIDS crisis in which the central, most heroic figures are straight. Believe me, I have lived through the AIDS crisis and I know that that is the opposite of the truth.
CP: You seem to be placing an awful lot of power on the influence of entertainment.
SCHULMAN: At this moment, every play on the New York main stage about homosexuality or AIDS is written by a heterosexual. Now that they own that territory, they're telling the story in a way that is not true. These plays are part of a broader media event, which also includes advertising, prime-time TV, and what kinds of gay news are reported in mainstream publications. This is the first time that the dominant culture has produced its own version of homosexual life. So it's a very interesting and intense transitional moment. Many of the people who lived through the AIDS crisis--the people with longevity of experience--have died. So there's this weird witness position that some of us end up in. Who's going to say what happened? All those people whose families abandoned them, or showed up at the last moment when they died, are dead. So who's going to tell the truth, that they weren't there for them? Only those of us who saw it.
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