Sunday, September 7, 2008

La Vie Boheme Comes to an End

5,132 performances. How do you measure the life of a show?

Today is a sad day on Broadway. After 12 years, Rent closes -- leaving behind a greatly changed Broadway community from the one it joined in 1996. It is a closing driven by economics (like the rest of Broadway) -- simply put, the people just weren't coming to see the show anymore. (Interestingly enough, though, once the closing was announced, people came in droves -- enough to force producers to push the closing back several months to accomodate the newfound demand. Rent closes with shows sold out to 100% capacity -- a much more fitting end than most shows get when they close)

When Rent opened, Broadway was in crisis. After a decade full of bombastic "event" musicals like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, the musical seemed to be a fading genre. In the years leading up to Rent's arrival, few shows made much of a splash. Even the "kings" of Broadway -- Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim -- were fading. Even though both won Tonys for Best Musical in the pre-Rent years (for Sunset Boulevard and Passion respectively), neither show had the impact on audiences as earlier work and did not enjoy the spectacular success of those landmark earlier works. The demand for bombastic spectacles was being fed by Disney's arrival on the Great White Way with Beauty and the Beast. The shows that made the most noise tended to be either big, splashy revivals or straight shows -- this was the time of Angels in America and when great modern playwrights like Wendy Wasserstein and Terrence McNally were seemingly at the top of their game. To just get a feel for the environment into which Rent walked, the same year that Rent opened, the other big original musicals that year were Bring in Da' Noise, Bring in Da' Funk (which owed about 99% of its success to the brilliance of Savion Glover), Big: The Musical, and Victor/Victoria. Not exactly shows that have become a huge part of the musical canon. Two of the musicals that Rent beat out for Best Musical at the Tonys (Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Swinging on a Star) are shows I honestly have absolutely no recollection of ever even existing -- and I'm a theatre nerd!

So what made Rent so special? A couple things. Like Hair nearly 20 years before, Rent was an attempt to bring youth culture to the theatre. It brought in "non-traditional" music styles to the form, fusing rock and salsa and pop into the genre. The argument could be made that Rent was even more successful in attempting that fusion than Hair before it in that it delved even deeper into the rawness of rock music than Hair did. Rent's legacy can be found on Broadway today. Would shows like Spring Awakening or In the Heights or Passing Strange have even had a chance of playing on Broadway had Rent not paved the way? Although those shows have not enjoyed the same sort of rabid devotion, they do owe a creative debt to Rent.

Besides mining the music of young people to tell its story, Rent also actually told a story about young people; the disenfranchised young artists who populate the story were characters never seen on Broadway in quite this vivid detail. There were lesbians and drag queens (and not those homey, delightful drag queens like in La Cage) and crack whores. These were flawed people and yet people with whom we could sympathize and maybe even identify -- even if we'd never shared their specific experiences.

Rent introduced the world to spectacular young talent. The cast was full of then-virtual unknowns. In fact, the most recognizable face in the cast when it opened was Anthony Rapp, who appeared as one of the nerdy kids in Dazed and Confused. When it opened, we didn't know who Taye Diggs and Jesse L. Martin and Idina Menzel were. Now, it seems almost impossible to believe that a cast could be filled with all those powerhouses. Back then, they were just struggling actors who lucked into a show that would launch them into the stratosphere. (When I listen to my Rent cast album now, it's almost hard to believe how little Idina Menzel's Maureen sings in the show. I mean -- it's IDINA MENZEL. How could she not basically sing lead in every single song? And yet she's a relatively secondary character -- probably the last time something like that could be said of her.)

Of course, the cynic could argue that Rent owes its success to one thing and one thing only -- the death of Jonathan Larson. It's true that Rent did arrive on Broadway with a backstory that could have been its own musical -- a young man who struggles to get his show produced only to drop dead tragically the night of the final dress rehearsal, just hours short of truly seeing his dream come true. There's probably no denying that a significant percentage of those people who went to see Rent in those early days were drawn by morbid curiosity. Morbid curiosity, though, only goes so far. Morbid curiosity doesn't buy you 12 years and over 5000 performances. Rent has become more than Jonathan Larson's tragic dream come true and deserves more than just being the success built on death.

Rent may not have "saved" Broadway from bombast and spectacle. Disney still has its hooks in, after all, and originality still suffers in the face of jukebox musicals and the incessant adaptations from films. But Rent gives hope that that spark of originality can still find an audience and ignite a phenomenon. Someday, another show will come sneaking along that will show us what a musical can be, that will challenge us and show us something we've never seen before. And chances are pretty good that it won't be produced by Disney or have a score provided by the music of Britney Spears.

1 comment:

dbz said...

as a devotee of Rent and musical theatre in general but not all attempts at musical theatre, I am so glad that Rent had such an exalted run and appeal. I've seen it twice in Chicago and each time was blown away. I listen to it on my iPod quite a lot, still, and sing along at the top of my voice if I'm alone in a closed car. Maureen's "Take Me or Leave Me" still leaves my vocal cords raw after the beating they take belting that one out. And Maureen is still my dream role. Amazing musical, amazing music.