Last Year’s Rent, This Year’s Rent

Something you might not have known about me: I used to be a Renthead. Everybody knows about me and The Phantom of the Opera; what you might not know is that it took me four years to see Phantom five times…and only twenty months to see Rent five times. That torrid pace was bound to subside, especially when the show only ran in Toronto for eight months, but I’ve still got an impressive track record where Rent is concerned. And tonight, I celebrated an historic personal milestone: I saw Rent for the tenth time.

(By the way, no one knew Rent was coming back. The only reason I found out was because Paul told me; this explains, I’m sure, why there were so many empty seats this evening. Also, this was my first time visiting the Elgin Theatre since seeing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with the Westgate band in May 1997…and speaking of the Elgin, it’s also the theatre where I saw Tommy for the first time, which is one of the five seminal experiences of my life. Naturally, I get nostalgic whenever I go there; our seats tonight were three rows in front of the seats we sat in for Tommy. But I digress.)

Tonight’s performance was solid, although it certainly wasn’t the best version of Rent I’ll ever see. During the show I did a lot of thinking about Rent in general–about its history, about its place within the cultural zeitgest, about its legacy…y’know, the sort of things you can do when you know a show’s material as well as you know the back of your own hand. Rent, you will recall, is famously unfinished. Its creator, Jonathan Larson, died on the eve of its first preview performance. His death–made all the more poignant in light of the show’s subject matter–helped propel the musical to fame, and Rent eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was instantly hailed as a Hair for Generation X, a musical that articulated the angst, confusion, and emotional bankruptcy of life in America at the end of the millennium. Inevitably, and none too ironically, Rent eventually joined the cultural mainstream against which it ostensibly rebelled.

So. One of the (inevitable?) byproducts of this commodification of Rent was the creation of Rentheads, a group of people who embraced the musical as their own and infused it with much of its original spirit. I wasn’t part of this group–I was still too young to fully grasp what the musical was saying when it first opened–but I aspired to be like them; if second wave Rentheads existed I was definitely leading the charge. When I first saw Rent, at the Ordway Music Theater in St. Paul, MN in July 1997 I liked it a lot, but it was more of a visceral experience than a genuinely moving one. But the second time seeing the show still ranks as one of the great theatre-going experiences of my life; I was so moved, in fact, that I went back the next night and saw it again. Yet I still don’t think I “got” Rent until at least the seventh time I saw it. Where am I going with this? Tonight, the seats behind us were filled with a new wave of Rent fans. Superficially, they’re exactly like we used to be: they moo during “Maureen’s Protest,” they know exactly when to cheer during “Out Tonight,” they clap along to “La Vie Boheme.” Yet if Rent really is a musical for Generation X, their reaction to the show is slightly mystifying: shouldn’t they be too young for Rent?

For a long time I’ve felt as though the bulk of Rent‘s fans are only partially in love with the show; the rest is a carefully orchestrated act, a conscientious effort at appearing to appreciate the musical they’ve been told is “theirs.” Rather than letting themselves experience the show for themselves they’ve come with a set of assumptions about what it’s supposed to mean to them–so while the reactions are all appropriate, they somehow ring hollow. I’m not suggesting that I’m a “better” fan, or that people who remember when Rent first opened have a right to be vanguards of the musical’s legacy…but when a group of Quebecois teenagers is reacting to songs about emotional ephemerality, the function of art as political and social protest, and the struggle between personal integrity and commercial gain like they’re seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, it makes me wonder.

Cynical? Probably. In reality I’m probably just afraid of letting go of Rent, of passing it on to a new generation of theatregoers. I’m jealously guarding it the way I’m inclined to guard any artifact of 90s culture; that should probably be an indication that it’s time to loosen my grip. On that note, during “What You Own” I was struck by how well Rent is holding up to the passing of time–especially since lines alluding to “the end of the millennium” should pin it down to a specific time and space. Which leads me, somewhat ironically, back to my previous point. If the next generation of Rent fans don’t understand the show the way its original audience did, then the musical clearly transcends cultural specificity, and instead speaks to something far more general about the human experience. When Collins sings the reprise of “I’ll Cover You” at Angel’s funeral (which isn’t just Rent‘s emotional high point, but which is a viable contender for the most stunning moment in modern musical theatre), it doesn’t matter if you were born in 1980 or 1990: if you’re not shaken to the core of your being you probably don’t have a soul. Come to think of it, the universality of Rent probably supersedes any claims of being a “generational” musical…which means I shouldn’t be so hard on people who’ve come to the party late. Isn’t that a sign of growing up?

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