Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace. (Pope)
If you parade something in front of people long enough, they will go through Alexander Pope’s famed cycle of acceptance. They will begin to believe the abnormal, socially abhorrent and once thought of abomination as okay. The stages of Broadway have had a long history of being a harbor “for social misfits, a refuge for those who never quite felt accepted by the masses” (broadway & aids). Michael Feingold, who is quoted on this website goes on to say, “it [Broadway] has been a tool to raise awareness about important issues and new ideas. Broadway has long been a place of refuge for the homosexual community, a place that judged people on their talent as performers, not on who they were as people or how they lived their lives” (Osborn, xvii). In this vein, Jonathan Larson wrote his “Rent.” Originally based on Puccini’s La Bohème, Larson kicks his play up a notch by incorporating the social hot buttons of American society in the 1980’s: Drug addictions, homelessness, kicking the establishment, squatter’s rights, homosexuality and HIV/AIDS. All are still sore subjects with the country. Larson used as skillfully as possible lush music, pithy verbal exchanges, highly charged and controversial sexual situations to portray these once unacceptable things as normal. It could be said that Larson’s design was to enlighten the country about the controversial plight of so many on society’s fringe. But I would suggest “Rent” is merely a means used by Larson to entertain with subject matter that titillates and shocks.In my opinion, the more something is sensationalized, taunted as abominable or condemned by some religious group, the more people are going to flock to it. It’s like coming upon a horrific fatal accident on the freeway. Don’t tell me you don’t slow down and look. I know you do. We all hope to see the gruesome gory details. Then speed away. Did “Rent” offer us a car wreck only to have us speed away after viewing the blood? Is it only art, like a painting to move us for a time and walk away from? Baca suggests “Rent” is only art. “’It’s an incredibly special piece of art,’ Pascal [the actor who played Mark] said. ‘Just like any other piece of media that stands the test of time’” (Baca). So “Rent” is art for art sake. Regardless of Larson’s supposed vision for changing the world, “Rent” only played to a specific audience. We can only wonder if Larson meant to reach only a minority of the population. If he was going to bring about social consciousness to mainstream America, maybe his message missed the mark—a bit. “Hair was the first show to really tap into the sensibility and musical tastes of a young generation…Rent, which has grossed more than $280 million on Broadway, helped by a fervent audience of kids, many of whom saw the show multiple times” (Zoglin). Thus the term RENT-heads. “Rent” was seen as poignant, lyrical, sad, and enlightening. But underneath it was entertaining.I’d heard stories about “Rent”, so when Tim and I sent to see the Moorpark College production, I was apprehensive. I didn’t want to like a play about gay and lesbian relationships. That’s all I’d heard about it. Thinking about Larson’s mind set, none of us can really know what his ultimate goal for “Rent” was. His father said of him in the forward of his book Rent that Jonathan “was eager to remake the American Musical and hungry for a career breakthrough” (Larson). He wanted to sing about social ills. He wanted recognition, triumph, . . . glory! “One song/Glory/One song/Before I go/Glory/One song to leave behind/find one song/One last refrain/Glory!” (Larson, One Song Glory scene). He chose to do Puccini’s La Bohème and made a modern remake. It was to be the “shock and awe” for the most heinous of 1990’s societal ills. In my opinion, he meant to entertain and excite. He died before it made its off-Broadway debut. Maybe his death is what sparked the rapt attention it might otherwise have not gotten. No one can tell for sure. One thing Larson knew was that American’s have fear. “From facing your failure, facing your loneliness/facing the fact you live a lie/Yes, you live a lie—tell you why/You’re always preaching not to be numb/when that’s how you thrive/you pretend to create and observe/when you really detach from feeling alive” (Larson, Goodbye Love scene). I have to admit something at this juncture. I was raised in the Mormon culture, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a little town in Northern Utah. I’ll wager good money, (gambling: something Mormon’s are advised not to do), that even a good Catholic school girl was not as naïve as I was. I was sheltered and preserved from perverse American society.So my first introduction to Gay and Lesbian Americans came in 1977 in a poetry class in College. Apropos? Perhaps. Our openly Lesbian teacher had an equally open fondness for a Gay male. I often wondered why they didn’t just get together; his woman to her man. But that’s an issue for another paper. Needless to say, I might have been considered a classic in-the-dark American stuck in the morally conservative dark-ages. I like to think I’ve “come a long way, baby”, but I still don’t “embrace” the lifestyle portrayed in “Rent.” So to say that “Rent” shocked me, I’d have to say yes, a little. Did it make me cry and hurt for the emotion grief? Yes.
If Larson was strictly going for the social awareness and changed attitudes within the entire American society, then he failed. I think he was trying to be like Mark [his fictional character/film maker] when he was filming the homeless woman. Her reply to his camera in her face was this: “Who the f*#@ do you think you are? I don’t need no goddamn help/from some bleeding heart cameraman/My life’s not for you to/Make a name for yourself on/Just trying to use me to kill his guilt” (Larson, “One The Street” scene). Was “Rent” Larson’s ticket or kick in society’s pants? Maybe he just made the ideas of others more palatable. There were so many others in the Broadway community before him who felt the need to sound the alarm without the use of musical theatre.
“The plague [AIDS] broke all the rules. Because it’s first victims in the U.S. were gay men, it immediately assumed Levitical proportions. AIDS raised the specter of sinful sex in a horrifically literal way. . . . But when it comes to addressing the epidemic as a collective trauma, no medium has been more effective than theater. What we remember most, among the scores of works about AIDS, are plays” (Goldstein). Great play writers wrote with stirring eloquence in the hopes that theater would be a source of “information, education, political agitation, mourning, scalding anger, insolent humor, catharsis and healing” (Winn). Some of the most dramatic plays included those that preceded Larson’s “Rent” are the following: William Hoffman’s “As If,” (1985); Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” (1994); Paula Vogel’s “The Baltimore Waltz,” (1995); and considered an unrivaled masterpiece of the AIDS era is Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” (1993). Each of these vital plays focused their visual recreations to draw people to the plight of others regardless of the theme. Though not set to music, these plays started the movement to draw attention to AIDS and other social ills and used their highly visible forum to speak out. “The forms and immediacy of the medium; the centuries-old potency of agit-prop; the almost sacramental power of live actors enacting stories of death, defiance and endurance all preordained it. The fact that a great number of people who worked in the theater were gay and at risk themselves only heightened those intrinsic qualities of the theater” (Winn).
So Jonathan Larson was not the first and certainly not the last with the desire to bring offensive and execrable behavior to the forefront of people’s minds. There was some speculation that a new production of Larry Kramer’s “The Normalizing Heart” might re-open because the movement has lost momentum. Winn in his article went on to say that “the epidemic would lose its symbolic power” (Winn). What better way to keep it forefront on people’s minds than shocking and titillating while entertaining with beautiful music, the sorrow and triumph of seemingly abnormal love affairs and the grief of a loved one’s death. Hence the twelve year run of “Rent” because people will “dive into work/drive the other way/that drip of hurt/ that pint of shame/goes away/just play the game/You’re living in America/At the end of the millennium” (Larson, What You Own scene).
“Mourning, privately or collectively, is a beginning of action” (Osborn, xiv). That’s what Broadway is hoping for—action. If we view something long enough our senses will weaken for good or ill, and we’ll eventually be moved to action. Whether the highly entertaining production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” hit the mark of raising social consciousness enough to move people to action, we can’t measure. Did he fill his audience’s minds with the plight of homelessness? Did he help people find a way to stop heroin addition? Did he garner more sympathy for the Gay and Lesbian community? Has he aided in the reduction of HIV/AIDS epidemic causes? What I came away with after seeing the production of “Rent” is a profound empathy for sufferers of all kinds of difficulties.Did the play give me the blinding desire to run out and walk in the AIDS marathon or contribute to AIDS research or kowtow to the requested “right” to marry by Gays and Lesbians? No. Did I cry when Angel died and Mimi came back to life? Of course. Who wouldn’t? Have I moved from enduring, to feeling pity for all these social ills to embracing and making them part of my life? Perhaps not. Am I completely closed off to these things because of the shock value of “Rent”? Absolutely not. We can only hope that some of the $280 million dollars that “Rent” earned in its twelve year run was spent on AIDS research, finding homes and jobs for the homeless, and opening drug clinics. Well we can dream, can’t we? And from Mark and Roger the hope for the future is that “for once the shadows gave way to light” (Larson, What You Own, scene). Then of course the last question is: Was I thoroughly and irrevocably entertained? You betcha.
Baca, Ricardo. “Impact of ‘Rent’ roars unchecked by time.” 5 Jun 2009. DenverPost.com. 17 Nov. 2010.
broadway & aids. Project for Gay and Lesbian Performance. 15 Nov. 2010.
Goldstein, Richard. “The Normalizing Heart; How AIDS Plays Have Changed Since Larry Kramer Raged.” The Village Voice. 13 Apr. 2004. 9 Nov. 2010.
Larson, Jonathan. Rent. New York, NY: Harper Entertainment. Harper Collins. 1997.
Osborn, M. Elizabeth. The Way We Live Now: American Plays and the Aids Crisis. 1990. Theatre Communications Group, Inc. New York. NY.
Pope, Alexander. “Essay on Man”. Epistle II: Of the Nature and State of Man, With Respect to Himself as an Individual. Section v. 1732. Transcribed by hand from “The Complete Poetical Words of Alexander Pope.” Student’s Cambridge Edition. 1903. Hougton Mifflin Company. Editor: H.W. Boynton. Theotherpages.org. 17 Nov. 2010.
Winn, Steven. “AIDS AT 25: How to respond to the devastating disease? Live theater—more than any other art—has asked the most profound questions.” 7 June 2006. SFGate.com. 7 Nov. 2010.
Zoglin, Richard. “Life After Rent.” 29 Feb. 2009. Time.com. 17 Nov. 2010.