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|Written by An Nguyen|
|Sunday, 30 November 2008 19:00|
The day I found out that the musical Rent was closing its doors on Broadway, I went through the five stages of grief before the rolling waves of emotion came to an absolute standstill. Like many Rent-heads out there, I immediately booked a ticket to New York to catch one last performance at the Nederlander Theatre.
To me, Rent was more than just an adaptation of Puccini’s famous musical La Bohème, as it explored issues of poverty, homelessness, and AIDS, and made them relevant to a numb society too often eager to forget about the creative class. The profound news that Rent would close its Broadway production for good on September 7th made me question where the state of Broadway musicals is heading in this time of economic uncertainty.
Without Rent, what other musical will force us to think beyond the comforts of our own existence?
Much of Rent’s success can be attributed to the artistic vision of Jonathan Larson. A struggling artist and musician himself, Larson waited tables at the Moon Dance diner for 10 years and at night he would relentlessly write music and scripts for his plays in a small, unkempt apartment in Greenwich Village.
Rent’s appeal was less about the bright 1990s costumes and the minimalistic stage set comprised of a jungle gym of industrial scraps; its greater appeal was based on the thought-provoking songs and dialogue performed by genuine characters far removed from the comforts of the ordinary desk job. Songs like La Vie Bohème, Seasons of Love, Rent, and the Tango Maureen showcased Larson’s unique ability to write in varying musical styles, and poetically worked to dramatize tumultuous and bohemian Larson’s life, witnessing his friends struggle with AIDS and poverty in the East Village of New York.
The sexy side of bohemia was best embodied in the characters of Mark the nerdy film-maker -- who offers a response to the harsh world through film -- and Roger, the rock musician with AIDS, who overcomes his self-loathing to find love in Mimi’s arms. And then there was Angel (my favourite character), the fearless drag queen whose carefree spirit united a community around her. These characters celebrated life in the face of crushing disease, eviction, poverty and gradual gentrification in their neighbourhood. Avoiding pretension, they hauntingly depicted Larson’s real-life friends.
In the era of epic London musicals like Cats, Les Misérables, and Phantom of the Opera, Jonathan Larson’s compositions for Rent had a quiet confidence. This confidence was found in the honest depiction of a booming US economy in the 1980s, which made homelessness a sad reality for many squatters who were bullied by police under the zero tolerance regime. In essence, Larson’s work sang of real-life people enduring real-world struggles.
As I left the theatre, I couldn’t help but think: this is what the musical world needs more of: real-life characters who aren’t afraid to satirize the problems they face. It’s only through acknowledging these issues that we find some balance in this fast-paced society.
I now ask: will another musical come to capture the issues faced by our current generation the way Rent did?
With market turbulence, the housing crisis, manufacturing woes and skyrocketing oil prices in the United States, musicals have not been sheltered from the economic downturn. In the past year, musicals like Xanadu, Legally Blonde, The Drowsy Chaperone, and The 25th Annual Putman Country Spelling Bee have closed their doors. The drop in musical ticket sales makes us wonder whether or not musicals with profound messages like Rent will be able to make their way to Broadway.
Larson had the ability to present real-world issues in a suave mixture of the high- and the low-brow; he was able to capture both the delicate feelings of fearing to fall in love, and the beauty of creating art that simultaneously mimics and enhances reality. In finding beauty in the harsh social realities of our world, Larson proved that he was unafraid to comment on taboo issues. Without Rent on Broadway, we will need another musical to wake us up and emotionally take ownership of our numb society.