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Giving Rent its due

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Buzz Publications
November 2, 2005


We have all done the Tango Maureen. My first time was at the La Jolla Playhouse, and my date for the evening was Marjan, an Afghani, who would tell me after the standing ovation, the evening performance was the first piece of musical theater she had ever seen. She loved it, I loved it, everyone loved it except the prudish couple the huffed out at the first mention of homosexuality.

Rent happens.

Musical theatre marks its milestones with cultural phenomena's that speak in universal terms. West Side Story helped define the 50's, the sixties were distinguished by Hair, the 70's had A Chorus Line, and the 80's, Cats. Rent is the Broadway musical that will always be associated with the 90's,

Opening at the New York Theatre Workshop on February 13, 1996, to rave reviews, the legend of Rent's success includes the death of the show's creator, Jonathan Larson suddenly on January 25th, after the show's final dress rehearsal. Described by The New York Times shimmering "with hope for the future of the American musical." Larson's masterpiece would go on to critical acclaim, garnering 4 Tony Awards, 6 Drama Desk Awards, the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Musical, an Obie Award, and the 1996 Pulitzer prize for Drama.

Living in America at the end of the millennium, experiencing a mainstream rock opera with queer sensibilities was cause for hope. Not since Stephen Sondhiem's Assassins had theatre audiences been respected with such intelligent musical theatre. Modeled on the classical opera La Boheme, Rent set tired taboos to fresh rhythms to tell a story of love, death, and redemption.

Permeating the story of Rent is the reality of AIDS. Of the principle characters, four are living with HIV. That AIDS is used as a metaphor for larger social ills is one reason it was recognized with a Pulitzer. The lyrical narrative of the play is concise, vividly depicting, to quote writer/composer Jonathon Larson, "…a community celebrating life in the face of death and AIDS at the turn of the century."

REPLACEmerica was that community. Unfortunately we still are.

Ten years after the show debuted, the poverty, class warfare , and struggle to find creative meaning in a life, addressed in Rent, is a pertinent as ever. Is it any wonder then that Rent, is now the "eight-longest running show on Broadway."

A theatre purist, I understand the movie version will pale in comparison to the raw intensity of a live production of Rent, how could it not? Now a major motion picture, featuring original cast members, such as a Taye Diggs, Jesse L, Martin, and Idina Menzel, I'm still eager to pay my $10 at the multiplex. Movie musicals are always a hoot.

Having listened to the Broadway cast album of Rent hundreds of times, I'm partial to listening too show tunes while cleaning house, I'm looking forward to seeing the musical numbers translated to the big screen, and upon release repeated DVD viewings.

Bringing Rent to film will do much to remind Americans about the ongoing battle with AIDS. Serving as time capsules films are universal, reflecting the time and culture in which they were produced.

Seeing Rent for the first time, I identified with Maureen the performance artist. On closer inspection, I discovered that each of the characters, at different moments, spoke for me, sang for me, danced for me, and most importantly represented me at the end of the millennium.

They still do.


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