John Simon. >>>
This is no review for young people; no one under 50 or even 60 need read it. It is about Rent, which I have been repeatedly lukewarm about, back only three years after its long run closed. It is revived to cater to the cravings of the newly young, the young in mentality, and the addictedly nostalgic.
I will say this for it: unlike other shows that get better or worse with repetition, Rent stays the same. It owes a large part of its success to its fanatically dedicated young author, Jonathan Larson, having dropped dead after the final dress rehearsal, though not out of any disappointment, and thus eliciting oodles of sympathy from critics and audiences alike, No amount of money can buy that kind of publicity; it does raise the question though whether premature mortality is not too high a price for immortality.
And then there is something else: Rent was one of the earlier rock musicals, and, like the still earlier Hair, dealt with contemporary youth issues. But Hair is to Rent like Proust to Stephen King: Galt MacDermot is a substantial talent; Larson mostly died young. There are other early rock musicals in greater need of reviving; I think of Your Own Thing and Oh,Brother!, the latter remarkably relevant to the politics of our time.
Incidentally, I used to perceive the title, Rent, like other people, as a noun. Paying the rent, as in Puccini’s La boheme, of which the show was a free transposition into the contemporary East Village. But I can see it also as the past participle of rend, as a tearing asunder of what Puccini and his librettists, Giocosa and Illica, and even Murger, on whose novel the opera was based, had wrought. I learn now that Larson, and his two collaborators, Billy Aronson and Lynn M. Thomson, also viewed that as a secondary meaning.
Larson’s procedure (he largely wrote the book, lyrics and music) was neither quite honest nor intelligent. The latter because one of the big numbers has an illiterate title and refrain, “La Vie Boheme.” Now Murger’s novel, Scenes de la vie de boheme, abridgeable as La Vie de boheme, cannot forgo the de. Any more than Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge or Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta can do without the of.
It is also dishonest. In the opera, Mimi dies, which is part of what makes it so moving. In the musical, Mimi dies of AIDS, but comes back to life in Roger’s (i.e., Rodolfo’s) embrace, bringing the show to a more commercial end. True, the lovers’ friend, the drag queen Angel, does die of aids, but he is not a principal character, and besides, though dead, manages to urge Mimi during her near-death to continue living and loving with Roger. In my review of the Broadway production, I wrote that this copout “makes a mockery not only of logic but also of death and of Jonathan Larson’s own tragedy”—he died of an aortic aneurysm.
But let’s get to the music of this essentially through-composed show. In my original review I wrote, “The music is both eclectic and erratic as it tries to embrace every form of pop. It is most successful in tributes to (or takeoffs on)show tunes.” I still hold with that, but must add that there are also long passages of recitative and underscoring that betoken, if not quite a tin ear, let’s say a titanium one.
Several cast members (reduced to 13 from 15) do nicely, Notably Arianda Fernandez (Mimi), Annaleigh Ashford (Maureen, i.e., Musetta), Corbin Reid (Joanna, based partly on Alcindoro and Marcello), and Nicholas Christopher (Tom Collins, based loosely on Colline). But everyone is good enough, though I personally do not respond to Adam Chanler-Berat (Mark, i.e., Marcello), whom I found wanting also in two previous shows. I find him singularly lacking in charm.
Mark Wendland’s set is fine, as are the ragtag costumes of Angela Wendt, who also outfitted the original production, and Kevin Adams’s lighting. Lawrence Keigwin’s apt choreography far surpasses that of Marlys Yearby’s for the original. To the smaller stage and the more more intimate auditorium of the New World Stages, the show adapts felicitously, and Michael Greif, the original director, stages it handily.
So without quite comprehending Rent’s Broadway run of 12 years and 5124 performances, I can foretell a reasonable run for the revival. Render unto Rent its relatively anarchic appeal.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.