"How do you connect in an age where strangers, landlords, lovers, your own bloodcells betray? What binds the fabric together when the raging, shifting winds of change keep ripping away?" -- "Rent", from the rock opera Rent
"Rent rent rent rent rent.....," as the multicultural chorus of 15 blares out at the climax of the violently powerful opening number of Jonathan Larson's amazing rock opera Rent, which has taken American theater by storm. "...everything is rent."
Indeed, everything is Rent, a show that at once is moving, melodic, humorous, tragic, modern, joyous, and ultimately about love. The premise is simple: a group of idealistic artists living in New York's ultracool East Village fight AIDS, death, modern society, creative mass production, poverty, false morality, and annoying tabloid talk show hosts as they struggle to find both their art and themselves. But the storyline, taken from Puccini's La Boheme, also mirrors the situation many gay youth find themselves in today: How to connect, how to express, how to survive, how to love, how to live?
Although half of the main characters are either gay, lesbian, or bisexual, the struggles of the straight characters are just as meaningful to gay youth. There's the main character Roger, a punk guitarist trying to write one great song before his untimely death of AIDS. There's Mimi, the reckless S&M dancer (I told you it was modern!) trying to give Roger the love he needs, get off heroin, and keep her weakening body from giving in to HIV. There's Mark, who narrates the story through his filmmaking, trying to hold off from emotionally detaching himself from the pain he sees in the world. There's Benny, the landlord, trying to fight a conscience racked with guilt after selling out for commercial success.
"To faggots, lezzies, dykes, cross-dressers, to...to people living with, living with, living with--not dying from--disease! Let he among us without sin be the first to condemn la vie Boheme!" -- "La Vie Boheme"
And then there's the homosexuals. Angel, the loving, joyous transvestite who gets to spout the line "I'm more of a man than you'll ever be and more of a woman than you'll ever get" to a skinhead. Collins, the gay philosopher who loves Angel before, during, and after the drag queen gives in to AIDS. Maureen, the bisexual performance artist devoted to creating equality and justice in the world, but a self-absorbed lover. Joanne, the lesbian attorney looking for the love her upper-class parents didn't give her by working in the legal aid office and being Maureen's on-again, off-again lover.
There's also Gordon and Steve, two HIV+ young men fighting to maintain dignity and some sense of life in the face of impending death. There's Squeegeeman and the Bag Lady, there's Mark's nerve-wracked mother, there's a homophobic pastor, and there's Alexi Darling, the aforementioned talk show host. All together, the characters in Rent are both characters and symbols for all sectors of modern American society.
"We're dying in America at the end of the millennium, dying in America to come into our own." -- "What You Own"
And then, there's the score which highlights the emotional peaks, humor, and ironies of the plot. Larson was equally talented at writing memorable lines as he was at writing memorable songs. The opening number twists the word "rent" around while it's potent tune grows to a fierce climax. After that, the score doesn't stop. It shoots out Roger's "One Song Glory," a passionate plea for artistic integrity "from the soul of a young man...before the virus takes hold," followed by "Light My Candle," a sensual song that becomes almost haunting as Mimi and Roger learn more about each other's lives of drugs, death, and handcuffs. Larson dabbles in techno for Angel in the joyous "Today 4U," tango for Mark and Joanne in "Tango: Maureen," grunge-rock in "Out Tonight," folk in "Will I?", and pop for Angel and Collins' love duet, "I'll Cover You." Maureen does an acoustic "Over the Moon," her performance piece featuring the mooing, which is followed by a riotously funny and catchy "La Vie Boheme," which closes the first act.
"525,600 minutes, 525,600 moments so dear, 525,600 minutes: How do you measure a year? Measure in love..." -- "Seasons of Love"
The second act is opened by the R&B-tinged "Seasons of Love," featuring terrific solos as the community praises love and life. The next big number is "Take Me or Leave Me," Maureen and Joanne's bitchy, bluesy, cat-fighting tour-de-force that has been known to stop the show on numerous occasions. There's a stark contrast between that and "Without You," a slow, sad folk ballad sung by Mimi and Roger while Angel grows weaker and the lesbians reunite. The sexual, techno death-dance "Contact" follows as Angel dies in a powerful stream of delirious screams. Collins reprises "I'll Cover You" at Angel's memorial with the melancholy tone of gospel as the cast reprise "Seasons of Love" simultaneously, an heartrending testimony to the loss of love at the hands of AIDS. The characters experience confusion, isolation, and rage in the next numbers: the quiet, subtle "Halloween," the tearjerking "Goodbye Love," the loud "What You Own," and the finale, which features Roger singing his one song, "Your Eyes," to a dying Mimi. The grand finale reprises pieces of "Another Day," "Life Support," and "Without You" as the cast sings the anthemic "No day but today" chorus in a magnificent ending.
"I think they meant it when they said you can't buy love, Now I know you can rent it: a new lease you are, my love on life...all my life I've longed to discover something as true as this is." -- "I'll Cover You"
"Women: what is it about them? Can't live with 'em or without them!" -- "Take Me or Leave Me"
How does Rent affect gay youth? Good question. Rent uses many tricks to show that gays like Angel and Collins are better people than the falsely moral preachers and churchgoers. But Rent isn't overly PC; it maintains more semblance of reality in the gay culture than, say, "To Wong Foo." There's also the sexy, smart, bitchy and promiscuous lesbians and Angel's queeny, femme ways. The problems encountered by all the characters can be related to by gay youth worldwide: disillusionment, suicide, depression, drug abuse, promiscuity, identity, love, vision, morality, family, sex--Rent covers it all.
The CD ranges from $25 to $35 and can be found in nearly all soundtrack or showtunes sections of music or book stores. Rent, the book can be found at bookstores for $38 in the US, $42 in Canada. The show plays on Broadway at the Nederlander Theater on West 41st and will playing in St. Paul through Aug. 17. Openings are planned for Chicago, LA, Washington DC, Atlanta, Toronto, London, Houston, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Florida.
"There's only us, there's only this, forget regret, or life is yours to miss. No other road, no other way, no day but today." -- "Another Day"/ "Finale"