Rent-Heads and Hair-Balls: An Essay on What's So Darn Appealing

As I have previously mentioned, I never saw Rent in its original incarnation.  So I decided to see the recent re-boot.  With no prior version to compare it to, I hoped that I could come as a fresh-observer and possibly even enjoy the new version without being haunted by the original production.  Didn't happen.  But please give me some points for trying.  I went in open to it...but it did not win me over. 

If it is your holy grail of theater, then just stop reading.  It is probably too entwined with your DNA at this point and you love it so completely that any foul word against it would be sacrilegious.  Please, seriously, stop reading. I'd like us to still be friends.  Agreed.  No cheating.  You've stopped

Ok, the bold of spirit can continue this journey with me into the critical heart of darkness.  The more I thought about my reactions to Rent, the more I realized I had to talk about Hair as well.  Putting aside the current productions of both shows for a moment, I'd like to talk about the underlying texts and what relevance and resonance these shows have to audiences today.  I feel like the press recently has asked the question why young people have been drawn to Hair and Rent.  Besides some snarky all teens are emo response, I honestly want to discuss this. 

Let's start out talking about similarities.  Rent and Hair take the parents vs. kids, us vs them position.  In Hair, the parents provide shelter and money and nag.  In Rent, the parents seem absent and disconnected to their kids and leave answering machine messages and nag.  Both shows allow young people to establish communities of "like-minded" individuals and these young people revel in their rebellious "outside" status.  Both shows focus on a "lifestyle" that requires they live outside the mainstream.  So it seems to me clear why young people would be drawn to these shows.  With cute boys and girls, living in a state of rebellion against parental authority, being misunderstood by those in the mainstream, young audiences can share in that emotional journey.  Isn't that pretty much what life between 12 and 25 is? A constant struggle to be "understood," establish your own identity and then try to find the community where you and your new identity fit in?  Just me?  No I think it is a pretty universal struggle.,

With Hair, it's a hippie tent community where they smoke weed, have sex, trade partners, burn draft cards.  With Rent, they live in a building with no heat and pay no rent. Am I missing something?  Was that it?  My reaction to Rent now was that their squatter lifestyle was not all that edgy.  Moreover, the characters were not all that edgy.  I mean I have lived with strippers, actors, filmmakers.  Just another normal day in NYC roommates.  Ok I have never lived with a drag queen.  I suspect they would hog the bathroom and we wouldn't get along.  Although the characters in Rent are marginalized by their illness, it struck me that this seemed to be a self-imposed exile.  One could also argue that in Rent they were isolating themselves as "artists."  Excuse me while I go gag myself...I'm back.  Ok "artists."  Yeah La Vie Boheme.  I get it. 

Here's where I start to be an old lady.  What artists?  What art? The squatters make about as much art as the hippies.  Maybe the weakness is that the "artist" we see the most is Maureen (in this production she was played by Sharpay from High School Musical--I mean not actually Ashley Tisdale but might as well have been).  Having a filmmaker be the narrator should in fact be a great visual tool to communicate the artist and the struggle...but we never see his amazing riot footage.  He remains an artist in theory for me and not practice.

For both shows, it seems the greatest "creation" is the alternative lifestyle and the space to be who you are.  I sure didn't feel the anger or rebellion in Rent.  Hair comes across angrier.  The characters have taken at least a public position against something larger than themselves.  In Rent, the landlord being their old pal seems to make it too local and small a problem.  I didn't connect to the greater struggle: the greater vision of it.  I didn't detect a bigger theme about homelessness or over-priced real estate.

Another aspect that young people might be reacting to is the fact that both shows allow us the space to explore our feelings about a time, or a place in history either we lived through or we wish to reflect on.  I'm going to be generous and give this to Rent but I thought Rent's exploration of that time period was mild and thin. Any political overtones are broad brushstrokes and not nuanced or deep.  Landlords are bad unless they change their mind and give you keys. Ok. Squatters might be artists and their neighbors are truly homeless, but those two groups don't mix. I guess we might throw an off stage riot over our vacant lot and do ridiculous performance art. But what does it change? Not sure any of the characters are transformed by the political issues.  Although one could argue (not me) that some characters in Rent grow and change, it seems to have little to do with the "political" statements being made.  

AIDS is the other "political" strand in Rent and even that seems to me to be a MacGuffin.  I would argue the play is merely 90's window dressing over teens acting up/acting out. It doesn't feel stinging or even revolutionary.  For dramatic tension to exist, we need to have consequences. 

What are the consequences?  Hair was written for its time.  The audience would know automatically the consequences for these young men and maybe bring their own experiences to that to create frisson. Today that aspect of the show is more historic and academic. Yes there is a current war on (but I think the parallels are weak). The stronger argument to Hair's relevance today is a fight for equality and social acceptance for all. 

My first reaction during Act I in Hair was, "Jesus is this going to be about stupid hippies?" I think I was struggling with the youthful exuberance (or as I experienced it overindulgence) couched in bacchanalian revelry.  Exhausting. But once Claude receives his draft notice the meaning of all that exuberance has a place.  If you are going to draft a boy into war, it has dramatic value for him to sing his soul out in I Got Life.  Suddenly the stakes change and for me I started to "get" why a revival of Hair has merit.  Again maybe audiences in 1967 would have reacted to the exuberance differently.  Perhaps they would already feel this life-death tension from the get go because that was what was happening to them in that moment.  Maybe my reaction comes from a place of comfort and safety some 40 years later and I need the draft notice to bring down the exuberance and sober me (and Claude) with the reality of what was once a generalized external rebellion against "society" is in fact a more personal specific journey. 

I think generally I dislike the non-specific "fuck the man" rhetoric.  I prefer specifically why you want to "fuck the specific man" for what specifically the specific man has done to you.  This is a personal preference. 

Claude has a journey and we see his struggle between a world at "home", a dream world he has created for himself, and the world of his street urchin friends which he participates in but may not be wholly willing to adopt.  The rest of the tribe largely conforms to the group dynamic.  If Claude is on the fence, straddling worlds, Berger seems fixed in his choice to live out his rebellion on the streets, or India, or in some chick's bedroom.  I think it could be very easy to dismiss Berger as a childish boy focused purely on his own personal pleasure.  Immediate gratification, with maybe a protest here or there.  Points to Steel Burkhardt for finding space for that childish nature to be tempered for his love of Sheila and Claude.  As written, I don't think there is a lot of room in the play to explore that "real" adult space where the Sheila/Claude/Berger relationship isn't just about sex but Burkhardt finds the space and explores it. It is a role that could easily drift into antic and ribald silliness (and I imagine some feel that that is exactly where it stays).  But I think it rises above that.  I think Burkhardt grounds his character in an honest place so the emotional impact of the love triangle has some real resonance.  Yeah and he's hot.  Fine. But I'd really like to see him in another show where he can keep his pants on because I think there is more going on there than a nice ass. (I mean if you force me to watch his nice ass and pantless performance, so be it).

Claude has the larger journey and the consequences are played out through him.  It might take a while for them to get set in motion but by Act II it is clear.  I could do with less hallucinations in Act II but that's probably just me and a song with a lyric that includes "gloopy."

For Rent, I still wasn't so sure about consequences even at the end of the play.  They might lose their apartment?  They might die? For some reason that death  "consequence" didn't get communicated for me.  Ok someone dies and someone lives but those seemed more like awkward plot points than statements about the times.  Perhaps I'd need to see it again (god help me) to really get what was being "said."   Maybe the real problem is I can't escape the lens of today looking back at the AIDS epidemic.

Rent reminds me how much the AIDS epidemic was front and center in my teens and 20s.  It decimated the creative community and it impacted such a large part of the art conversation at the time. And yet today watching it I started thinking how even our dialogue about AIDS has changed so much.  So the play's reliance on it feels more historical artifact (not to say the fight is over, or that people are still being infected, or that AIDS in Africa is even remotely addressed).  I mean I can watch the Normal Heart and be gutted by the political shenanigans that went on in the 80's (highly recommend the book And the Band Played On if you are interested in learning about that period in our history).  But we talk about people living with AIDS now as a managed disease.  I don't know...I didn't see what Rent was saying about it.

So what are the Rent consequences.  Please let me know when you find them.

It sucks that Jonathan Larson is dead (probably most for him) because I feel like those in charge of the rights to Rent are preserving his "vision" in mothballs and are afraid to change it, reinterpret it or improve on it.  Say what you will about the Porgy and Bess controversy, I think one of the big questions when reviving a work is to ask what does this say to us TODAY.  I think a show has to at least acknowledge that on some level.  But I expect a lot from shows...and people...and producers...and you wonder why I am mildly bitter. 

Ok that is my texty-socio-cultural rant.  I'm glad both shows are playing right now and I am really curious if others feel more strongly about one or the other.  I mean I never thought I would come out on the side of hippies but between the two, that show had more resonance for me as a text.

As for the productions...

I feel like it would be unfair to judge Rodgers and Hammerstein based on my high school production of Oklahoma. I kicked ass as Aunt Eller but that being was not the production that would shed light on their historical contribution to theater. 

To judge Jonathan Larson on this production of Rent seems unfair too. I felt like half the cast could not handle the vocal range expected of them. One exception for me was Corbin Reid.  She had a serious voice and used it.  There was no chemistry on stage.  I never saw the original but I have to believe (correct me if I am wrong) that you believed in the relationships you saw on stage.  You believed Mimi and Roger on some level loved each other.  You felt the tension between Roger and Mark as friends in conflict.  I did not feel that with these performances.  The chorus numbers when the entire company sang were beautiful and I imagine I caught a glimpse of what the Jonathan Larson hubbub was about.  But the individual numbers largely lacked any emotional impact.  The use of projections can be great but with the set it was hard to see the projections and I got the sense we were not suppose to see much of them.  But then why use them?  I thought a historical perspective through projections might actually imbue the production with a layer of meaning lost from the performances.  But all I could see was an Anita Hill clip and some scud missiles.  Otherwise the time period felt amorphous and non-specific.  Like I said Ashley Tisdale.  And maybe a muppet was playing the stripper/exotic dancer whatever she was. MJ Rodriguez certainly dives into the role of Angel with every fiber of his being.  There was one guy in the swing group who had a gorgeous voice and sang with real conviction.  Too bad he only got a few lines. 

I could write a whole essay on my feelings for reviving productions.  I get it.  They can make money off of this show (and off of the "$10 Long Islands" they are selling before the show that will be delivered at intermission--seriously...seriously!).  Fine.  The audience ate it up because they were singing along in their seats...because they have been primed for the show.  It's almost like Rent has become a jukebox musical because half the audience was seeing it because they already love the music and saw the show on Broadway.  Fine.  But why Michael Grief do you choose to direct this?  What cultural importance does this revival serve?  What do you have to say with this piece that is new?  I'm honestly curious.  15 years have passed since the NYTW production opened right.  So one could argue that there is space between 1996 and now to talk about what was going on in 1991 or 1996.  But I didn't feel it.  And I would have been happy to commune with the time period.  Hug it out with the 90's...but it didn't seem like anyone in the production was interested in a cultural conversation.

I think Hair's revival benefits from the passage of substantial time.  It is both a historic document ("yip"  people, they say the word "yip" and there is the aforementioned "gloopy") and commentary on who we were then, and who we are now.  I mean I don't really "relate" to the characters. I'm an uptight lawyer for christsakes.   But I get the struggle with making your own path, being true to who you are, making difficult choices, and having adulthood thrust upon you.  Say what you will about the tour production of Hair, I have increasingly come to appreciate the performances of Steel Burkhardt and Paris Remillard. They create friendship/love on stage with real feelings attached to it.  So when their characters struggle with one another the consequences and the feelings expressed resonated for me. I saw the Original Broadway Cast back in 2009 but from 9 miles away in a balcony and besides enjoying the music (I didn't realize how much of the music I knew and loved.  I own Age of Aquarius by the Fifth Dimension on vinyl and Three Dog Night singing Easy to be Hard on vinyl) I couldn't really talk about the performances.  I am sure they were acting up a storm somewhere way down there. 

Thanks for reading this ultra-long post.  I am sincerely interested in people's thoughts on this. Maybe I should have just seen Rent when I was a kid and like Star Wars it would just become part of who I am and the "magic" of it would come from the time in which I experienced it and whatever it had to feed me as a teen. I missed the Rent boat.  Or maybe I was never meant to climb aboard it. 


  1. I've been meaning to comment on this post for a while. I came at the revival of Rent differently. I love Rent. I remember when I first heard about this new Broadway musical and I listened to the recording and my mind was blown. I didn't know musicals could do that. I saw two productions in California when I was in high school and never saw it in New York. I thought about going before it closed, but I was afraid it wouldn't be the same. But I decided to see the revival and I realized I will always love this musical, even though its flaws are more apparent to me now, but I felt the same way as you about this production. I think it really needs a strong cast to work and that just wasn't here.


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