John Lahr (review date 19 February 1996)
SOURCE: "Hello and Goodbye," in New Yorker, Vol. LXXII, No. 1, February 19, 1996, pp. 94-6.
[Below, Lahr examines the theatrical implications of Rent's popularity, hinting at Larson's possible influence on musical theater.]
By some terrible irony, the restaurant next to the Minetta Lane Theater, where a memorial service for the composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson was held last week, is called La Bohème. Puccini's opera was the inspiration for Rent, Larson's rock opera (at the New York Theater Workshop), and the show features, among forty well-sung numbers, three songs that are as passionate, unpretentious, and powerful as anything I've heard in the musical theater for more than a decade. Larson died of an aortic aneurysm on January 25th, a few hours after the dress rehearsal of Rent. He was thirty-five. Larson's name is new to me, but his talent and his big heart are impossible to miss. His songs spill over with feeling and ideas; his work is both juicy and haunting. That's why, after seeing Rent, I ended up at his memorial service. I found out that Larson was a rangy, goofy-looking guy with jug ears and a funny grin; that he grew up in White Plains; that he had the capacity to love and to be loved; that he'd done six downtown musicals with suitably quirky titles like Tick, Tick … Boom!, J. P. Morgan Saves the Nation, and Superbia; that he waited tables at a SoHo diner to support his musical habit; that he dreamed of earning enough money from his writing to splurge on cable TV; and that he believed, like Gatsby, in the green light and the orgiastic future. "Count the green flags, not the red flags," he told his friends. He also talked about his crazy ambition to bring the musical up to date: Rent is billed as "The Rock Opera of the '90s." Larson is certainly not the first composer to take aim at that elusive target, but he may be the first to have hit it. His gift for direct, compelling, colloquial lyrical statement seems to prove that the show tune can once again become both pertinent and popular. Over his desk Larson had posted the motto "Make the familiar unfamiliar, and make the unfamiliar familiar." Whatever the problems of the production, the score of Rent achieves the astonishing feat of marrying the musical's old sense of blessing to the society's new sense of blight.
The landscape of Rent is a gray and dishevelled loft space and environs in the Lower East Side's Alphabet City. "The curtainless set seems more like a pile of junk than a set," Larson's stage direction says; and waste is the right metaphor for this soiled, threadbare world of artists, addicts, and the homeless—the compost out of which the lost souls in Rent try to grow their dreams. Here poverty, and not abundance, is the musical's issue. "No Visa No Mastercard / No Amex / No travellers' checks / No dollars / No cents / No," a chorus of Village vendors sings. It's Christmas, and the holiday provides an ironic frame for the uncharitable events of Rent, which include the eviction of a group of artists from their loft. In fact, every assumption of the traditional musical has been stood on its head. The old romance of triumph has been replaced by the new romance of despair. Now lovers don't meet cute, they meet infected. Roger (Adam Pascal), a young songwriter struggling to write one good song before his light is snuffed out, falls for Mimi (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a strung-out dancer; both are H.I.V.-positive. The drag queen Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) camps up catastrophe in his seduction of Collins (the smoky-voiced Jesse L. Martin), a young teacher who ends up giving him safe harbor. "Yes," Angel sings. "This body provides a comfortable home / For the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome." Mark (Anthony Rapp), a would-be filmmaker who bears witness to the group's eviction battle and earnestly tries to take the moral temperature of his times, asks, "How can you connect in an age / Where strangers, landlords, lovers, your own blood cells betray?" Death is the climate in which this musical lives. The air is full of loss—loss of home, loss of dreams, loss of life. If it sounds like Sondheim territory—well, in a way, it is. Larson won a Stephen Sondheim Award for Superbia and a Richard Rodgers Development Award for Rent. Although he wasn't a Sondheim clone, he was definitely a disciple; he even works his decidedly uptown mentor—a Broadway baby if there ever was one—into a rhymed catalogue of downtown bohemian icons: "To Sontag / To Sondheim / To anything taboo … "(At the memorial service, a college friend recalled long late-night talks with Larson about...
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