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The 'Rent' Revolution

The groundbreaking musical still looks ahead of its time

By Rob Pratt

JONATHAN LARSON'S sole masterwork of musical theater is a veritable Cinderella of the American stage—a landmark penned by a complete unknown. Larson's Rent caused a sensation with its 1996 debut that Broadway has not matched since then, and the touring production of Rent that stopped in San Jose last week for a brief run presented by American Musical Theatre of San Jose does a fine job in re-creating the grit and emotional power that made the show so shockingly original. This time around, though, the shock and awe inspired by Rent doesn't come from the staging techniques or from the adult themes in Larson's text and songs. Instead it comes by contrast in a clash of American cultures—1996 America vs. 2004 America.

Rent loosely follows the story of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème, resetting the opera composer's story of Left Bank bohemians at the turn of the 19th century among the struggling artists and counterculture denizens of New York's East Village at the turn of the 20th century. The AIDS epidemic is ever-present in Rent from the opening number, when Roger, an HIV-positive ex-junkie and would-be rock star, struggles to write "one great song" before he dies, to a scene involving a meeting of an AIDS support group that solemnly affirms, "No other road/ No other way/ No day but today."

Despite disease, crushing poverty and a creeping gentrification that threatens their way of life, the characters in Rent are hopeful, spirited, loving and community-minded. They celebrate diversity and deviance. They toast their difference with a paean to "La Vie Bohème." In 1996, that moment in the show represented the cultural coming-of-age of a new generation, the so-called Generation X, a group in their 20s when Rent debuted. In 2004, when Generation X has collectively entered a cultural hibernation that began with the dotcom bust, Rent's celebration of bohemia seems like a prophetic commentary on a cultural landscape paranoid about difference and dissent.

The original Rent presented a cast of unknowns, and the touring cast likewise includes many with limited musical theater experience. In virtually all cases, however, they delivered outstanding performances. Dan Rosenbaum, a tall young man who fronts a pop-punk band when he's not on the road with Rent, gave a powerful performance as Roger. Singer/songwriter Ava rendered kooky performance artist Maureen with winning aplomb. Also particularly good were Marcus James as computer whiz Tom Collins, Damien DeShaun Smith as the transvestite Angel, and Andy Meeks as guerrilla filmmaker Mark Cohen, the narrator of the story. The minimal, four-person orchestra deserves special kudos for turning out a dizzying number of styles—from rock to techno-dance to tango—with an energy and ebullience that complemented the enthusiasm of the players onstage.

Could a musical with such anti-mainstream attitudes debut to legions of enthusiastic fans in 2004? This year's Tony winner for best musical, Avenue Q, looks and acts a lot like Rent. It debuted off-Broadway and touched off a sensation with a story that's youthful, gritty and sexy. Avenue Q, however, involves romantically linked puppets, and just doesn't generate as much heat as skin. Where Rent is biting and provocative, Avenue Q is cuddly and cajoling. Rent was a revolution—which, for all of its brilliance, failed to overturn Broadway's tendency to present bloated productions reviving tried-and-true battle-axes or blockbuster recreations of Hollywood fare—while Avenue Q is an aberration, the exception that proves the rule. That Rent still seems immediate and relevant almost a decade after its debut signifies the enduring truth of Larson's emotionally powerful story. That Rent can earn powerful new cultural meaning even less than a decade after its debut surely marks it as a classic of American musical theater.

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From the September 29-October 5, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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