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The Conquest of Cool

[whitespace] Rent ACT-UPbeat: The 'Rent' cast rehearses bohemia for the bourgeoisie.

The glitterati drool over 'Rent' -- they just love those singin' junkies!

By Michelle Goldberg

Toward the beginning of Rent, Mimi, the heroin-addicted stripper heroine played by Daphne Rubin-Vega, is visiting her cute musician neighbor Roger's loft. During a long flirtation, she drops her stash, and Roger, an ex-addict himself, tries to hide it from her. Mimi dances a flirtatious duet with him, each singing the soaring romantic ballad "Light My Candle." As the song ends, she reaches around Roger and snatches her drugs. The audience breaks into spontaneous applause.

Such is the strange and cunning appeal of this wildly hyped rock opera, a story about the poor for the rich, the fantastical apotheosis of our culture's fervent nostalgie de la boue. As drama, Rent is disappointing, largely because, unlike other musicals about the innocence of the underclass, Rent lacks real villains and scoundrels. There's no Javert or Miss Hannigan here, only Benny, a cynical former compatriot of Roger and his roommate Mark who wants to turn their building's adjoining tent city into a cheesy multimedia studio. Benny is obnoxious for sure, but even he is redeemed halfway through the show, so the only tension left is whether Roger and Mimi will finally admit their love.

Rent's power lies quite outside its narrative. Its genius is the way it makes a beeline for the middle class's most treasured assumptions about bohemia. Think about all the media types, socialites, matrons and celebutantes cheering when Mimi gets her smack back. Rent plays right into their fantasy that underneath the trappings of yuppiedom, of Prada dresses and Armani suits and opening night theater tickets, they're still artists with heart, goddammit. Especially in rapidly gentrifying San Francisco, Rent is a kind of rite of expiation, where local loft dwellers and Mission encroachers get to scream and clap when the broke squatters defeat the evil, callous agents of hip capitalism. Like college professors with $200,000-a-year salaries who still get misty when they hear the "Internationale," Rent audiences are delighted to feel like they're rediscovering the self they thought they had sold off long ago.

Myself included, mind you. Rent's dazzle is such that even as the critical, cynical part of your brain is appalled, the mushy, romantic part is enchanted. You know from the first second that Angel, the charming, saintly HIV-positive drag queen, dances across the stage that he, and not any of the straight HIV-positive characters, is going to be the show's token AIDS death. The offense is compounded when the other characters decide that his passing wasn't "in vain" because they all learned valuable life lessons from him. Does that mean my mascara wasn't running along with everyone else's? Of course not. Once or twice I even thought fondly back to my own picaresque days of sharing a loft with a half-dozen jobless drug addicts. Still, even my indulgent id recoils from some of Rent's more insulting conceits, like the huff that aspiring filmmaker Mark gets himself into when a TV station tries to buy his footage of an East Village housing riot. After a bit of agonizing (his friends, after all, are starving), Mark decides he can't sell out to the man (and so, presumably, most TV watchers won't get to see how the police brutalize the homeless, but I suppose I'm being way too literal).

Yeah, yeah, I'm fully aware that my objections to Rent are akin to those of the self-righteous hippies who felt trivialized by Hair in 1968. And I'll admit there are some great songs in Rent, especially the truly touching "I'll Cover You" and the self-actualization anthem "Another Day." The performances are superlative, particularly Shaun Earl as Angel. The costumes are fabulous, too--perhaps they'll bring the Rent boutique back to Macy's. For me, though, embarrassing moments outweighed transcendent ones--and I'm usually not someone who objects to melodramatic musicals. (I'm still enraptured by Les Misérables, after all.) When Maureen, a performance artist, exhorted the theater audience to moo like a cow with her during her act, I cringed with every molecule in my body. The expository singing is laughable--try to imagine the following line set to lilting melody: "His girlfriend left a note saying we've got AIDS before slitting her wrists in the bathroom." And while there are few themes more powerful, more intrinsically poignant, than love amid the rubble, the only relationship in Rent to carry any emotional power is that between Angel and his boyfriend Collins, a tragic subplot meant to contrast with Mimi and Roger's happy ending.

One of the most unintentionally funny parts of the whole thing is a press-kit insert pointing out the similarities between Rent and the opera it was based on, La Bohème. In the La Bohème column, "Mimi knocks on Rodolfo's door, asking him to light her candle. When she drops her key, he finds it and hides it in his pocket." And on the Rent side, "Mimi knocks on Roger's door, asking him to light her candle. When she drops her heroin, he finds it and hides it in his pocket." The next page in the folder is even more amusing. It's a press release for the new Rent suite at the hotel Triton, which features "Leopard-print carpet throughout (a nod to Mimi's boots), and a geometric print bedspread fashioned from the fabric used for Roger's shirt. The exterior of the door features the same criss-cross chain and padlock that Benny affixes to Mark and Roger's door when he attempts to evict them from their apartment." Eviction chic for $299 a night!

When the show was over, San Francisco's elite congregated in front of the Golden Gate Theater before heading off to a cast party at the sumptuous Grand Cafe. Everyone turned to watch as Sharon Stone and Phil Bronstein were whisked away in their limo. The obnoxious hat lady TV movie critic was there, as was the brilliant novelist Armistead Maupin, who was hobnobbing with Pam and Judd from MTV's The Real World, San Francisco (why, Armistead, why?). The chi-chi crowd, elated and emotional after the two-hour celebration of poverty, mingled madly. Maybe there should have been some dissonance about the scene, but then that's the amazing thing about Rent. There was no irony there at all.

Rent plays Tue-Sun through Aug. 1 at the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor St.; tickets are $22-$69.50. $20 front row seats are available by lottery on the day of every performance. Call for times. 415/551-2000.

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From the March 29, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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