I have this odd relationship with the Broadway musical “Rent” – I was one of the first people camping out to see it the first week it went up in 1996, but only because my brother and his first wife were doing it as well. We got seats in the very front row, and when Collins (Jesse L. Martin) drops the keys from the “window,” they landed in my lap. I’ve always found the play ridiculously self-involved, and though the production was meant to bring Broadway to Generation X, there are crusty jokes that would have been better suited to Bob Hope and Doris Day:
Roger: I’ve seen you somwhere else.
Mimi: Do you go to the Cat Scratch Club? That’s where I work. I dance.
Roger: Yes! They used to tie you up.
Mimi: It’s a living.
In fact, for such supposedly vibrant characters, not one genuinely funny thing happens in the whole show. Even Maureen (Idina Menzel, who you saw on NY taxicabs for years) ought to be funny as a performance artist, but she comes off as loud and annoying. I suppose a commenter from IMDB said it best many years ago by writing “the whole thing smacks of ’90s wussyisms.”
So if that’s the case, why am I standing in my living room last night, by myself, watching the movie version of “Rent” and bawling my fucking eyes out? The movie came out about ten years too late – not just because the entire cast had aged, but because the New York City in “Rent” doesn’t exist anymore, nor does anyone’s penchant (or tolerance) for the sort of artistic tomfoolery we hectored in the Daisy Age Micro-Era of the early 1990s. And yet, the sentiments of the play are totally prescient.
“Rent” ends up being a historical document, partly about the pre-cocktail days when AIDS was held tenuously at bay with AZT (and thus scared us all shitless) but also when mass corporatization of all our art and desire wasn’t a foregone conclusion. In one of the play/film’s best sequences, the song “La Vie Boheme” famously lists all the Greatest Hits of Counterculture; in 1996, it seemed tedious and obvious, but in late 2007, it reads like a roll call of deceased friends.
By the time the movie starts on “Seasons of Love” and the “Will I?” song about losing one’s dignity to disease, I was pretty much a goner. Part of it, I’m sure, is having the Lulubeans in my life. Something about having a kid amplifies all culture, makes you feel things with odd intensity, able to cry sure as kiss my hand, with local news stories about babies escaping apartment fires reducing you to rubble.
But the other part is the creeping realization that the bullies have won. “Rent” may “smack of ’90s wussyisms” but I’d take it 100 times out of 100 compared to the “go fuck yourself” mercilessness of this decade. It all makes me proud to be on strike, because if you haven’t noticed, we’re basically the last union standing between You and Five Companies Who Are Going To Own Absolutely Everything. One by one, the Man has bent them all to his will, but a bunch of people who dare string words together for a living has brought his empire to a slow halt.
“We’ll pack up all our junk and fly away,” Collins sang from that subway ten years ago, “And devote ourselves to projects that sell.” I wonder how much of “Rent” we’re still allowed to believe in.