Sunday, September 7, 2008

Rent: Requiscat in Pacem

Be careful what you wish for. As a kid, I dreamed of being involved with a long running Broadway musical that would not only wo\in a shipload of Tonys, but would make the utimate leap and cop a Pulitzer Prize for Drama . . . like A Chorus Line. My wish came true, but as luck would have it, the show in question was one that I detested.

In the mid-1990s, I was working for a producer who sent me to review workshops. The worst I ever had to sit through was Rent, a self-styled update of La Boheme. I found the score unremarkable (except perhaps for the clever lyric to "La Vie Boheme"), the characters hopelessly mired in self-pity, and the creaky plot device of killing off a gay man downright offensive. After the performance, I rejoiced to a companion that I would never have to sit through that piece of garbage again . . . and at that moment I suspect that somewhere in the ethers, a higher power enjoyed a good giggle.

Theatre jobs (like the shows they are connected with) come and go, and in a matter of months I found myself working for two of the three producers looking to bring a full production of Rent to off-Broadway. For the next two years, I did everything I could to help make Rent a reality. When the budget got tight, I literally wore out my tape deck making copies of the demo. I may not have like the show, but promoting it was part of my job. After the shocking loss of Jonathan Larson, I watched in something like shock as a juggernaught of publicity and blind sentiment turned the project into a Broadway-bound pop culture phenomenon. To this day I firmly believe that Rent would never have attained fame without the unbelieveably tragic timing of Larson's death. The press and public fell for the idea of a young writer dying on the night his show had its dress rehearsal.

Opening night at the Nederlander Theatre, as the audience reacted to the show with a rock concert intensity, I could not help the feeling that I was watching everything that I love and care about in musical theatre dying before my eyes. At the party afterwards (held on a platform covering the skating rink at Chelsea Piers, leaving many guests with numb feet to go wit htheir benumbed ears), a young colleague assured me that Rent would use up its potential audience in a matter of months and quickly fade from the scene. I replied that while I found that viewpoint appealing, I feared it would take five to ten years for this thing to play itself out.

Well, we were both wrong, and now, twelve years later, Rent is finally closing up shop. Did it really change the course of musical theatre? Not really. All that I love in musical theatre has most certainly not died. Of all the musicals that have followed, nothing has really built on what Rent tried to do. Some point to In the Heights as a sort of successor, but in my opinion that is nonsense. In the Heights is a lighthearted bon bon without a memorable tune to its name -- Rent is a tortured, clumsy soap opera with one or two lasting songs. The only similarity is that both have utterly contemporary scores that ultimately bore me. Ironically, the other contemporary scores that have appeared in the last twelve years make Larson's work sound almost palatable to my weary ear. I still think Rent is garbage, but I respect it as the garbage of its generation. The garbage that has followed is often far more reeky.

This day is a personal landmark: the closing of the last Broadway show I worked on. When producer David Merrick announced the closing of Hello Dolly, he said it was "like burying your grandmother." I now fully understand his point. Much as I dislike Rent, I recognize that it was a piece of cultural history, and for whatever it was worth, I was a small part of that history. So tonight, although my heart goes out to the countless people who will have to sit through amateur stagings of this deafening dribble, I will raise a glass to Rent, to Jonathan Larson, to a culture that remains a sucker for empty sentiment, and to my ill-formed dream come true. Rest in peace, Rent.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"Victory" in Iraq?

Writers pay attention to words -- they are the tools of our trade. While watching this week's Republican National Convention, the use of one word in particular struck me as nothing short of nonsensical. John McCain and his supporters insisted time and again that "victory" is in sight in Iraq.

Victory? Just what would a "victory" in Iraq look like? Does anyone seriously think we can impose a democratic form of government on a mideastern nation divided by bitter ethnic rivalries? Anyone suggesting that "victory" in Iraq is possible has long since abandoned any contact with reality. I know that many leading Republicans have a solid financial interest in prolonigng America's presence in Iraq, but that is their problem. There is no justification for the hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives America is pouring into a war where "victory" is not on the list of viable options.

The best that McCain and his fellow Republicans can hope for is for our troops to stay in Iraq indefinitely, propping up a disposable pro-American regime -- much as we have done for the past half century in Korea. Without the supportive presence of US troops, South Korea would long since have disappeared from the map, just as South Vietnam has. The military inductrial establishment in the US may crave yet another endless stationing of US troops, but our natiuon cannot afford it. I am appalled to hear politicians claim that we cannot pay for better schools or the proper care of the sick in the US, while at the same time our nation hurls itself into unthinkable debt to keep Iraq occupied.

I have tremendous respect for McCain's heroism, and understand an old soldier's desire for "victory," but as one refreshingly sane protester pointed out, you cannot win an occupation.
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