January 26, 2019
Tomorrow night, Fox is going to air a Live production of the seminal Broadway classic, RENT. This follows a now annual trend between NBC and Fox where the networks alternate taking classic musicals and air them Live on a Sunday night for the masses to ingest. After years of taking on “edgy” picks like Sound of Music, The Wiz, Peter Pan, and Grease, the powers that be have now decided to do … RENT. I have some strong feelings about it.
Before I start to talk about Rent! Live on Fox, I feel it’s important to establish my “Broadway Geek” credentials. As a lifelong weirdo, white girl with a ginger ‘fro, there were few places in my life I could really “fit in” anywhere, except for theater.
My first role on stage was in Kindergarten, I was as the Peddler in Caps for Sale– a role I got not so much due to a lifelong study of the Stanislavski Method or any real attachment to the journey and career path of a Peddler, or of as a great lover of caps … but because at 5, my teacher believed that I would not only, 1) be heard across the entire all-purpose room of Rosemont Elementary School (“where students rocket to success!”); but also, 2) I would never for a second experience a moment of stage fright.
(Spoiler alert, she was right)
And I won’t get into my not-so-critically acclaimed accomplishments treading the boards over the next decade, or two, of my life – the heady challenge of playing a Snowman in The Runaway Snowman (Spoilers, I was built by love from the boy Robin, so I would return some day); nor the opportunity to play a villager, a fairy, and a courtier in a community theater production of Cinderella when only 12.
In high school, theater became serious to me- Les Mis, Phantom of the Opera, and so on … My obsession with Shakespeare led to a trip to London when I graduated and I saw 8 shows in 5 days. (College was paid for on an acting scholarship and I asked for a car … I got a trip to London instead. I’ll call it a win).
I studied acting for a while and I have remained active on stage and occasionally on film. I’ve won a few local awards, performed at the Kennedy Center and still perform, direct, design costumes and even take voice lessons as part of my continued pursuit of my passion. I see anything I can in my DC-acting market possible and even occasionally make it to Broadway or in London (seen Hamilton twice, #SorryNotSorry).
And if it’s been put on Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, PornHub (hello first act of Hamilton), network TV, or elsewhere as a musical, I’ve seen it. If the soundtrack is on Spotify, Amazon, SoundCloud or YouTube, I probably have it. I’ve lovingly cyber-stalked geniuses of the modern stage such as Jeremy Jordan, Patti Murin, Christy Altomare, Lin Manuel Miranda, etc. for years at this point (PS,I love and support the Equity strike, #NotaLabRat, even if I had to spend 3-5 hours Googling before I wrote this to come up with that opinion). I love Broadway, and I really I love “bringing it to the people.” I hate that it’s hard and insanely expensive to get a dose of this high art – trust me, I wish I could spend $250 on ONE ticket to see Frozen or Mean Girls or Dear Evan Hansen.
So, one might think that seeing Broadway shows coming to live, network TV would, on principal, fill my heart with the kind of joy that allows Cinderella to summon birds and woodland creatures to her room to help her with her daily chores. And, sometimes, it has. Sound of Music (December 5, 2013, on NBC), while not everyone’s cup of tea, was fairly well done. Laura Bennati shined like the angel she is, Carrie Underwood was mostly competent, and a whole new generation was exposed to a beautiful musical, an important story, and the wonder that is live theater.
We’ve had Peter Pan (meh) (December 4, 2014, on NBC); Grease (Oh, great a musical about how a girl has to change everything about her values to be liked and popular … but Aaron Tveit is a god and the songs ARE catchy); The Wiz (actually, pretty brilliant and I’m not normally much of a fan, but that shiz was great) (December 3, 2015, on NBC); and so many more! My favorite to date has been, shockingly, Jesus Christ Superstar (April 1, 2018) – shocking because I LOATHE that show, but they knocked it out of the damn park! The cast was ridiculous (quick anecdote, I met Brandon Victor Dixon, he was my first Aaron Burr, signed my Hamilton program … I mean, NBD, but … come on … it is a BIG. FUCKING. DEAL.)
But I really thought that they messed up when they did one of my eternal favorites – Rocky Horror Picture Show. Messed up not because Laverne Cox wasn’t brilliant (she was), but because THAT IS NOT A SHOW MEANT FOR NETWORK PRIME TIME! I mean, that was basically the entire premise of an episode of Glee – a great show isn’t really good to shove down everyone’s face, but you also don’t want to sanitize it to the point it no longer stands for what it is supposed to.
And that’s the problem with Rent. Sure, it’s a pretty epic
plagiarism homage to Puccini’s La Boheme – a gripping opera about struggling artists in late 19th-century Paris, with at least one character dying dramatically of consumption. (Seriously, the Baz Luhrmann soundtrack of this opera was my gateway drug into opera and I don’t regret it for a second). But, I do think that Jonathan Larson did something kind of beautiful with the show – he took a beloved and brilliant piece of work, and he boldly adapted it to reflect the world he was seeing around him in early 90’s New York City.
In fact, it’s a “musical inspired by Giacomo Puccini‘s La Bohème, in which the luscious splendor of Puccini’s world would be replaced with the coarseness and noise of modern New York.” Surrounded by brilliant but starving artists, dealing with independence from home, the difficult choices posed to them of pursuing art or commerce, in a time of social upheaval and a horrifying epidemic that was killing his friends disproportionately – AIDS. In fact, despite how the show began, the original premise, it quickly became clear that writing about losing so many of his loved ones to the AIDS crisis was now a major part of why he needed to tell this story.
There are many stories of him inviting AIDS activists to consult on the show, making it so that not only Mimi was sick, but that a good half of the main characters were either managing or dying from their illness.
[Ed. Note: Some one would say they were, “people living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease.”]
“Throughout the three-year writing process, Larson spent his time at Friends In Deed, a non-profit organization founded by Cynthia O’Neal and Mike Nichols as a response to the AIDS crisis, that would function as the inspiration behind Life Support.”(Source)
“I’m very clear about Jonathan because he was so focused,” says O’Neal. “He was really there and really listening to everything everybody said. He never spoke in the group, but I just noticed him because the energy coming off of him was so strong. And then one day he said to me, ‘Hey, I’m writing this show about AIDS. I’d love for you to hear some of it, and I sent you a tape.’ I did a lot of dumb things, but I never took a listen! I’m sure it was a lovely little show…”” ~ Playbill Article
So the show is gritty. It’s intentionally a weird punk/rock/Broadway piece- reflective of the scene at the time. It shows a very literal representation of what Larson’s SoHo apartment was like- no heat except from the oven, a shower in the kitchen, floorboards popping out of their seams everywhere.
It used the f-word, said shit, showed people choosing art over enough money to pay their bills. It has very real conversations about drug use, about homosexuality (believe it or not, a very big, very edgy thing to do in the 90’s), and it gets very real about homelessness, addiction, and the loss of people to AIDS – at a time in which that was a scary word in every home. Either you actually feared getting it from your lifestyle, or your parents were trying to shelter you from knowing anything about the fact that those lifestyles existed.
The song, “La Vie Boheme” alone, was the reason I got a discman in high school; so I could listen with headphones. There was NO WAY my parents would have let me listen to that song (what on Earth is a trisexual?). Oh, and the dance number by Mimi at the Cat Scratch Club? The incredibly sexy stripping? (That, by the way, is how you know it’s fiction- you actually really want to watch the stripping, it’s SO dancey and the women are ridiculously hot). [Ed. Note: As a heterosexual male, this is 100% accurate.}
Beyond that, this was the show that made musical theater cool to people who basically assumed it was all My Fair Lady and Cinderella. RENT was subversive, perverted, raw and edgy. It was never intended for mainstream acceptance. For former Disney Channel stars. Or for prime time acceptance replete with commercials for sensible family cars, cholesterol medication, and whatever criminal procedural Fox is showing on Wednesday nights.
Look, I’m going to watch – with plenty of wine and beer, because I have this need to support these things on TV so that they continue to make them … but dear God, the sanitization … the “prettiness” I’m expecting? Yikes.
Look, I’d love to be wrong – follow along on Twitter (@somm_bitch & @popcultureview) and you can see if I am … but WHY, GOD WHY, are we doing this? There are a MILLION shows they could do that are edgy but can be performed without bleeps, re-writes … without losing the thing that made this show what it was – what it is … a place to feel like you were weird, perverse, edgy … but not alone. That maybe you would never be cool or rich or ‘normal,’ but you had a community of other weirdo Rent-heads, living La Vie Boheme.