Co-Artistic Director Stuart Bousel talks about RENT, and why this year’s Theater Pub Christmas concert, “Christmas Bells Are Ringing”, is bringing his love-hate relationship with this show full circle.
Maureen, I’m not a RENT person.
No seriously… I liked it for about two weeks when I was a freshman in college, and then I stopped liking it.
I never owned my own copy of the soundtrack. My friend Jessica loaned it to me the first time, over my freshman year Christmas Break, and then I borrowed it from my sister a couple of times in the years that followed. I remember that by the summer after my sophomore year of college I was already dis-enchanted enough to declare in the car to a friend that I thought it was “banal.” I held that opinion for a long time.
My sister really liked RENT. I bought her the behind-the-scenes book for Christmas one year. She sang “Seasons Of Love” at her high school graduation (the speaker at the event charmingly called it “rock music”) and she saw it on Broadway and on tour. I saw… the movie. And I kind of liked it. Which is the surest proof I’m not a RENThead. All those people apparently hate that movie.
So why am I singing a major role in our cover band version of it, specially whipped up for Christmas?
Well, I’m an artistic director of Theater Pub and to some extent I feel an obligation to be in the show and Mark was the better fit of any of the other roles (I mean, I suppose I could have been in the chorus… but fuck that, I’m not running myself into the ground for Theater Pub so I can not cop the occasional lead). I also love working with James Grady and Kat Bushnell, who have spearheaded this project (for the record- I wanted to do Les Mis this year) and fine, okay, on some level some part of me wants to recapture my eighteen year old self that bought into the idea that being bohemian was cool and we could all be bohemian- even if in reality the show implies we can all only be bohemian by being bohemian the same way.
Which is what really rubs me wrong about RENT. I think the irony of its “hey man, don’t sell out!” message is that RENT is like the epitome of the show that sold out. Jonathan Larson’s tragic and untimely death made him the poster child of the bo-ho movement of the late ‘90s, but when you look at his career he was clearly always vying for Broadway, desperately looking to “make it”. Yes, he didn’t sell out and get a job working in an office (he famously kept his waiter job all the way up till RENT’s workshop went into previews), but how is praying every day to get picked up by the theatrical equivalent of Hollywood not selling out? Maybe I’m too much the product of the generation that Kurt Cobain killed himself to stay cool for, but something about Larson and his work (especially his first musical, Tick-Tick-Boom) has always struck me as precious and phony.
Plus, the artists in RENT never seem to make any art (or any good art). Maureen’s protest song, which I think is one of the three truly brilliant moments in RENT (and yes, I do think there are moments of brilliance), is really the only time we see one of these “artists” making art. I mean, sure, there’s Roger’s song but… the less said the better, right? By the time RENT came into my life I’d already discovered Sondheim’s SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, which I still think is the most honest, brutal and accurate portrait of what the artistic process and life is like for many of us. People talk about all the parts of RENT that move them, but nothing in RENT comes close to the choking-back-tears sensation I get every time Dot and George’s final scene in SUNDAY culminates with her finishing the part of the lesson book he can’t read. But ultimately these are such different shows with such different objectives- SUNDAY is about making art; RENT is about being part of a scene.
And yet these two shows are compared all the time. Larson himself references SUNDAY, directly, with a whole song, in Tick-Tick-Boom. It’s probably that show’s best moment (naturally, because it’s Sondheim), and he nods to it again in “La Vie Boheme” in RENT. The nods are nice (Larson is a good boy who thanks his influences, something I admire about him) and yet to me it’s also a painfully obvious reminder of how sincere and brave SUNDAY was compared to how pandering and drama-club fantastic RENT would become. Not that I think Larson intended that, or could have predicted it even if he wanted to, but while SUNDAY remains timeless (artists will always struggle with alienation and frustration over a world ill-equipped to support and understand them), RENT has aged badly: the story is now riddled with clichés, some of which are kind of offensive (like the humor derived from Maureen having left Mark for a woman), and the bo-ho scene that was so edgy in 1996 (with it’s bisexuality, drug use and post-modern irony) now seems passé, twee and, let’s face it my friends- about as charming as when our parents talk about the 1960s and ‘70s and how cool they were. But what is shocking to discover as I’ve learned this material now, at the age of 34, is that what holds RENT back is not its temporal setting (SUNDAY, set in the 1880s was never current, yet feels more fresh) but its lack of depth.
Yeah, I said it: RENT isn’t deep. It’s got a lot of heart. More heart than 525,600 productions of Damn Yankees put together. But that’s not the same as depth. Depth requires self-awareness, including self-celebration and also self-mockery, and RENT has moments of both (it’s when the show shines brightest), but they are eclipsed by a deluge of self-projection and self-proclomation, and like most pop culture phenomena, it’s the naive earnestness that appeals to teenagers, but grates when you grow past that moment in your life (and start actually paying rent). It’s like a number of yearbook messages I have from people I didn’t know all that well in high school, who left very nice sentiments about how this was the best time of our lives and I should never change. At the time it seemed sweet, but now I think, “Really? The best time in our lives? Who hopes they pique at eighteen?” But RENT is all about capturing and defining a moment, not looking to the future. After all, the closest it comes to a defining philosophy is “No Day But Today.”
The problem is, once you capture a scene- who is in it and what they value and what they wear and what they listen to, read, etc.- you have essentially killed it. And yes, I do think RENT helped kill the 1990s. It turned moving downtown, being sexually and politically progressive, and pursuing your artistic dreams, into something trendy. Over the decade RENT was on Broadway it went from being a show staring nobodies, many of whom were not trained singers and actors, but rather aspiring performance artists and rock stars, to being just another Broadway tourist trap, with technically perfect singers coming out of various prestigious musical theater programs, sleepwalking their way through the role to entertain legions of mid-west show choir kids on their first NYC visit. When the movie came out it was lapped up by the same America that RENT was ostensibly rejecting. The songs became showtunes, sung by hopeful kids everywhere whose dream was less bohemia and more being famous on American Idol or worse, Glee. I remember the first time I heard a former friend of mine, now a Bible-thumping Christian who voted against gay marriage in her state, go off about how much she loved RENT, and what a cynic I was not to find Angel’s death from AIDS moving. My response was, “Yeah, I’d find it much more moving if he and Collins could get married.” The problem with RENT is that it made bohemia palatable for the non-bohemians of the world- and then they didn’t have to take it or its people seriously. And yes, the flaw lies within the material. RENT is so busy proclaiming “this is who we are” that it fails to ever say, “and this is why you should care.” It’s all sentiment, but no real ideas, and it mistakes sentiment for passion. I commend the show on not apologizing for itself, but I scowl at its lack of anything to say besides its own name.
So here’s my big confession: despite all of this I am excited that for one night, I get to sing Mark. But unlike many people I know who would love to be in my shoes, or one day will be, it’s not because I like RENT. I still don’t really like RENT, though I do think I appreciate it more (that “Christmas Bells” song is a real piece of craftsmanship). It has a lot of corny lyrics and crappy songs, the majority of which seem to be mine. But for better or worse I have managed to dig up that guy who used to wear three layers of shirts and army boots and in his pretentious teenager way he’s reclaiming RENT for my generation, taking it back from all the post-Spring Awakening Gleeks who don’t know anything about the AIDS crisis and all the fear it created in people, or the clean-up of NYC that displaced legions of homeless, or that being an artist is more than a wardrobe and the desire to be an internet meme. I don’t believe RENT really does justice to any of these issues, but I’m going to sing Mark as the person he thinks he is, not the person I see him as. Now.
Which is easier than it sounds because secretly, deep down, I relate to Mark. Still. He strikes me as the kind of guy who listened to SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE over and over again (as Larson apparently did, and as I used to), hoping against hope that he would grow up to be the next Seurat. Yes, he should have aspired to create the next Island of Le Grande Jatte, but mistaking the trappings for the content is something we do when we’re young.
Our self-proclomation is an incredibly catchy tune.
But since we all have to sing it at some point, let’s at least do it in a bar full of all our self-proclaimed bohemian friends.
Don’t miss “Christmas Bells Are Ringing!” our one night only Christmas concert, tonight at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale in San Francisco. Get there early- it’s going to be packed!