By now the story of how 35-year-old Jonathan Larson updated Puccini's La Boheme and restaged it with a rock score in the East Village, only to die of an aortic aneurysm the night before the first preview, is theater history. Ever since the musical's 1996 Broadway debut -- which won almost every theater award possible, drew throngs of younger theatergoers to Broadway, and cured cancer (just kidding on that last one) -- Rent's legend has cast big shadows. Its characters -- a filmmaker whose girlfriend left him for a lesbian lawyer; a songwriter and the exotic dancer he loves; a yuppie landlord who seduces the dancer; a transvestite with AIDS and the HIV-infected philosophy professor who loves him; and a lesbian performance artist and the lawyer who loves her -- may not be household names. But they certainly aren't the usual bunch of middle-aged, angst-ridden, white-collar stockbrokers, perky gallery owners, or people in cat costumes who tend to show up on Broadway stages.
Or are they? Slightly older versions of the Rent folks have appeared in mainstream plays, albeit as secondary characters, for the past fifteen years, since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, which decimated the theater community and refocused the visions of dozens of playwrights. As for those who can't, or don't, pay rent, let's not forget John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, in which upper-middle-class parents, victimized by a penniless con artist, find out just how close they really are to the world of Those Who Have Less. Performance artists, bisexual and otherwise, hold court in New York theaters nightly, although most of them are off-off the Great White Way, where Rent barged in. The glory of Rent is that it romanticizes the low life, the choices made by those who aren't looking for a starter house in Westchester or a brownstone on Riverside Drive. The problem is that most of Rent's characters -- not to mention its White Plains-reared creator -- grew up in middle-class households, and it shows.
Who else but a suburban kid would -- as Larson does here -- insert, as a comic motif, sequences in which the characters' well-heeled parents leave them voice-mail messages begging them to come home for Christmas? And speaking of voice mail, since Roger (the songwriter) and Mark (the filmmaker) live in a squatter's loft, for which they steal electricity via an extra-long extension cord, just where do they get off having an answering machine in the first place? It's hard to think of a better example of poverty as posturing, even though that's pretty much what the entire show is about. Why don't these kids go home? Why don't they get jobs? It's hard to believe that kids living in the real-life East Village would find anything in common with the poseurs of Rent. Or consider its music -- ballads, anthems, production numbers played with rock 'n' roll instruments -- anything more than conventional theater fare dressed in new chords.
And where else but Broadway would the subject of drug addiction be handled without the appearance of a single syringe or track mark? In the case of Mimi, for example, there's only the fleeting mention of starvation and prostitution. Here's wagering that the allusive lyrics about snow in Larson's version of "Christmas Bells" go right over the heads of half the audience. OK, I know, Broadway is not the place to look for kitchen-sink realism (at least not unless a playwright in the league of August Wilson is in the playbill). And maybe Rent earned the hosannas it got three years ago, from audiences who were encountering it for the first time and had no expectations of witnessing the Second Coming. But I dare anyone to sit through three hours of this in mid-1998 and tell me that Roger, who speaks of his dreams of glory, is someone possessed of inimitable genius. Or that Mark is the next Andy Warhol. (I am, however, willing to get behind the career of Cary Shields, who in this touring production gives Roger a magnificent voice, painfully strong and sweet, an asset that even the Jackie Gleason's mediocre sound system could not weaken.)
Bohemians or slackers? Real artists or fakers? None of these qualms would matter if the show itself were emotionally engaging. Except through the dynamism of their performances, none of the characters emerge as anything more than stand-ins for types of people. Not one of them has a story line that rises above the generic. Thank God for Julia Santana, who infuses Mimi -- particularly in the explosive "Out Tonight" -- with equal parts exuberance and despair. A human slinky, her intelligent physicality has more going for it than anything Larson wrote for her. Mimi is likable and lovable, but she's a good object lesson in what's missing from Rent. As with other characters in the play, her shortcoming isn't that she's not larger than life; it's that she's not entirely life-size.
There's no telling what Larson could have accomplished had his life not ended so early. Some of the smaller moments in Rent hint at what he might have given us in a more mature piece. For example, there's "Tango Maureen," a funny and charming song in which Mark dances with the woman who stole his girlfriend -- and confesses to having first learned to tango as a kid at the Scarsdale J.C.C. In "Santa Fe" the boys joke wistfully about leaving Gotham behind and opening up a restaurant in the Southwest. Finally there's "I'll Cover You." Sung by Angel, who has AIDS, and Collins, his partner, as they fall in love -- and by Collins and the company after Angel dies -- it's as lovely a romantic ballad as you'd ever want to hear.
And just to prove that I'm not the ultimate theater grinch, let me just say that the cold cockles of my heart were nearly melted by the gorgeous staging on several occasions, not the least by the death scene of Angel, presented as the centerpiece of three lovers' quarrels. Even the show's sentimentality can't whitewash the stunning freshness of any individual AIDS death.
Speaking of Angel, the hometown debut of Andy Senor was sparkly and effervescent, downright magnificent at times. The Coral Park High School grad, now age 23, took over the role of Angel -- it won originator Wilson Jermaine Heredia a Tony -- from understudy Wilson Cruz during the show's Los Angeles run. Now, as the show's resident drag queen, Senor is given the best costumes: In one, a red-and-white Santa jacket, snow-leopard tights and a china-doll wig, he seems to have wandered over from the cross-dressing contest at Lucky Cheng's. He also gets to show off his marmalade voice and charismatic stage presence. Here's hoping we see him again soon, with or without stockings, with or without a meatier show in which to sing.
Book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Michael Grief. Musical direction by Robert Sprayberry. Starring Cary Shields, Kirk McDonald, Mark Leroy Jackson, Monique Daniels, Andy Senor, Julia Santana, and Leigh Hetherington. Closed.