Rent is back, and I for one don’t feel inclined to complain. Naturally, I’m obliged to say that it isn’t as good as the original—how could it possibly be?—but that obligation arises naturally from the material, like the tears shed over the dying Mimi. I wept those tears at New World Stages last week, just as I wept them at New York Theatre Workshop, and again on Broadway, in 1996. Millions of audiences have gotten similarly wet-eyed since Henri Murger turned his collection of sketches, Scènes de la vie de Bohème, into a play back in the 1850s. Certain moments in theater invite weeping, just as revivals invite dismissive comparisons. The response is more a reflex than a criticism of the work. Tears are in things, and the story of La Bohème, or Rent if you know it that way, is one of their principal cultural habitations.
Jonathan Larson, who wrote Rent, nettled people accustomed to Murger’s and Puccini’s versions of the story by not having Mimi die ultimately. On the other hand, neither Murger nor his many subsequent adaptors ever killed off the free-spirited Schaunard: The grieving in Rent for Angel, Larson’s version of that character, stirs up enough eye-moisture to balance Mimi’s final-curtain survival. Which is, bear in mind, provisional: 15 years after Rent‘s premiere, there’s still no cure for AIDS. What Mimi (Arianda Fernandez) and her Roger (Matt Shingledecker) might endure if the show had a third act probably wouldn’t be all roses and lollipops. Added to which, Larson himself didn’t live to enjoy Rent‘s gigantic success. Enough death already for one musical. Tears are in things, that’s all.
Consequently, a revival of Rent means tears shed for many different reasons. Larson’s score still sounds wonderful, and his book works sly, sardonically funny updates and deconstructive twists on Puccini’s operatic compression of Murger’s chronicle. Puccini’s Schaunard and Colline become Larson’s gay couple, Angel (MJ Rodriguez) and Tom Collins (Nicholas Christopher). Larson merged the opera’s Benoît and Alcindoro, the four starving artists’ landlord and a rich skirt-chaser respectively, into a far more intriguingly complex character, Ben (Ephraim Sykes), artist-dreamer turned yuppie gentrifier. And Puccini, mapping the love-spats of Marcello and Musetta, never imagined the delicious giddiness of Mark (Adam Chanler-Berat) sharing a tango with his lesbian successor (Corbin Reid) as lover of the wayward Maureen (Annaleigh Ashford).
So, indeed, one weeps: at rediscovering the work’s creativity; at the thought that Larson didn’t live to create more such delights; at the glum awareness of how few musicals since Rent have had such fun taking liberties with their sources. We’re living in America, at the rather sour beginning of a new millennium, the confusion and anger of which arise directly from the chaos left behind by its predecessor.
Rent‘s characters—willful, self-destructive, contrarian—are the adorable, appalling embodiments of that chaos. They don’t much haunt the East Village’s streets any more, but their presence is still tangible. The vacant buildings taken over by squatters have been renovated or demolished; the homeless have been swept up into shelters; AIDS has been tamed by pharmaceutical “cocktails.” Manhattan rents, even more unaffordable today, now drive young artists to remote outer boroughs. The homeless haven’t vanished, and the current economy will probably increase their number. And the number of new HIV infections has remained constant: around 50,000 a year nationally, mostly among young gay men.
But if Rent provokes weeping, it also embodies an anti-lachrymose spirit, countering tears with defiance, with laughter, and with action. If the new cast lacks some of the flair and individuality of the original, it has fervor and a brassy assertiveness.
Michael Greif’s new staging, though it sometimes nudges heavily where his original production touched lightly, has a sharper overall look, with which Kevin Adams’s lighting gives particular help. If the new show seems, at moments, a commodity in praise of anti-commodification, there’s a sense in which Rent was always that. The era it salutes was already almost gone when it first arrived on East 4th Street 15 years ago. Time, while pushing the life it draws on further from us, has kept it fresh—another good reason to weep, or to rejoice, as you choose.