The following essay first appeared
in Open Salon, in October of 2011
“How would you like to see Rent,” my friend Kayla recently asked me, “in a barn?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
So we drove two hours, from Pittsburgh to Loretto, Pennsylvania, to visit the Cresson Lake Playhouse. This is the pinnacle of rural community theater: The playhouse is, in fact, built into a converted barn. The parking lot is gravel and grass. Cider and cocoa are sold from what appears to be an old tool shed. By the time we took our seats, the house was packed, and everybody seemed to know each other.
Rent at the Cresson Playhouse was not what you’d call “good.” It was positivelyawesome. The set was dark, stripped-down, and covered in graffiti. The actors belted their rock-arias with appropriate passion and tonal flair. There were hiccups – Roger had a paunch and kept singing flat, and Mimi Marquez was a delicate blonde. Lyrics were lost to faulty microphones. But the good far exceeded the bad: stunning voices, sharp dancing, not-bad acting, and a magnificent Angel. That is, Angel the AIDS-infected drag-queen who repeatedly makes out with her beefy, African-American, anarchist boyfriend.
That Rent was a joy to watch is beside the point. The point is that Rent was produced at all. Earlier this year, the rights to Rent were released to regional theaters, yet Cambria County isn’t the first place you’d expect to find a production. This is the region Pittsburghers derisively dub “Pennsyltucky,” a county that’s mostly white, very well-armed, and almost completely Christian. Public schools close on the first day of hunting season. These towns were founded by farmers and coal-miners, and many have crumbled. Yes, towns like Loretto are unfairly vilified, but this show was a genuine surprise.
To refresh: Rent was composed in 1996 by Jonathan Larson. One of the great tragedies of Broadway history, Larson died of an aortic embolism during Rent’s first preview, so he never saw his many Tony Awards or Pulitzer Prize. The play was a Broadway behemoth, and touring shows traveled the world.
I was 16 when the show debuted, and as a drama club kid who sang tenor in the school choir, Rent was a revelation. Based loosely on Puccini’s La Bohème, Rent concerns a bunch of artists squatting in a run-down apartment building. Half are gay, half straight. One is addicted to heroin, most are HIV-positive, and all of them are dead broke. But they’re snarky, eloquent, and creative, and they muddle through their challenges with something like dignity. For a super-liberal Vermont teen, Rent seemed like the future – a sonic scrapbook of bohemian life.
I’ve heard the recording a few hundred times, know much of the libretto, and I saw it (once) in New York. Among true Rent junkies, this is a ho-hum relationship. Some fans have seen the live show dozens of times. They can sing the songs, play them on guitar, and have choreographed dance-moves to the soundtrack. Before there was “Glee,” there was Rent.
But like most period-pieces, Rent has evolved with time. For one, it’s no longer the “end of the millennium,” as one song proclaims. For two, AIDS is no longer the pandemic plague it once was; tests are faster, the people infected live longer, and the full-blown terror has subsided (for good and ill). Third, and most damning: The Rent lifestyle is no longer feasible. Mark, the resident filmmaker, turns down a lucrative TV job because “that show is so sleazy.” Tom, a philosophy professor, loses his job at a university, so he just bums around for awhile. And Angel, the story’s cross-dressing messiah-figure, seems to wander around spreading love and kind words. These were all delightful pastimes in the 1990s, when American feared neither war nor recession. Artists who blew their resources in New York could always take a Greyhound to California and mooch off a dot-com.
These characters are less appealing today. I was stunned, in 2005, when Chris Columbus directed his bizarre film version. What place did Rent have in the Bush Years? The United States was fighting two wars and openly condoned torture. The gay rights movement had reached a cultural plateau. The East Village had traded broke bohemians for well-heeled hipsters, and the stock market was flying a kamikaze mission. So who cared about a bunch of dropout artists? In the world of Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson, what are HIV and homelessness but godly punishments? Is there one shred of Rent that your average Tea Partier would not abhor?
Indeed, some sentiments are hard to swallow, even by lefty Vermonters who once loved the show. In the song “What You Own,” Mark sings lines like “leave your conscience at the tone.” Such gripers can’t survive in the 21st Century. Roger, the sulky musician, is hardly a character at all – he’s just a sad dude with a guitar. Rock-stars and filmmakers are no longer reliable for sturdy liberal sentiments, and most of Rent’s themes can be boiled down to a few bumper stickers. The play would never be created today, much less garner a Pulitzer Prize. By the time Trey Parker parodied Rent in Team America: World Police (calling it Lease), the show had long lost its context. The era of Rent is nearly as distant to us as Saturday Night Fever.
Still, Rent will probably survive, as it should. As I sat in the audience of the Cresson Lake Playhouse, I wondered how this down-home crowd would respond to same-sex kisses, simulated sex, abusive cops, and crass hobos. Would folks walk out, furious that Obama socialists had infected their town? All my fears dissipated by intermission. Deep down, Rent is about more than bohemian life. It’s about love in a time of dying, unconditional friendship through poverty and decay. Take away the grungy outfits and endless pop-culture references, and Rent is still La Bohème – a story of youth and perseverance. As the cast bowed and reprised “Seasons of Love,” the Thursday-night crowd stood and clapped along. Guys in baseball caps and old women in sweaters smiled and wept. If Rent can find a home in a Cambria County barn, it can find a home anywhere. And that can only help.