Like some 1,600 members of the Yale community, I spent two-and-half hours this past weekend watching the Dramat’s production of Rent. Unlike most of the audience, I was almost entirely unfamiliar with the show, to the extent that anyone can be entirely unfamiliar with such a pop culture colossus (“Rent? Isn’t that, like, Angels in America with music?” my similarly-ill-informed brother offered earlier that afternoon). And so I went into the University Theater with open mind and heart. What I saw made no sense.
I should clarify that I don’t mean the production itself, which looked and sounded splendid. It would be difficult to assemble a stronger cast of Yale actor-vocalists. Even Mike Donahue’s DRA ’08 controversial decision to equip his cast with hand-held mikes worked for me — why conceal the theatricality? I’ve been struggling in vain to expunge Jonathan Larson’s absurdly catchy melodies from my brain, songs that can achieve rhapsodic emotional heights even out of dramatic context.
No, my confusion was more related to the world of Rent, its cultural and political universe and the incongruities of duplicating that universe on a Yale stage in 2010.
To begin, let’s examine the lyrics to the song “La Vie Boheme,” a spirited elegy to the imperiled lifestyle of the East Village heroes and heroines. The song celebrates some sexy platitudes (“Going against the grain, going insane, going mad”) before launching into a list of incongruous nouns that make up what they lack in coherence with cultural eclecticism: miso soup, hand-crafted beer, yoga, rice and beans, leather, dildos, carcinogens, the work of Maya Angelou, Sondheim and Pablo Neruda. What is bewildering about this list is not its puckish alternativism but rather its sheer banality. These are all things that can be found in Berkeley South Court on most weekdays. Since the show’s 1994 premiere, Rent’s bohemians have suffered the ultimate insult — they have been rendered mainstream.
Even as we have internalized their tastes, Rent’s artistes and misfits have become more alien, because our generation has managed to have it both ways: to be both alternative and successful. We all have friends who have run off to become starving artists in Brooklyn – except that none of them are actually starving. Unlike the Rent generation, who rejected their Reagan-voting parents, we have no qualms with calling home for financial help. And this makes us call into question Rent’s hipness, which was originally poised on an ideological fault line between the 80’s and 90’s, teetering over a chasm of AIDS-induced nihilism, yet rescued from that fate by the sheer pulse of its in-your-face, interracial, homo-/hetero-/bisexual energy. Rent dreams that a shattered world can be glued back together by friendship, sex, an abandonment of all traditional social boundaries.
But the East Village gentrified — a process Rent depicts, even as it glosses over the real human repercussions of community upheaval (in Rent, the oppressive landlord and his once-and-future friends all hash it out in the end). AIDS receded from an all-shadowing angel of death to a persistent but containable epidemic (at least in the U.S.). And we, the heirs of the messy, self-referential pop-culture crafted in the chilly lofts of Rent’s fantasy New York, don’t need to martyr ourselves to the countercultural causes forged by that era. Rent’s hipness now seems inauthentic, as the angst that drove it and the structures against which it rebelled have long since merged.
Maybe on a rural Midwestern stage, or better yet, in a theater in Cairo, Rent would still be shocking, rebellious and youthful. Here at Yale — let alone Manhattan – the rock sounds pop-y, the multicultural posership seems yuppie, and while we are emotionally manipulated by the soul-wrenching tunes, the only offensive moment is when a supposedly angelic being induces psychological torture on an Akita. Kushner’s Angels in America endures because it is human-specific, not culturally-specific — it resonates to wider and wider spheres until it is no longer about AIDS and Reaganism, but rather, prophecy, destiny and abandonment. Meaner and sharper than Rent, Kushner’s play remains relevant because it doesn’t get lost in the insecurities of generational celebration or lament. In 2010, Rent’s music is just as catchy, and audiences are always ready to sympathize with young, beautiful people falling in love. But its political and cultural universe no longer makes sense to us in the way it should — as a punch to the gut of normative, mainstream values.
What would shock us? What characters could a modern playwright create whose counterculture would repel us even as their personal dramas compelled us to love and imitate them? A musical about Islamic fundamentalists? About white supremacists? About AIDS victims in South Africa, who have no redeeming recourse to “cool”?
Effective theater moves, challenges and overturns us. Staging Rent at Yale may accomplish the first, but it can never drive us toward the other two — not when it indulges us with a culture of cool that we already accept and adore. In the meantime, I’ll kick back with some miso soup and a book of Neruda poems, and await something different.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.