Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rent by Jonathan Larson (1996)

Summary:  The lives of seven young Bohemian friends in New York intersect over the course of a year as they attempt to find (or keep) love in a world where many of their friends are dying of AIDS.  None of the friends seem to have stable jobs and all are just trying to find some way to pay the rent.  The quasi-narrator of the story is Mark, a documentary filmmaker who is rarely seen without his camera.  Accordingly, Mark concludes the play by showing footage that he has gathered over the course of a year. 

Thoughts:  Another play that is difficult to summarize because so much of it is dependent on Larson’s depiction of individual characters and their relationships to each other.  Again, my reading of this play was enhanced by the fact that I am familiar (by familiar I mean I know every word) with the score…but, unlike Next to Normal and A Chorus Line, some of the songs in this text are memorable without their accompanying music ("Seasons of Love," for example, reads like a list-poem). 

Victoria Hoffman’s Introduction to the text reveals some of the now well-known stories about Jonathan Larson, namely that he died after the final dress rehearsal of Rent from a brain aneurysm that two emergency room physicians failed to diagnose.  Interestingly, Hoffman (Larson’s best friend) also writes that he was directed towards a career in composition after Stephen Sondheim wrote to him, “I know a lot fewer starving composers than I do actors” (vii).  Indeed, Sondheim is lyrically thanked in the text and his influence is evident in Larson’s structure and heavily rhyming lyrics. 

Rent is certainly a different kind of musical…and one that paved the way for the critical and popular success of things like Next to Normal (Anthony Rapp, a lead in Rent wrote the introduction to Next to Normal).  While musicals like 42nd Street, My Fair Lady and South Pacific may have been an entry-point into the world of musical theatre for my parents' generation, Rent was my entry-point.  Though the thought of how many times I listened to the orange discs makes me cringe now, the subject matter and artistic choices were unlike anything else that my ninth grade self had experienced.

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