Earlier this year I mentioned a theory put forth by a popular radio commentator that the older you get, the more conservative you become. He said that when we’re young we all tend to be more liberal but that this starts to change once we hit 40. I found his argument condescending and offensive and considered myself living proof that age did not always move people towards the right. But now I’m wondering…is there any truth to this guy’s theory?
On Sunday I took Leah to see the movie “Rent.” We’ll get into how appropriate it is to take a ten-year-old to a movie about heroin addicts, hookers, and drag queens, but first I want to look at what a different take I had on the story compared to when I first saw the Broadway play nearly 10 years ago. In June of 1996 I was in New York on business and I was able to score a ticket to the hottest play running at that time. “Rent” had only been open for a month but the buzz on the play was tremendous and it was SRO every night. Somehow I got a seat at the back of the theatre and settled back to see what all the fuss was about. From the opening licks on the electric guitar I was hooked. I was completely bowled over by the energy, exuberance, and raw talent of the young cast and I was swept away by the tragic yet ultimately affirming story (based on the characters and events in Puccini’s “La Boheme”) of a bunch of struggling artists living in New York’s East Village, many of whom were HIV positive. I remember calling my then-wife Sophie during intermission. She was back in L.A. with our daughter who was a year and a half. I stood at a payphone (this was in pre-cell phone days) and went on and on about how the play was unlike anything I had ever seen on a New York stage. The second act only increased my enthusiasm for the show. I watched Roger finally come to terms with his past, Collins deal with the loss of Angel, the only person he’d ever loved, Mimi fall into the depths of her addiction and come close to death, and Mark Cohen finally step out from behind his 16mm camera and face life with all its pains and joys. I loved these characters and reserved all of my contempt for antagonist/landlord Benjamin Coffin III.
The last time I’d been that floored in a theatre was 20 years earlier when I happened to see one of the first performances of “A Chorus Line” on Broadway (note to new readers: I’m not gay but you’d never know it from my cultural references—my artistic sensibilities are queerer than those of “Rent’s" drag queen heroine, Angel Dumott Schunard). It’s hard to remember today how ground-breaking plays like “A Chorus Line” and “Rent” were when they first opened. “A Chorus Line” played at New York’s Shubert Theatre for a whopping 15 years, slowly transforming itself from a performance that took your breath away to one that was geared to busloads of Japanese tourists. The horrible 1985 movie version did further damage to the Pulitzer Prize-winning play’s mystique.
“Rent” is now entering its second decade on Broadway and also won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Musical. But the play no longer holds the shock value it had when it opened in the mid-90s. Like “A Chorus Line,” it took ten years for the movie version to get made. But incredibly, almost the entire original Broadway cast was reassembled for the film. This is unheard of in stage-to-screen transfers, especially since the actors are all ten years older and none of them have become box office draws. Idina Menzel (Maureen) did go on to win a Tony for “Wicked,” her real-life husband Taye Diggs (Benny) has starred in several films and TV shows, and Jesse L. Martin (Tom Collins) is a regular on ‘Law and Order,” but none of them are household names. I think it’s fantastic that the producers took a chance on bringing these talented folks back together and permanently capturing their performances on film. The creator of “Rent,” Jonathan Larson, died on the night of the very first preview on Broadway and these cast members have felt bonded ever since. Only two of the original actors did not return. Tracie Thoms took over the part of Joanne from Fredi Walker who agreed with the producers that she was simply too old to play the role. And Daphne Rubin-Vega, who was an electrifying Mimi, was pregnant when filming began so Rosario Dawson was cast in the role. In some ways Dawson’s presence in the film is the most authentic of all, having spent years as a squatter in a broken-down building on Avenue A with her impoverished mother. Dawson said that when the play first came out she refused to go see it. She had lived that life and didn’t think there was anything to sing about. But she eventually changed her tune and is superb in the film. Despite the passing of ten years, the rest of the cast seemed very faithful to the characters they had created. But watching the film I realized that my own take on some of the characters had changed dramatically.
As the ex-roommate of the struggling artists, Benjamin Coffin III had married rich and with his father-in-law’s help had purchased the 100-year-old decrepit building they’d all been living in. Benny planned to restore the building to its former glory and open up a Cyber Arts studio on the ground floor where his friends could make their art and actually see some profits. The upper floors would be turned into high-end condos that would pay for the studio and allow his friends to live there for free. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. Where I had once seen Benny as a villain trying to oppress the noble artists, I now saw him as the most mature character in the story. Benny had more patience than I would have had in his position—the residents of the building he now owned hadn’t paid any rent in months. As they sing in the title song:
We’re not gonna pay
We’re not gonna pay
Last year’s rent
This year’s rent
Next year’s rent.
“Right on!” I cheered in 1996. “Why the hell not?” I spewed in 2005. The movie starts with eviction notices plastered up all over the building. The residents, including Mark, Roger, and Mimi burn these notices and make bonfires in the middle of their apartments. Oy, watch those gorgeous hardwood floors, guys! They then sing about their ex-friend:
What happened to Benny
What happened to his heart
And the ideals he once pursued?
What is wrong with his current ideals? As long as Benny allows these people to live there for free he is just enabling their irresponsible behavior. Stop complaining and get a job, people! The only characters in the play who seem to have decent-paying jobs are Maureen’s lover Joanne who is a lawyer and Tom Collins who is a college professor. When Mark Cohen gets a job in television he is seen as a sell-out and eventually quits. Mimi works as an S&M stripper at the Cat Scratch Club in order to get money for her next fix. Maybe it’s because these actors are now all in their mid to late-30s that the starving artist routine seems a little stale. Or is it just me who has changed? There’s a whole range of cinematic characters for whom my former contempt has changed into empathy with the passing of the years. Lazar Wolf from “Fiddler on the Roof,” (he only wanted to provide for Tzeitel), the Wicked Witch from “The Wizard of Oz” (hey, her sister was just murdered—how would you feel about some brat who killed someone in your family even if it was an accident!), Mrs. Robinson from “The Graduate” (why would she want her daughter to date the man she was having an affair with?), Give me a few more years and I might develop defense strategies for Lord Voldemort and Darth Vader.
I don’t understand all the contempt for parents in “Rent.” It would be one thing if these characters had been physically or mentally abused but in this case the parents' biggest sins are being annoying suburbanites. Mark’s parents call from Scarsdale on Christmas Day to leave him a sweet message after which he tells Roger that this is why he has to live in New York even if he’s starving—anything to get away from them. Huh? I guess that’s another reason my patience now runs thin with this group—except for Angel and Mimi, these are not people who, like actress Rosario Dawson, came from dire circumstances where they had to do all sorts of things to survive, these are privileged upper middle class kids who were given everything they wanted and now seem like spoiled post-adolescents playing at being grungy as if that will increase their street cred as artists.
I used to play the soundtrack to “Rent” in my car when Leah was little and it was the first of many scores she memorized. Her favorite songs at the age of three were the ones that Mimi sang. “Light My Candle” includes such Mister Rogers-friendly lines as:
They say that I have the best ass
Below 14th Street,
Is it true?
Mimi’s other song, Leah’s all-time favorite, was called “Out Tonight” and begins:
Whats the time?
Well it’s gotta be close to midnight
My body's talking to me
It say,’Time for danger’
It says ‘I wanna commit a crime
Wanna be the cause of a fight
Wanna put on a tight skirt
And flirt with a stranger!’
Please don’t call the social workers. When you think about it, are those lyrics really more offensive than Barney’s theme song? Okay, maybe they are, but Leah didn’t really know what she was singing. I never took her to the play but when she heard the movie was coming out she was dying to see it. Not having learned my lesson after my recent over-explanation of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” I again attempted to prepare Leah for the challenging content of the film. “Dad,” she sighed impatiently, “I’m not going to become a drug addict because I see one in a movie.” Indeed, I have to give director Chris Columbus credit for not glamorizing any of the characters’ vices—there’s nothing attractive about the drug use that is seen throughout the film. On the other hand, I will also say that Rosario Dawson performed “Out Tonight” so perfectly and was so unbelievably hot that I could barely bring myself to look over at my daughter. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to bring her to this film after all. But then seeing how moved she was by Angel’s death and the rest of the characters’ reactions to that made me think it was all worth it.
I realized halfway through the film that Leah was very confused about whether Angel (the very talented Wilson Jermaine Heredia) was a boy or a girl. I tried to explain it to her quietly but she just didn’t get it. Finally, I had to practically shout from our first row seats in the Cinerama Dome, “Angel is a boy who likes to dress up like a girl!” which she accepted without question. Frankly, she seemed more confused by the trailer we saw for the upcoming “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Throughout the long preview (why do they have to show the whole damn film in previews nowadays?), Leah kept whispering, “Dad, what’s a geisha?” Finally, on her third query and not wanting to get into a long discussion about it in the theatre, I whispered back, “Someone who has to entertain men but doesn’t have a choice.” Oy, how’s that for a twisted euphemism?
At the end of “Rent,” Leah said how much she loved the movie but that she’d like to see it again in a few years when she’d be able to understand more of what was going on. Ah, the innocence of youth…thank God!
So have I become “The Man” in my middle age, viewing everything through a more conservative lens? I hope not, and yet I do realize that getting older allows me to see many things differently. I would still enjoy hanging out with the likes of Mark, Roger, Maureen, Mimi, Collins, and Angel, but in addition to hearing about their new art installations or performance art pieces, I’d also like to give them a little career counseling over our chai lattes. And then, to quote the most famous song from “Rent,” they can start measuring their years in paychecks and insurance premiums instead of just sunsets, midnights, and cups of coffee.
I do recommend this film for its vitality, heart, and some great performances. Just bring a healthy dose of cynicism with you to counter-balance the idealized homage to “la vie boheme.”
To leather, to dildos
To Curry Vindaloo
To Huevos Rancheros
And Maya Angelou
To Sontag, to Sondheim
To anything taboo
To Uta, to Buddha,
Pablo Nerudo, too
Why Dorothy and Toto
Went over the rainbow
To blow off Auntie Em…
La Vie Boheme!