This Space for Rent

After six million three hundred
and seven thousand two hundred minutes, Rent’s lease on life will expire
in the Big Apple this fall. In the Mini Apple, aka Minneapolis/Saint
Paul, it will expire in a few days. Through June 22nd the
touring company of the iconic musical will be at the Ordway Center for
the Performing Arts before packing up its things and leaving for good…at
least until the next national tour. I’m excited to be joined by
Emily Stagg who saw the show with me at the Ordway, as we dissect
Rent’s impact and cultural relevance 12 years later, as well as our
thoughts on the traveling cast.

How is the traveling show?

B. In academia, those
who can’t do, teach. Apparently in entertainment, those who can’t do,
tour. With the American Idol everyone-can-be-a-star revolution,
a symbiotic mutant sucker fish has attached Broadway to Idol and vice
versa. The first time I saw Rent? Pre-Idol Constantine Maroulis.
This time? Fourth season AI alum Anwar Robinson and South African
Idol Heinz Winckler. It’s not necessarily that bad, you get some
killer voices out of the deal. If there are tickets left, I would
say grab some just to hear Heinz Winckler belt through "One Song Glory."
On the downside, producers just love to jam notable stars into parts
whether they fit or not. Anwar’s higher register is fantastic,
but since he plays Tom Collins, a part written for a rumbling baritone,
it’s not like you get to hear it. Also, Winckler’s Roger is a
bit uninspired.

E. As an American Idol
fan (and when I say fan, I mean scary obsessed junkie), I was excited
and just a bit apprehensive to see Anwar and Heinz headline one of my
favorite musicals. And, in true national tour style, both of them were….fine.
As Brandon said, the worst part about Anwar’s performance was his beautiful
tenor/high baritone squashed into a low bass part. Memo to the casting
company: just because this semi-famous man happens to be an African-American
with long dreadlocks, he is not necessarily an ideal Collins. Oops.
Heinz on the other hand sang like an angel, which was enough to overshadow
his somewhat weak attempt at acting. Speaking of Angel, how can she
have been overlooked so far in this review? Played by Kristen-Alexzander
Griffith, this Angel’s singing was occasionally lost in between genders,
but her strutting sassy queendom elicited some of the finest and most
humorous moments of the show.

B. To me, the real drain
on the show is Dustin Brayley’s Mark who is, conservatively speaking,
fucking terrible. During the opening number I was horrified that
we might have stumbled on some horrible amateurish nightmare production.
Was he a replacement? Was he the replacement’s replacement?
Was he simply lost? No. In fact, he has the longest theater
bio in the cast. He improved after the opening number, but clearly
lacked the chops to complete with the vastly more talented cast like
Jennifer Colby Talton’s fantastically legato Mimi.

E. Brandon, my dear, you
exaggerate. Mark was not atrocious–merely mediocre. If he was atrocious,
we could have at least laughed at him throughout the show. Instead,
we merely shrugged, and occasionally winced when Brayley took five seconds
too long to get his cues. Overall, this was a perfectly good version
of this classic show, worth seeing (and occasionally wincing at.) Like
all other performances of Rent, what makes the musical sparkle with
energy and enthusiasm is the audience-the teenage girls who know every
damn word and scream when Roger and Mimi are introduced, the parents
who are notably uncomfortable at every use of the word "fuck," and
all the others who got dragged along without quite knowing what they
were getting into (but somehow find themselves enjoying it nonetheless.)

B. Like Emily said, it’s
not perfect, but it’s still the Rent you know and love. Though
two new tours are likely to start up next year, grab tickets when you
can, because Rent is definitely on the way out.

Why Rent? What is
its cultural significance?

B. I would like to propose
an addition to the blog Stuff White People Like. White
people love Rent. Glancing around the Ordway it was impossible
not to notice the word on everyone’s lips. I couldn’t make it
out, but it was either Ikea or lutefisk. Why then is Rent so popular?
After all, it’s impossibly complicated, and preaches a pretty selfish
way of life. It’s not as if we identify with the characters–we’re
not Roger or Mimi, Mark, or Maureen. Let’s be honest, to shell out the
$80 for tickets, we’re all Benjamin Coffin III. Then again, it’s
great music, and it actually has something to say. In an industry
where Young Frankenstein: the Musical is like saying "Young
Frankenstein: You See, They Sing on Stage, Which Makes it Funny," Rent
does a great job of differentiating itself.

E. It was really remarkable.
On the way out after the show, I turned the corner to leave the auditorium
and was momentarily stunned by a sea of texting cell phones whipped
out by 16-year-old high school suburbanites. What exactly is it that
makes this particular audience (my suburban self included) connect with
Rent’s very urban portrayal of drug use, depression, illness, and death?
Maybe it just so happens that the answer is in the question. Whether
we are from the city itself, or from Eagan, or from Scarsdale, NY (Mark’s
hometown in the show), our lives intersect with sadness. We may not choose
to live like the characters in Rent, but we experience similar emotions,
and the show carries itself in its emotions. When Angel dances, we feel
his joy. When Maureen gives her protest performance, we moo right along
with her, timidly at first, and then unabashedly enthusiastic. When
Collins speaks at the memorial service, I can say that even in my fourth
performance of Rent, I cried. As complex as the show may be (and I think
on some level, you’re right about that, Brandon), I think it is the
simplicity and the rawness of its emotions that fills up a 1900-seat
auditorium on a Tuesday night 12 full years after it was born.

B. Is it still relevant?
I would say yes and no. We don’t have an AIDS cure, but it’s a
manageable illness now in the US. I think today it’s easy to brush
Rent off as "that musical where everyone has AIDS," because its
not a part of our common experience the way it is in Africa, nor is
it as terrifying as it was at the end of the ’80s. There is a
real irony having Heinz Winckler here in the states since that issue
would probably resonate more in his home country. I think Rent
has been—and still is—extraordinarily important for helping push
GLBT issues into the mainstream. And honestly, I think it’s pretty
impressive to inspire shrieking 16 year olds 12 years later. Ultimately,
Emily and I came to the following conclusion:

We might not live like the
characters in Rent do, but in the end, Rent is a celebration of life
the way we wish we could live it.