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The "Rent" Problem

Why critics of the new film adaptation need a history lesson

On a spring evening in 1998, I was walking through Manhattan's East Village with my friend John, a novelist who had been involved in ACT-UP during its heyday. I don't remember the context, but at one point I quoted a line from the musical Rent-either "Maybe it's not the moon at all / I hear Spike Lee's shooting down the street," or "Rent! Rent! Rent!" (The former I would say whenever I got stuck in a film-crew morass, which happens too often in New York, while the latter I would mutter on the first of every month.)

John looked at me aghast and said, "Oh, you're not a fan of Rent, are you?" as though he were asking if I was a cannibal or a Republican.

"Well, uh," I stammered. "I didn't think it was the greatest show ever, but I liked it."

He made a harrumphing sound and said something like, "It's not quite an accurate portrayal of what life in the East Village is like," and went on to complain about the Renttourists-the kids who came in from New Jersey and Indiana to sight-see the locales from the show, such as the Life Café and the various alleyways populated by homeless people living in cardboard boxes. John didn't have to mention the great irony of Rent, that the show was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a month telling a story about poor artists with AIDS. That was a given.

Now that the film version is finally out, nearly ten years after the show opened in New York, won four Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, many of the criticisms about Rent have resurfaced. Unfortunately, they have been coming out of critics' computers either full of factual errors or tinged with the hostility normally reserved for inauthentic art-a hostility that, in this case, is misapplied. The problems with the film Rent have nothing to do with the ages of the actors or director Chris Columbus's lack of vision; they have to do with how the original show was written, how its history has been re-written, and how Rent was transformed from a little musical to a billion-dollar commodity.

It is now 2006, and I think many people forget that Rent was a cultural event when it opened in 1996. The show changed the direction of the theatre scene not because it was a huge hit but because it was a huge hit and it was unlike anything else that was on Broadway or in London's West End. It's hard to imagine now but when it premiered, everything was against Rent-it was an original rock opera with a tiny budget, starred virtual unknowns and was about the disenfranchised. It was also about AIDS.

AIDS was once a death sentence, not just for people, but for art. Falsettos, William Finn's musical about a gay man and his family, was brilliantly written but its depiction of AIDS was in the Making Love vein-tame and suburban-and the show didn't last long on Broadway. The great drama of the last quarter of the twentieth century, Angels in America, won the Pulitzer and two Tony Awards and it was about AIDS as well, but it was a commercial failure. Rent, on the other hand, was a theatrical Harry Potter-everyone wanted to see it. (The off-Broadway parody show, Forbidden Broadway, used to have a number with the lyric, "How am I gonna get tickets to Rent?") The show was on the cover of Newsweek, fans were obsessed, and people got rich. It has run for nearly ten years, making it one of the most successful theatrical shows in history.

Why Rent became such a popular spectacle while Angels in America did not isn't a question that Rentheads (meaning not just its fans, but its producers) like to discuss, and when they do, they do so disingenuously. Yes, Rent was fresh and different but it also had a hook-the guy who wrote it died the night of last dress rehearsal. Jonathan Larson was thirty-five, straight and he had struggled for years to successful-but Larson didn't die of AIDS; he suffered an aortic aneurysm.

AIDS isn't a gay disease, but in the time and place that Rent takes place-1989 in New York's East Village-it wasa gay disease. Had Larson been gay and died of AIDS, no one would have cared, outside the obvious communities. Similarly, if the show's central love story had been a homosexual one, it wouldn't have likely been the hit that it was and is. It is Roger and Mimi's heterosexual relationship that is the centrepiece of Rent, while the gay couple and the lesbian couple have big numbers but smaller roles. Two people get sick in the show-the straight one survives. The majority of theatregoers are heterosexuals and don't flock to see shows about gay love and gay lives. "Rent was about how straight people were the heroes of AIDS," wrote Sarah Schulman in her book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America.

The title of this book belies that much of its pages are devoted to what happened when the author saw Rent. Schulman realized that half of the show's plot-the gay half-was lifted from her novel, People in Trouble, while the other half was taken from Puccini's opera, La Bohème. Not surprisingly, Schulman was furious and looked into her legal options, but these were limited by the fact that Larson hadn't siphoned any of her own language (he had only used the plot, which is not covered under copyright laws) and by the resources available to Larson's estate which, now run by his parents, had become obscenely wealthy.

It also didn't help that Larson's parents were fiercely defending their son, especially after his dramaturge sued for a share of the money. (They settled with her.) Al Larson, Jonathan's father, believed that Schulman was only out for publicity and money: "She is free to slander Jonathan and there's nothing we can do about it legally," he told me in 1998, when Stagestruck was published and I was working at Newsweek. "You can't slander a dead person." However, in the book, a friend of both Jonathan Larson and Schulman says that Jonathan admitted to having read People in Trouble. At an awards banquet in 1994, Larson told the playwright Michael Korie about his new musical. "I was surprised when he described it," Korie said. "I asked if he had read People in Trouble. Yes, he was indeed familiar with it. He was inspired by it."

When I reviewed Stagestruck for Salon, I tempered my opinion. "Whether Schulman would like to admit it," I wrote, "both Rent and Philadelphia, in their straight-friendly narratives, enabled millions of people to see, and at least partially understand, the way the Other lives." I still believe that, but I wish I had also written that I was revolted and appalled by what Al Larson had told me, not just because Schulman's work had clearly been stolen but because Larson had attacked an actual hero of AIDS. Sarah Schulman helped found ACT-UP, an organization which has fought hard and effectively for AIDS funding and research, and without which millions more would have died. She was only asserting ownership of her story, her tragedy, and her culture.

Had Rent not become a goldmine for so many people, had it run for only a month at some nonprofit downtown theatre, Al Larson probably wouldn't have been so defensive and Schulman probably wouldn't have written Stagestruck. But money can be like a drug, poisonous and addictive. For instance, the producers of the show hyped Jonathan's death when Rent opened in London; it became a marketing tool rather than the sad coincidence it was (the tool failed-London didn't like Rent). Bloomingdale's, a store none of the characters in the show would have been caught dead in (except Benny), sold Rent-themed outfits. Entire subway cars were devoted to Rent advertisements. The soundtrack rights sold for $1 million, and the film rights for over $3 million. Making a profit on the film version was such an issue that Spike Lee dropped out of the director role due to budget constraints. When the movie was finally greenlit, the hack-tastic Columbus climbed on board and the original Broadway cast members-the cheap ones-reprised their roles, with the exception of Daphne Rubin-Vega, who was replaced by the younger, starrier Rosario Dawson.

There are many valid things about the movie to complain about-Columbus's direction, the overly faithful adaptation, the use of sets instead of locations, the fact that it's just not something that works on film-and some of the better critics have pointed them out. Others have raved about the movie, including A.O. Scott of the New York Times and Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly. Rarely do I read any critics besides those in the Times, EW, or The New Yorker, but every once in a while a review gets quoted somewhere and I am sucked in. This happened when Defamer gleefully quoted Carina Chocano's review of Rent as it appeared in the Los Angeles Times. For your convenience, here's the money shot:

Rent is commodified faux bohemia on a platter, eliciting the same kind of numbing soul-sadness as children's beauty pageants, tiny dogs in expensive boots, Mahatma Gandhi in Apple ads. It's about art, activism and counterculture in the same way that a poster of a kitten hanging from a tree branch ("Hang in There!") is about commitment and heroic perseverance.

Chocano's is probably the most lyrical of the scathing reviews that the movie has received, but it's also just as offensively ignorant as the rest of them. In addition to proclaiming Rent's inauthenticity, many of the negative reviews attack the movie for being dated (that's like saying Les Miserablesis dated), claim Larson had different intentions (no one should pretend to know the intentions of an artist), claim Larson was an incompetent songwriter (he still managed to write "Seasons of Love" and "Take Me For What I Am"), go after Columbus for sanding down the show's original edginess (the show didn't have much of an edge to begin with-thus its success), attack -homophobically-the film for being about what it's about (then don't go), or trash it for being what it is, a rock musical (as if it hadn't been on stage).

Rent was a show about identity politics-about being poor, a person with AIDS, an artist, gay, queer, and the kids who worship the show romanticize the culture, the way of being, of its characters. Like most theatre geeks, they hate their Podunk upbringings and see freedom in artistic life. On the other hand, the people who dislike Rent almost always tend to have solid, formed identities as intellectuals, artists, queers or people with AIDS. Like John and Sarah Schulman, they don't see themselves in Rent, or they're jealous of its characters. Who doesn't wish they could sing and dance on tables, rewire ATMs to spit out free money, or come back to life on Christmas? In Rent, it all looks too easy. Those of us who have struggled know that it is not a song and dance.
Ted Gideonse lives in San Diego and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. Read more columns by Ted Gideonse.