So it’s 2002, the start of my Honours year. I’m studying Drama at UCT and I’m 23 years old. I’ve been out for about 6 months and I’m fascinated by the idea of gay culture and the fact that there is are whole communities of gay people out there in the world. It’s time to choose the topic for my research paper and so I choose to look at my great passion in life, musical theatre, through a pair of eyes from which a pair of claustrophobic lenses have been ripped and settle on a topic: “Homosexual Representation in the Broadway Musical: the development of homosexual identities and relationships from Patience to RENT“.
As can be deduced from the title, this paper comprised of a series pieces of textual analysis placed against the context of the time period in which each of the selected musicals (Patience, Lady in the Dark, Hair, A Chorus Line, La Cage aux Folles, RENT) was originally produced. What was I looking for? Some kind of validation, I suppose. I say this because my analysis in this paper focused on the developmental aspect of homosexual representation through these six musicals; in retrospect, I don’t believe I was critical enough of the shortcomings that presented themselves.
Certainly, it is interesting at this time to revisit what I wrote about RENT, which I said offered “less superficial challenges to the heterosexual hegemony within the Broadway musical”. I suppose it does – but there are other issues at play here, which I will explore after this little trip into the recesses of my academic mind. What follows is an extract from my paper that deals with the issues that come to light in RENT.
Two years prior to the opening of La Cage aux Folles, the tragedy of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) began to have its effect. The first cases were reported in 1981, when the homosexual community was shattered by the horrific illness and death that affected many of their peers – in many cases people were dying in a matter of days. By 1982, the disease had become an epidemic, been named and been designated “the gay plague”. By 1984, enough was known about AIDS to formally refute this prejudice and the ongoing search for a cure began in earnest. Devastated by the personal and professional losses that were suffered, homosexuals began to implement their own war on AIDS and the perceptions that surrounded the disease. Kenrick recalls:
As someone who worked both on and Off-Broadway during the 1980’s and 90’s, I can verify that the ongoing nightmare of AIDS did not prevent those years from being wondrously exciting for gays and lesbians in the theatre. We fought a seemingly “unbeatable foe” [and] gained a new sense of our place in the theatrical community (2001: online).
Indeed, gay theatre practitioners took up a similar type of challenge with the AIDS crisis as they had in the fight for gay identity. Working in opposition to political and public views, both commercial and non-commercial theatre spaces were filled with plays that dealt with issues related to living with the disease. And because AIDS affected everybody, the theatre that arose from this stimulus had a multi-cultural sensitivity: character lists displayed a cross-section of divergent races, genders, sexual orientations and class communities. This is what Jonathan Larson chose to represent in his AIDS musical, RENT, which he wrote in response to the large number of friends he had lost to the disease. Like Hair and A Chorus Line, RENT focuses on social issues that affect a specific community. The sub-culture that is presented in RENT is a group of bohemians in their twenties living in New York at the end of the twentieth century. Many are aspiring artists in some way: Mark narrates the show as he captures moments of the proceedings on film, Roger is a songwriter trying to write the one great song that will define him in history, Maureen is an avant-garde performance artist and so on. Homosexuality is normalised in this community – the activists in this play are all fighting for other causes. The danger inherent in this normalisation is that gay identity is identified as a fashionable trend. This is most overt when Larson includes homosexuality alongside other ‘passing fad(s)’ in the “La Vie Boheme” sequence at the end of the first act (1996: 20). This was probably not Larson’s intention, but the implications are in the text and cannot be ignored.
There are two homosexual couples in RENT: Maureen and Joanne, and Angel and Collins. The former are a multi-racial female couple. In the play, Maureen has only recently realised her lesbianism and Joanne is her first girlfriend. Joanne spends most of the musical worried that Maureen, who is flirtatious with any and every attractive person in the vicinity, will leave her. Eventually, Maureen responds to her in song:
JUST REMEMBER THAT I’M YOUR BABY.
TAKE ME FOR WHAT I AM
WHO I WAS MEANT TO BE
AND IF YOU GIVE A DAMN
TAKE ME BABY OR LEAVE ME.
What finally cements their relationship is their acceptance of each other, their relationship and the special requirements that they will need to negotiate in their relationship. They acknowledge themselves as a lesbian couple and are willing to negotiate the specific pleasures and problems that this brings in the world of the play and in the implied story beyond that world.
The second gay couple, Angel and Collins, is textually placed in structural support of the primary relationship in the play, the heterosexual couple Roger and Mimi. All four of these characters are HIV+. The gay lovers are extensions of previous characters in the gay musical theatre canon. There is a clear basis for Angel, a Puerto Rican transvestite, in Paul from A Chorus Line, although without the guilt or shame implicit in that characterisation. Together, the couple is a younger, cross-cultural version of Georges and Albin in La Cage Aux Folles but without pseudo-farcical quality of that production. Indeed, they are given the most effective gay duet to date in musical theatre. The ‘soul’-flavoured “I’ll Cover You” begins when Angel and Collins realise that they’re more than just “a thing”:
I THINK THEY MEANT IT
WHEN THEY SAID YOU CAN’T BUY LOVE
NOW I KNOW YOU CAN RENT IT
A NEW LEASE YOU ARE, MY LOVE,
ON LIFE – BE MY LIFE.
This sentiment is applied seriously in every aspect of their life together and, when Angel dies in the second act, beyond the limits of death when the full community echoes the emotion that motivates the song in a reprise at Angel’s memorial. Angel’s death has been a contentious issue amongst critics of the show, the general feeling of the criticism being that a gay character is killed off for the benefit of the emotional catharsis of the heterosexual theatregoing public. This is aggravated by the fact that Mimi makes a remarkable recovery after a near-death experience just prior to the final curtain. This ending is indeed one of the major weaknesses in the show, mainly because RENT gives in to the sentimentality that has been avoided prior to this event. This weakens the impact of the climactic and final lines of the play:
I CAN’T CONTROL
MY ONLY GOAL
IS JUST TO BE….
NO DAY BUT TODAY.
Where Hair climaxed with a prayer for tomorrow – “Let the Sunshine In” – RENT closes with an endorsement for existing and living in the present.
Reading through it again, I think perhaps I wasn’t as uncritical as I remember but I do think that because of my own agenda at the time, the nature of my criticism didn’t confront the inherent narrative and representational problems within the piece, partly because my understanding of these issues wasn’t yet fully embracing or complex and partly because I wasn’t ready to delve deep into any possible flaws in something that offered me so much validation in my personal journey. But “you’ll see, boys” – everything changes with time.