So – to wrap up my thoughts about RENT before I move onto the next musical of the many that spin around in my mind. At any rate, I reached the point where I think I became more receptive to the show – having moved out of the realms of academia, perhaps I was less reliant on intellect and more open to a more visceral experience of RENT.
So I went along to see the South African production of the show, along with a group of thirty-odd girls from the school where I teach. Now let’s face it, the staging of the show has more than a handful of effective moments: the post-funeral fight between the main characters, the cluster of “Christmas Bells” carolers complete with rude hand gestures, the stunning journey of Mimi from her apartment down to Roger’s loft in “Out Tonight”, the table dance in “La Vie Boheme” and – most of all – the line up that is first seen in “Seasons of Love” and which is reprised to devastating effect after Angel’s death.
But there are problems with the staging – notably, the whole seems less than the sum of its parts. Partly this has to do with the often alienating manner in which the cast is directed in its relationship to the audience. On one hand, the staging is presentational, like a concert, confronting the audience with the world the show represents. On the other, there are purely representational scenes and these are woodenly staged in a faux-realistic style that just excludes the audience. After all, this is live theatre – there is no camera to allow us focus into something we can’t see. And that is a problem, I think, for an audience member who isn’t familiar with the show’s lyrics: RENT is convoluted, you have to listen to know what’s going on and this kind of staging doesn’t encourage you to connect with the show. This is dangerous is a show that is, in some senses, all about making connections.
I also felt that the multimedia aspects of the show weren’t really successful – particularly the climactic film sequence floundered in this production – and the design, with the multi-purpose sculpture as its central feature, doesn’t seem to maximize the use of space on the stage and indeed obscures some the action that occurs further upstage.
So why, with all of these problems, did I see the show three times? Because the experience confirmed my feelings that the primary problems of RENT have more to do with Michael Grief’s staging concept (handled here in the hands of original cast member Anthony Rapp) for the show than with Jonathan Larson’s text for the show. Yes, Larson’s work has its problems – the clarity of the narrative, some dodgy lyrics and so forth – but what lies at the centre of the piece is a heart that beats passionately. The show truly does make you look at your life because there’s a bit of you in each of the characters: in Mimi’s sexuality, in Roger’s insecurity, in Maureen’s passion, in Mark’s neurosis, in Joanne’s conviction, in Collins’ subversiveness and in Angel’s profound love for his friends, for life and for every moment. That’s what makes me love RENT in spite of everything: after more than a decade, when I am far away from the literal experiences of these characters there is still a message about how you measure your life. Second for second, there’s no day but today and – if you’ll forgive the sentiment and the idealism – that day is better lived when you love and you let yourself be loved in return.