Don't cry for Rent on Broadway. It's about time. In reality, few shows -- if any -- can aesthetically sustain a five-year run, much less a 12-year one, and part of the reason why Broadway has not seen a greater collection of outstanding new work over the past decade-plus is because the economics have become such that only a brand-name show that sustains its ticket sales can survive, let alone thrive. There's little new excitement on Broadway, especially in terms of musicals, because little innovative creativity exists.
I've been on a bit of a theater binge recently, lessened in the New Year due to my work submission screening commitments, but in November and December I saw more theater than I had during the rest of 2007 and possibly all of 2006 combined. Some weeks, I was attending four or five shows, Broadway and Off-Broadway (sadly, I need to find more time for Off-Off), and while there is a lot of good theater out there ... great theater? Not so much. But what is truly noticeable is the difference between a new show and an old one; particularly an older show that has moved into the realms of stunt casting or third, fourth, fifth (or more) whole cast changes. No disrespect to the many talented Broadway performers who don't receive the honor, opportunity and/or luxury of being an original cast member, but shows can get tired, even when they're new to the audience.
I rarely see productions that have been playing for a while. Most original casts -- or at the very least, the leads -- are gone after the first year, and I try to see things when they're new and fresh; the "best" version with the "best" talent the creative team believed they could find, for better or worse. It can be worse sometimes ... some shows grow as the cast and production get tighter simply due to repetition.
In the fall, I went to see Hairspray on Broadway. I had never seen the show, and as mentioned here over the summer, I absolutely fell in love with the movie. The Broadway cast included Ashley Parker Angel (one of the members of the Making the Band group O-Town); Alexa Vega (best known for her role in the Spy Kids movies); and Jerry Mathers as The Beaver. Wait ... no ... Mathers played Wilbur Turnblad, Tracey's father. For those of you who saw the movie, Christopher Walken played the role. I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that The Beav can't really dance, and he sings just a tad bit worse than he dances. Shortly after the performance I attended, Lance Bass of 'N Sync joined the cast. He, Vega and Beav have since left, but George Wendt (NORM!) is now playing Edna Turnblad, the role made famous by Divine in the John Waters movie, Harvey Fierstein in the original Broadway cast, and John Travolta in this summer's movie musical.
No offense to Wendt (NORM!) ... maybe he's great. But when Broadway producers start bringing in stunt or name casting, it generally means ticket sales are already on the decline, and often that's because the show is too. Sometimes, said casting can revitalize and improve a show. By all accounts, Fantasia (winner of American Idol a few seasons back) did wonders for The Color Purple, not just in terms of ticket sales, but also bringing a fresh and invigorating interpretation to the role. However, examples like that tend to be exceptions rather than the rule.
Rent was hit and a phenomenon -- deservedly so or not -- when it was specifically because of when it was. It was a show of its time. It emerged when those remnants of the East Village still existed; when downtown theater types remembered the neighborhood, and the idea of "living with AIDS," as opposed to dying of it, was still a new reality; the epidemic was more under control but still very real. It was also a pretty dead time for Broadway, when Andrew Lloyd Weber could do virtually no wrong and anything smaller than Les Miserables didn't have a chance. It was an era when Titanic: The Musical and The Life were the closest things to innovation, and if you don't remember either of those shows, there's good reason -- neither were all that memorable.
Rent was exciting because it was familiar, and it was New York, and it was "rock" music, and its arrival was accompanied by the tragic story of its young creator. All these issues have very little to do with whether or not the show was any good. I know many people who will claim that it's quite awful. Others may call it the best musical of all time. Personally, I would argue that both sides are wrong. Rent is a highly flawed but entertaining and provocative show. It never was the be-all, end-all reinvention of musical theater as the media hyped and theater world seemed to anoint it at the time. But it has its moments. Especially at the time, it was interesting and exciting, and it received such exuberant praise because compared to all the other new stuff, it was superior.
I haven't seen the stage production of Rent since 1997 when I saw it for the second and last time. I can't speak to the quality of the current cast or band or production, and I'm sure every member of the show tries as hard as that tremendous group of talent that opened the show on April 29, 1996. But the greatness of all theater, Broadway or smaller, and the primary quality to me that separates it as a performance presentation from its sister medium of film is, unsurprisingly, that it's live. A show is not supposed to run forever. The show that opens in 1996 simply can't be the same show you see in 1999 or 2002 or 2008.
When a show is revived, it usually needs something new and different to make it feel alive again. I know a lot of people have praised the current revival of A Chorus Line, which is virtually a duplicate of the original production. As I mentioned previously, A Chorus Line is one of my absolute all-time favorite musicals -- and when it arrived in 1975, it arguably was a complete reinvention of musical theater. I saw the production soon after it opened and have to admit, I was underwhelmed primarily because I found the cast subpar and the production lacking vitality. Maybe it was an off-night. Maybe they've gotten better since. But theater is a living, breathing, organic experience, subject to the varieties and variations that are utterly unpredictable. And as such, much like it takes my eyes more time to focus in the morning at 36 years old than it did when I was 24, theater gets old.
Rent has aged. Gracefully or not, in dog years, it's almost 84. It's a little sad, but it's also for the best. And maybe there's some young blossoming musical theater writer -- they're out there -- who's ready to wow us with the new Rent (or, better yet, the next Avenue Q); who's ready to pick-up that mantle and help push out the Phantoms and Les Mises and even the relative newcomers like Mamma Mia!. It's just really about time.
R.I.P. Rent. I'm sure some sort of weird nostalgia will bring you back some day, but for now, your time has come ... and it isn't coming too soon.