Opinion

Broadway's 'Rent' exits stage left (thank goodness)

I never caught the musical's frenzy, and fans wouldn't cut me slack.

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Amid the current housing crisis, one foreclosure is welcome. "Rent" will take its final bow at the Nederlander Theatre in New York on Sept. 7, after 12 years on Broadway. Many will mourn the loss of the rock musical, no doubt, but not me.

I came of age as a musical-theater geek when "Rent" first opened and racked up praise and awards. I was a drama student in Manhattan when "Rent" evolved into a cult classic.

My friends stood in line for hours for rush tickets or to see their favorite original cast member live in concert. My idealism supported the show's message of equality and the pursuit of love and art. I was predestined to love the show.

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For a while, I tried. I listened to the cast recording. I saw performances. I even made a last-ditch effort by watching the movie. I attempted to cultivate an appreciation because I felt I was missing something.

There had to be a reason why so many adored the musical. It won Pulitzer, Tony, Drama Desk, and Obie awards. Yet, despite all the effort, I never liked "Rent."

I must be in the minority. At least, that is how I feel when someone is discussing theater with me and proclaims his love of the show. "Don't you just adore 'Rent'?" "Not really," I reply. After a moment of incredulous sputters or mute stares, I attempt to soothe the conversation with a weak, "Sorry."

Sometimes the discussion launches into debate instigated by the "Rent" enthusiast. I respond by questioning why the person so fancies it. I am told of the show's originality, of how groundbreaking it was to the art form of musical theatre, what a signifier of the times it was when it premièred, how awesome lead actress Idina Menzel was (and still is).

This clarifies what irritates me about "Rent:" its fans. "Rent" is not original; it is based on Puccini's "La Bohème." In all my years of meeting "Rent" groupies, only two have known that much of the story line is more than 100 years old. This despite the musical's frequent references to the opera.

"Rent" addresses AIDS, suicide, homosexuality, and drug use; so yes, it expanded topics addressed on the musical stage. These plot lines, however, were based on Sarah Schulman's 1990 novel "People in Trouble" and can now be found in everyday news.

"Rent" may have been a sign of the times when it opened in 1996, but after a decade, it is showing its age.

Yes, it redefined traditional musical theater style, but whether this musicality is good can be contested. It is less rock musical and more screaming musical. Each song involves one dramatic tone: high-octane.

As a classically trained singer, I find the music painful. I doubt many loyal followers of "Rent" are aware the show had a reputation for permanently damaging vocal chords. "Rent" opened the door for subsequent shrieking shows such as "Wicked" and "Spring Awakening" – interesting productions but more opportunity to pop eardrums.

Such shows sacrifice emotional nuance for an adrenaline rush. There is little acting and a great deal of showcasing. One need only to see productions such as the current revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" (or any musical by Stephen Sondheim) to understand the difference.

I may sound like a musical snob, but I have some respect for the social message Jonathan Larson and the creative team behind "Rent" communicated in the production. Although I still find some plot points, such as the transvestite's death and the resurrection of the heroine, a bit trite.

What tips my scale of aversion, however, is the near-religious devotion of some of the show's admirers who not only disagree with my opinion but demand (and then aren't satisfied with) an explanation.

As "Rent" exits stage left, and as newer fads such as American Idol or "High School Musical" take center stage, it will do fans good to remember that popularity does not measure quality.

Kristin Balicki, a writer, has a degree in theater from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

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