Rent on Video and Spring Awakening

The other day, I saw a recording of Rent. Rent was not my first musical, nor my first good musical. But it’s very high on my list of favorite musicals. See, Johnathan Larson wrote a musical that was both stepped in the long tradition of the modern Broadway musical and also in rock. It’s got an edge. And fishnets. And it’s a beautiful wonderful thing that is stepped in the beauty of youth… and fixed in time in the nineties.

Darcy saw it too. I really need to listen to Tick Tick Boom sometime soon because he wrote it when he was around my age and was upset about roughly the same things.

So, this recording of the final Broadway cast before they closed it down, is actually better than the movie. Because of some of the stuff they dropped in the movie, I really feel like the movie is actually less accessible than the stage show. I suspect that if they’d just released a good recording of the stage version, they’d probably have made just as much money but spent far less. So I really want them to release a nice DVD of Rent.

Um, but if you consider that Rent opened in early 1996 (With the creator, Johnathan Larson dying of Marfan’s right before the premiere) and the big musicals since then… you see a lot of Disney and a lot of Jukebox Musicals.

Jukebox Musicals and Disney are not always a bad thing. You can’t sneer at things for being pulp because the genre needs pulpy crowd pleasers just as much as it needs fine musical theater. So, watching Rent, I was again reminded that there was no follow-up to Rent. I mean, there’s some questions about Rent that will probably never be answered (like exactly how much of a role Lynn Thomson and Sarah Schulman played) so it’s not like you can say “Oh, if Johnathan had seen a doctor who knew WTF Marfan Syndrome is, Broadway would be different”… but it’s also not the case that some young punk with both rock sensibilities and the understanding of the rules of musical theater didn’t get inspired by Rent and found new and interesting ways to break rules and stuff.

Anyways, with Rent closing on Broadway, I kept thinking about other highlights that aren’t from before I was old enough to appreciate musical theater. I mean, I love Cabaret and A Chorus Line as two other serious musicals, but they closed their first run on Broadway long ago. Wicked and Avenue Q were the highlights between Rent and now for me. Wicked is very much in the traditionalist genre of musical theater, but is very well done. And Avenue Q is just… well… Avenue Q.

There’s a certain poignancy involved because I don’t deal so well with musicals that have been downsized from how I remember them. Like, I can deal with seeing a show that I primarily remember as being done small-style. Like “Into The Woods”, which I first saw as a high school production, I can see done small. But if I’ve seen something done up as a big Broadway musical, I’m less likely to enjoy it once they’ve made it fit in a small theater. And I realize that they won’t be touring Rent forever because all things must come to an end.

Which brings us to Spring Awakening. See, the most recent Forbidden Broadway disk is entitled Rude Awakening. So I kinda wanted to see it just to see what they were making fun of. This also is a big reason why I saw The Drowsy Chaperone.

There’s seating on the stage. Like Equus. Also on-stage nudity (although Mrs. Wirehead and I were both expecting it to be cough a little more extreme for the amount of fuss made about it) like Equus. And, like Rent, the band’s just sitting there on stage.

We start with “Mama who bore me” (Which, after the most recent Forbidden Broadway album, I was worried would have more of their lyrics) done up fairly folksy.. but then we have the reprise of it after a dialog bit, done up as a pop song where the girls have microphones. So, during “All That’s Known” I’m kinda wondering WTF is up with the kids pulling modern microphones out of their late-nineteenth-century German schoolboy outfits. By the time “The Bitch of Living” rolls around, things start to make sense.

The part I really have to give Duncan Sheik credit for is the instrumentation. The players are pretty much guitars, keyboards, drums, and a string quartet. And when you are playing these heavy parts, sometimes you see the guitarist with an electric, but it’s just as likely that he’ll be playing on an acoustic. Oh, and some of the actors play the piano. And they really do play it, too. And sometimes I started thinking about AC/DC with the kids singing.

The part that’s different is that you can really see it as a Duncan Sheik album that happens to be thematically mashed up into a musical. So some of the songs are really just well written pop songs. Like “Totally Fucked” or “Mama Who Bore Me (Reprise)” or “The Dark I Know Well”. Actually “The Dark I Know Well” gives me the jibbies whenever I listen to it.

The lighting was incredible. They made heavy use of both fluorescent lights (both in tubes and CF form) and cold cathode neon lighting, going between tons of color and realistic lighting, depending on if the kids had the microphones out.

There was no set changes, so the set was minimalistic and mostly used an array of identical chairs. It didn’t matter.

The original play it was based on was written in late nineteenth century Germany and features kids who are grappling with teenage pregnancy, sex, suicide, and homosexuality. And so it was fairly hard to produce because people didn’t want to admit that kids were dealing with that. So, when you put modern sounding music such that the characters sound like the music of today against a backdrop of the late nineteenth century, it really shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This is one realization that I had… maybe in high school… is that people like to maintain a comfortable illusion that all of the social ills of today are new things and that in the fifties, things were just fine. But, really, these things are more common than you’d realize. It’s just that now we say that somebody died of a botched abortion instead of anemia. So it presents ideas about abortion and teenage sex and personal responsibility and abstinence-only sex education.

The funny part about TV and movies is that there’s this comfortable illusion of a screen in front of you, so you aren’t physically present in the scene. But with live theater, things can be much more jarring. The brief nudity in the show is much more jarring than full frontal nudity in a modern R-rated film. At least, from my perspective.

About the only thing that was a little off is that there are two adult actors in the show, with no wardrobe changes. Which makes it kind of hard to actually pick out which adult role they are playing.

But the touring version that we saw was great. There were no weak links in the cast. They had some of the Broadway crew, and then some new kids too… which is kind of inevitable given that you need them to look like teenagers but generally be old enough to do the part justice.