Thursday, February 2, 2012

RENT and Why I Love It

During the last twelve months, I've seen three productions of RENT.
They've ranged from weird and messing with the original piece - the one I saw in Athens - to energetic and enthusiastic and still messing with the original piece - the one I saw in Lahti, Finland - to kind of nice and yet again messing with the original piece, Musik- och kulturskolan Sandels' student production I saw this week in Helsinki. What's more, there'll be a new professional RENT in Helsinki later this year - a big must-see for me.
However, despite seeing it practically all the time and often listing it as one of my favourite musicals.... I sometimes catch myself thinking about how much I dislike RENT.

I think my friend put it the best:
"Just close your eyes and enjoy it. Don't think. Whatever you do, don't think. It can't take being thought about."
I find that statement painfully accurate.

In my opinion, RENT has great music. Sadly, to counteract that, it's filled with pretentious characters and implausibilities - for example, are we really supposed to believe the whole first act happens during one single night? It can of course be seen as unfair, criticising the flaws in RENT's plot. Many musicals are still rewritten after the premiere, but, due to the writer and composer Jonathan Larson's untimely passing away, that couldn't happen here. Still... One can't deny RENT has its fair share of plotholes.
To me, though, the show's biggest problem is being unbearably preachy. No day but today! And if the message isn't clear to you by now, no worries, we'll repeat it for you about five hundred times before the curtain falls! Actually, the show's moral reads like a selection of The Beatles classics - love me do, she loves you, all you need is love-yeah-yeah-yeah!
I think the problems with RENT's moral largely stem from slapping a message of love conquering all on La bohème, the opera RENT is based on, and calling it a day. That hardly makes sense. In the opera, no one has a happy relationship. No one comes back from the grave to the arms of their love. The characters are quite miserable and realise how close they were to happiness only when it's too late. But RENT... It doesn't question the power of love. The final scene leaves the cast belting about its glory, though judging by all we've seen, the couples are probably going to break up the next morning. Yet again.

I think the simple decision of letting Mimi die for real would improve RENT by heaps. I've seen one production do that so far, and I applaud the decision. Seeing the amount of meddling the directors do with RENT in general, I'm surprised every production I've seen didn't kill Mimi off...
As the story is, Angel's death doesn't wake the characters up. Angel helped us believe in love. I can't believe you disagree. But the characters continue quarreling as if nothing had happened. Maybe it's because, in a way, Angel's is not a cautionary tale. Although her life was cut short, she had the time to be happy - someone stayed beside her until the last moment. I'd be happy to die for a taste of what Angel had. 
But if Mimi dies... Due to them both being proud and stubborn, she didn't have the time to be happy with Roger. No day but today - and those two failed it quite spectacularily. Mimi dying changes the tone of the show, makes it darker and more thought-provoking. It hammers in the live each day as it were your last ideology in so much more powerfully than repeating the lyric an innumerable number of times ever can.

So, as I mentioned, I saw Musik- och kulturskolan Sandels' student production this week. It wasn't bad, I give it that. Most of the young stars did a good job in their roles. I was especially impressed by Filip Rosengren as Roger - I just loved his take of the character -, and Cassandra af Hällström's Maureen was a lot of fun to follow, too.
But, as so often happens with RENT is, the piece was changed, at some points in ways that made no sense. Even though, as you now know, I'm all for changing certain details in the piece... Cutting stuff for no reason just makes me angry. I admit I like it when Contact is gone, I find that painfully awkward. But otherwise, I think the songs should stay intact. In this production, many little scenes and moments had disappeared - parts of One Song Glory, La Vie Bohème, Goodbye Love, just to name a few - and then there were two encores. What sense does that make? Use the time you have productively, do the whole piece. Cut the unnecessary reprises if you have to.
What's worse, I think Ylva Edlund's direction had a severe case of ADHD. During duets, there always seemed to be something unrelated going on in the background, dancing and comedic routines and whatnot... I'm sure the audience won't implode of boredom, even if you give them a quiet moment or two every now and then.

But even with this all, I enjoyed myself a lot.

Next time, though, let her stay like this.

You see... Even when the piece has been cut, even when the ending hasn't been changed and Mimi wakes up... I can't help loving RENT. I can't help feeling gleeful whenever I find out I can see it live again. Back in the days of the Lahti RENT, I couldn't help rushing to see it twice in two weeks' time.
The feeling of seeing RENT live is something the movie or the Filmed Live on Broadway DVD can never give me. If you're lucky and your cast is full of energy, you're going to leave the theatre feeling ecstatic. The magic is all about feeling the cast believes what they have to say. The piece is wildly flawed, but if the actors manage to portray it with sincerity... It becomes something more than a sum of its parts. It's easy to forgive the silliness and preachiness and enjoy the ride.

RENT. A guilty pleasure, for sure.
But also, at its best, an uplifting experience.

Pictures are by Vladimir Pohtokari, from Musik- och kulturskolan Sandels' website.
More about the Athens and Lahti RENTs at this entry if you're interested.


  1. Thank you, you partly explained to me here why I don't like RENT. I've only seen the DVD, though, so perhaps a good live performance could change my opinions, although I'm also not a huge fan of the music. I feel the musical underlines its statements too much and tries too hard to hammer them down my throat. I'm the kind of person who likes to *think* when seeing a musical, but in RENT I feel that someone else already had done all the thinking and now simply serves me the results, and I don't have the joy of discovering by myself what the musical truly is about. I need another layer to my socially conscious musicals, a layer that hides the most obvious statements so that I can think about them myself.

    1. If you've some day a chance to see it live, I'd say give it a shot. I dislike the DVD rather strongly, but as said, I think seeing RENT live is always fun. Maybe you'd enjoy it too, who knows! (Then again, I love the music, so obviously that's a big part of enjoying the show to me...)

      But yep, that's very true. RENT is pretty vocal about what it believes in, not too many things for the watcher to understand by themselves there... :P

  2. I didn't particularly like the film version of 'Rent'. Not really my type of film, I guess. However, the Live on Broadway DVD was pretty good. The music is repetitive but I think 'Rent' is about the energy more than the specific songs. I haven't had the chance to see 'Rent' on stage so in that respect I can't make a judgement. Hopefully an opportunity to see it will arise at some point.