It comes up from time to time, it came up just last weekend when we were at Baldwin-Wallace College where the musical theater students were singing several songs from Lizzie Borden in a concert of songs from new shows and they had us on stage for a Q&A after the concert, this question about Rent and why I don’t like it -- the students are rehearsing now for productions of Rent and La Boheme (the opera on which Rent is loosely based) to be performed in repertory -- and my pat answer is that it claims to depict a time and place and milieu, one which I have a strong attachment to, it having been my time and place and milieu, yet the characters, the songs, the story, don’t look or sound or feel anything like the time and place and milieu that I remember. In fact, it seems to me that it trivializes and sentimentalizes, reduces to clichés, the things that made the East Village in the 80s so wild and urgent, so heady, so riveting: performance art, drag, AIDS.
But I accept the possibility that I’m guilty of extrapolating my own experience too widely, assuming that my own experience of that time was the experience. I’m sure there are many people for whom Rent feels authentic. I may be too harshly critical. Lots of people love Rent. They can have it. In the end, I guess I just don’t care much for the songs.
T suggested wisely that Rent may be a younger generation's Fame, a movie which -- though I have known many people in the meantime who attended the High School of Music and Art, on which Fame was based, who say that it is a terribly unrealistic depiction of their experience -- inspired both T and I and many of our friends, showed us a New York where we might go to find aspiring artists like ourselves, a place where the streets were crawling with music and love and sadness and inspiration. I'll buy that. (The comparison breaks down when you compare the movies, though. Fame is a good movie. It holds up. The movie version of Rent is a piece of crap.)
I always think, afterwards when it’s too late, that I wish I would have added to my answer about how I feel about Rent that, though it doesn’t feel at all to me like the New York in the 80s that I remember, Angels in America does, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more grateful for an artist and a work of art.