These people are not entirely wrong. But they're also missing a lot.
Yes, this is a coming-of-age story, and as I wrote in my last post, a coming-of-age story requires a central character (or characters) who have not yet come of age. If the kids in Rent were all well-adjusted and wise, there'd be no story to tell. Remember what a whiny bitch Luke Skywalker is when we first meet him on Tatooine? And though we don't really see it, it's strongly implied early in The Wizard of Oz that Dorothy is a real pain in the ass. The whole point of The Fantasticks is that Matt and Luisa refuse to grow up, so it's forced on them by El Gallo. And really, the whole point of High Fidelity is that Rob's a dick, and he needs to grow up and stop being a dick.
Every protagonist in every story has to learn something. In Rent, these kids need to learn to see beyond their own selves, their own lives, their own immediate wants; to learn that we're all interconnected, we're all responsible for each other, or as Sondheim put it so elegantly, "Careful, no one is alone."
It's not important that an audience consciously recognize all this stuff. Hero Myth stories work because we instinctively recognize the elements of the story, even if only subconsciously, as elements of our own lives. The hero's journey is always a metaphor for a human life. But it helps the actors and me to recognize these elements so we can tell this story as clearly as possible. Some directors and actors believe all you have to do is say/sing the words and the rest will take care of itself. I think that's wrong, and I think it leads to a lot of very shallow, unsatisfying theatre. The more we understand the storytelling, the better we tell the story. Just by "underlining" a word, just by adding a pause to let something sink in for a second, we can make the important stuff clearer and help the audience get the most out of the story.
Angel is the wise wizard in this collective hero myth story. She's almost other-worldly in her zen-like understanding of the world around her, her wisdom, her compassion. She's there to teach the others (and us) a valuable lesson, to see the world in terms of what we can give instead of what we can get. As Collins says to Roger in Act II, "Angel helped us believe in love. I can't believe you disagree."
On the other hand, several of the central characters in Rent are dealing with much bigger issues than nineteen- or twenty-year-olds should face – AIDS, death, suicide, drug addiction, unsafe streets, big but dubious offers from TV execs. How many college-age kids ever grapple with anything like that? To call Roger, Collins, or Angel "whiny" misses the entire point of the story.
I have this theory that the people who hate Rent see their younger selves in these characters and they don't like that. After all, most of us are whiny and selfish when you're young (and we artsies can be the worst); we still have growing up left to do. Though to be honest, a lot of people in their forties still have growing up to do.
I can't help but see a parallel to American politics today. At the beginning of our story, these kids are the Republican Party: I want what I want, and if the other guy also gets what he wants, that's fine, but don't ask me for any. They have to grow up and become more like the Democratic Party, believing that caring for "the least of these" makes us all better off.
After all, Rent is about "the least of these," the poor, the outcasts, the sick, the rejected, you know, the folks Jesus hung out with. For much of the twentieth century, Alphabet City has been where mainstream society's rejects form their own community, their own support system, to some extent even their own economy. It's the place where Mark can toast, "To being an us for once, instead of a them." It's a place where Mark can ask, "Is anyone in the mainstream?" because he knows the answer is no. Not here.
And the extra comic punch of that line, delivered amongst a racially and sexually diverse crowd of proud and loud misfits, is that in our production it also applies to New Line itself, to the production you'll be watching as Jeremy (our "Mark") sings those words.
Maybe the most potent part of the magic of Rent – and make no mistake, Rent is genuinely, inexplicably mystical in the same way that Hair is – is that its production requires the same kind of community the show depicts. Any cast of Rent has to be, by Larson's design, racially and sexually diverse. And that's why performing and watching Rent can be so powerful – the sense of community and the intense emotions aren't just realistic; they're real. The actors aren't just portraying all that; they're living it onstage.
Which is the ultimate goal of any good actor, right?
And with our production, that built-in reality will be even more intense, because the connection between actors and audience is so much more palpable in a theatre with only seven rows of seats. I wrote in a blog post during Next to Normal:
We're very lucky at New Line because we've always worked in small spaces. Though our current space is a little larger, at 210 seats, it's very intimate because there are only seven rows. And that gives us the luxury of more subtle acting, not as minimalist as film acting, but (depending on the show) still pretty subtle. As I often tell our actors, you don't have to "show" the audience how your character feels; you have to just feel it. We humans are amazingly skilled at reading human faces. It's what we do all day. So even the tiniest, most subtle changes in a face are easy to read, because we all get so much practice at it.
And it's pretty easy to "just feel it" when you're working on Rent. Some of these songs are already really powerful, and we've only had a week of music rehearsals.
When I saw the 2011 revival, it was a genuine thrill to come back to this beautiful show, but it was even a greater thrill to really get to experience it "for the first time" again, with Michael Greif's radically different, equally brilliant restaging.
I hope we can deliver even half that big a thrill to our audiences. I hope that people who've seen Rent before will get that same feeling I got when they see our show, like they're seeing Rent for the first time again. I've worked out a lot of the staging already and I feel really good about where I'm taking us, but there's still a lot of work to do.
And miles to go before I sleep...
The opposite of war isn't peace. It's creation.
Long Live the Musical!