It's a Comfort to Know

Luke (in the picture), who's playing Angel in New Line's Rent, and who is also a truly evolved human, posted an article to Facebook not long ago, called "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People: How Is This Supporting You?"

It's a good article and I agree with most of it. The point is that "Why" is the wrong question, but people are constantly asking it. People want to know why a loved one gets sick or dies, why things go wrong, why problems persist. It's the whole point of Mark's art song "Halloween" in Rent.

But that's a dangerous question to ask, because that's the kind of question that led humans to create gods and religion.

As Bill Finn's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee tells us, "Life is random and unfair. Life is pandemonium." (And Finn should know, after collapsing from an arteriovenous malformation in his brain, the day after winning a Tony for Falsettos.) Of course, if you don't believe in a god, then this statement is perfectly logical. If life is random, it can't be "fair," right? But that's not necessarily a bad thing – to me, it's comforting, free of judgment, free of mythology, free of expectations. Bad things happen sometimes because we live in a massive, complex world with billions of other people, not because we're "good" or "bad" or because we've "sinned" or "repented."

And hurricanes aren't caused by gay marriage.

As I was commenting on Luke's post, I realized suddenly that's what I love most about Rent, and I think it's why Rent is so universally loved: Larson never judges these people. (Which is why, I think, Rent is so free of religion, which is built on lots of judgment.) Our heroes don't have AIDS because they're bad people or they've enraged God to the point where he smote them with the HIV virus. They have AIDS because there's an epidemic and lots of people in their community are getting AIDS.

Because life is random and unfair.

One of the central points of the story is that judgment of others is unhealthy. Rent is about a community of misfits, but as in Cry-Baby, here the real misfits are the outside world, the adults, the police, the university, the parents, because they judge. It reminds me of a lyric from Hands on a Hardbody: "Leave the judging to the Judge who'll judge us all on Judgment Day." (I love Amanda Green's writing!) It's that judgment from the outside world that has built this insular community, that has drawn these people together, that prompts Mark to toast, "To being an Us for once, instead of Them."

Jonathan Larson compels his audience to accept, even embrace, all these societal misfits, to set aside judgment, to see their humanity. For those in the audience who don't know any transgendered people, Angel may seem a little scary to them at first (some people are terrified of blurring the gender lines), but by the end of Act I, the whole audience wants to be Angel's best friend. And then there's the stripper, the addicts, the homeless people, the squatters, the artists... but when they're all singing "La Vie Boheme," it's hard to be scared of them.

When I first saw Bat Boy, I was stunned at how powerfully emotional the ending was, how deeply the show had touched me – it's so wacky, so outrageous, so full of Brechtian "alienation," but the writers still made me care about Edgar. Likewise in Rent, the most ordinary, middle-of-the-road Americans find themselves crying before the show is over, because they'll feel that deeply for these characters.

Because Larson tricks them into forgetting their usual prejudices and biases. He makes them forget to judge.

When the cast sings, "There's only us. There's only this," I can't help but think, This is enough. I have an artistic family much like the friends in Rent, and having all those people in my life, being able to make really great art with them, getting to watch them create, sharing our work with the world – that's more than enough for me. It would be greedy to want more. I don't need promises of eternal bliss or threats of eternal damnation to make me want to live a good life and make a good world, here and now.

I'll always remember one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Doherty, 8th grade earth science. Every once in a while, she'd have to leave the room for some reason, and she'd always say to us, "While I'm gone, don't behave because you might get caught misbehaving; behave because that's what you're supposed to do in my classroom." And she'd leave to go to the principal's office or something, and everyone would behave. Always.

Because instead of threats, which often seem to be such a central part of religion and education, she just assumed we'd be decent, and so we were.

Angel is very Zen-like, and so is Luke. Just as I have, they've both been through dark times, and came through those times with newfound wisdom. Just like a hero myth story! I'll admit that part of my journey to semi-Zen-like-ness was aided and abetted by my fictional doppelgänger, Johnny Appleweed. Using pot (at least for me) really does allow you to see more clearly what matters and what doesn't, what's of value and what's bullshit.

And sometimes it makes you ask your set designer for a twelve-foot-wide, raked moon platform.

In my 2006 musical Johnny Appleweed, we introduced these three Stoners, who perform a group monologue that leads up to the song, "The Scheme of Things":
We stoners experience the world in a way the uninitiated will never even imagine. Certain things just don’t matter anymore, money, career, gadgets, all the accoutrements of status and rabid patriotism, and only when you’re straight again, do you realize that those things didn't matter when you were baked because they really shouldn't matter.

The human brain processes four hundred billion pieces of information per second, but we’re only aware of two thousand of them. Marijuana dials down that editing system and opens up the Floodgates of the Mind – like a circle in a spiral, like a meal within a meal.

So now you have your pick of all those amazing, interesting little pieces of information, all those bits and bites that usually get sorted out without our knowing it. Now the things that are supposed to be important get lost in a sea of everything-ness, no longer gripping our reality quite so tightly, now allowing new things to come swimming along, relegating the “important” things to a small swirling eddy of neuroses just over the horizon out of sight, out of mind.

In short, the holy bud sweeps away from your brain all the bullshit that keeps you from being the happy, thoughtful, engaged person you really are, a fully realized being like Yoda or Gary Busey. And the trivia washes back to shore…

I think my lyric gets at some of what I'm talking about here, accepting life as it is (also the central theme of Kander & Ebb's Zorba), not struggling against it, not being swept up in the trivial bullshit of life that can take you to a dark place. Whether or not you need the holy bud to accomplish that...
Your boss is mad
‘Cause your drawer is short.
The customers think shopping
Is a contact sport.
Pity the customers,
Pity your boss.
So what if you’re fired?
It’s really his loss.

It doesn't really matter in the scheme of things.
And you don’t have to answer when the telephone rings.
What really matters?
What really counts?
A couch, snacks,
And at least half an ounce.

We are the stoners;
This is our creed.
We live on only
Just what we need.

We don’t need laptops,
Or cell phones too.
And what good does an i-Pod
In your ear really do?
You’re all self-inflicting
Your psychic pain.

The part that makes us human disappears each day,
And does it really matter if your therapist is gay?
What really matters?
What really counts?
It’s joy, and friends,
And at least half an ounce.

Look at the forest,
Not at the trees.
This is our stoner creed,
If you please.

We know what you've read,
That stoners sit at home and might as well be dead.
But we’re home pondering the questions of the universe,
While you’re out shopping instead.

And please remember,
Don’t call us slackers –
That really hurts.

You see, your consciousness is limited
By what you know;
But find the key,
You’ll see
You’re just an embryo.
To see what’s so important,
To see what’s really not,
Load a bowl and smoke all you've got.
Take it from the stoners,
There is poetry in your pot.

Writing Johnny Appleweed was partly an exercise for me in figuring out all the stuff I'm talking about here. I live a fairly unconventional life, and I have, ever since college. That brings with it a shit-ton of judgment from the Normal World. It was hard to learn how not to be beaten up by that, and I had to fuck up a lot of things on my way to learning that. Appleweed was my way of sharing the things I came to understand. There is lots of truth in our world that goes unnoticed or not understood. Our job as artists, as storytellers, is to point that truth out, in as compelling a way as we can.

And I think Rent was the same for Jonathan Larson. It was the AIDS pandemic that brought him the profound wisdom he put into his masterpiece. There is great truth in his story. That's why we write, to share what we've figured out about the world and ourselves. When I experience something wonderful, my first inclination is to share that experience (god bless Facebook), and I have no doubt that inclination is part of why I've spent my life telling stories.

As actor Ben Kingsley said, "The tribe has elected you to tell its story. You are the shaman/healer, that's what the storyteller is, and I think it's important to appreciate that."

And maybe the reason Rent hit me so powerfully, so personally, is that I'm a misfit too. I'm not as fucked up or as noble as the characters in Rent, but I'm on that same journey. We all are. And Larson has a lot to share with us, still, through his story. He's gone, but he left us Rent.

There are some shows that bring with them profound responsibility, shows like Hair and Next to Normal. It's the same with Rent. This isn't just entertainment. This isn't about diversion or escape. Rent is about connection. That's why it's both universal and timeless. We will always need this story.

It makes me proud to be a storyteller.

Long Live the Musical!