Touch Taste Deep Dark Kiss

I always thought that "Contact," in Act II of Rent, was just about sex, but it's not quite that simple. I think the point of "Contact" is that sex is not connection. Sex is pleasure, appetite. Connection is more than that. And these people need connection.

I confess that I never really understood why this number was in the show. It's in such a different style from the rest of the score, and the way it was staged in the original production baffled me – it was cool, but what did that have to do with what came before and after it? The number is about sex, I get that... and...?

Now that I've spent some time with it, "Contact" is beginning to make sense to me. It's a wild piece of music, a very sophisticated piece of counterpoint and percussion, more an expressionist collage of words than a conventional theatre lyric, in fact closer to Larson's artistic model, Hair, than anything else in Rent. Words as percussion, as pure sounds, repeated until they divorce from their meaning. The central theme of Rent, as Mark and Roger put it in "What You Own" in Act II, is "connection is an isolating age." The central theme of "Contact" is a lack of connection.
Touch taste
Deep dark kiss
Hot hot hot
Sweat sweet
Wet wet wet
Slap slap red heat
Beg fear fear fear thick
Please don't stop
Please, please don't
Red, red red, red red,
Red stop, stop,
Red red red red red red stop, stop,
Stop don't
Red red red red red red please, please, please
Please please please please
Harder wetter
You whore!
You bastard!
You cannibal!
You animal!
Fluid, no
Fluid, no
Contact, yes
No contact
Fire fire
Burn burn yes
Fluid, no fluid, no
Fluid, no fluid, no
Contact, yes contact, yes
No contact no contact
Fire fire fire fire
Burn burn burn burn yes yes
Sticky licky trickle tickle
Steamy creamy
Stroking soaking
No latex rubber rubber
Fire latex rubber
Latex bummer lover bummer
Where'd it go?
I think I missed
Don't get pissed
It was bad for me – was it bad for you?

It's a song from the Id. The stand-out lines for me are:
Contact, yes contact, yes
No contact no contact

These characters crave connection, and all they get is contact. Sex isn't love. It's not even connection. These young people are growing up, and pure carnality isn't enough anymore. What was once satisfying has become underwhelming, insufficient, ruined both by the horrors of AIDS and by a growing desire – need? – for real human connection.

The lyric is so well-crafted. It's starts out bordering on soft porn, but then something goes wrong ("Red red red red red red stop, stop, stop"). Emotions get in the way ("You whore!"), and the necessary caution in the age of AIDS ("Fluid, no fluid, no"), the age of contact without actual contact, gets in the way. How can you connect in an age when two bodies can't even touch without latex? It's another example of the "virtual reality" that Collins is battling. As the song spins out of control, the characters try to salvage the passion, but it's no use. Sex is difficult now, careful, a negotiation. And it's not fun anymore. Mere contact isn't enough. They need more. And the whole things runs out of steam.

Larson didn't give us a whole lot specific to go on here. His stage direction reads:
There are two main groups: As the music begins, a group of dancers start a sensual life-and-death dance, while a group of actors gather around a table centerstage to speak words of passion, which punctuates the dancing. Eventually the actors converge on the table and cover themselves with a white sheet. Angel emerges upstage of the sheeted group.

He clearly wanted this moment to function in a more abstract, expressionistic way, more purely emotional, more primal, more stream-of-consciousness, less rational, less linear, an experience very much like being in the throes of sexual passion. But by the end, instead of a climax, the experience gets short-circuited. These people have lost their way.

In New Line's staging, we've shifted slightly a couple things in Act II (not the words or music, just the action), so that in our Rent, "Contact" is also about the fact that Collins and Angel did have that deeper connection, that for them sex was connection.

The most important thing for me was that this number not be vulgar. Don't get me wrong – I'm a big fan of vulgar – but that's not what this is about. Sex really isn't the point here.

We're continually finding as we work that Rent is deeper, more human, more complex than  any of us ever understood. Even though we've all known the show by heart for years, we're allowing ourselves to be open to finding new meaning, new moments, new surprises, with nothing to guide us but the exceptional text.

I don't think Rent's depth is always plumbed, but it will be on our stage. I couldn't be prouder of our cast or the work they're doing.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!