AIDS and the Theater: “Rent”

This is the second part in a series of blog posts examining major works of theater that handled AIDS. The previous parts looked at “Angels in America” and “Falsettos.” The final blog post will examine “The Normal Heart.”

“Rent” opened in 1996 and after the death of its writer, Jonathan Larson, it became a quickly praised work of theater.

The musical shows 1989 New York as a bizarre, almost sanitized museum piece. Look, attacks in Alphabet City! Squatters! Squeegee men! New York City is dangerous because Giuliani hasn’t done his crusade to clean up the city! It lacks the authenticity of being a window into the past you get with “Angels in America” or any of Eric Bogosian’s monologues in the ’80s.

But the biggest problem with the musical is it assembles the largest cast of despicable, self-righteous assholes in the theater. The majority of the characters we’re told to feel sorry for you find yourself as a rational adult thinking, “Good lord, they’re childish.” In fact the antagonist of this musical is one of the characters I often find myself sympathizing with because he’s one of the few characters to act maturely.

“Ah, Monica, you love ‘Falsettos’ and freely admit the main character, Marvin, is incredibly immature. How can you dislike the immaturity of the characters in ‘Rent’,” you ask. Well, the thing is that Marvin changes as a character in a very natural way as the musical progresses. The Marvin who sings “What Would I Do?” is very different from the Marvin who sings “A Tight-Knit Family” at the beginning of the musical. None of the characters in “Rent” make that journey and growth.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Larson’s musical is a modern version of “La Boheme” and tells the story of a group of friends living in the Alphabet City neighborhood of New York City in 1989. Mark and Roger live together in a loft where they don’t pay rent, much to the chagrin of their landlord and former friend, Benny, who is possibly the nicest landlord ever. Their friend Collins is a professor back in town after leaving MIT and he falls in love with Angel, a performer who helps him after the attack. Then, their neighbor, Mimi, walks in during a power outage to ask Roger to “light her candle.” At that time, Mark is off helping his ex-girlfriend’s girlfriend set up a performance his ex-girlfriend is putting on. Drama ensues, some incoherent babbling occurs at a protest and then people order food and don’t pay for it. More drama.

Seriously, the action in this musical is one massive drama bomb.

Four of the characters in this musical are HIV positive and two of them have developed AIDS. This musical occurs much later in the ’80s than any of the other work I’m looking at. AZT has been approved by the FDA and two of the characters do take the medication. Although some of the characters are aware of the graveness of their diagnosis and one of the few good musical numbers, “Will I?” does involve the fear of the disease, overwhelmingly the characters take the attitude of, “We have each other and let’s live each day to the fullest. Yay!”

But there are so many problems with this musical it’s difficult to know where to begin. How about I start with the characters all being archetypes? Angel is, well, an angel, a saintly figure with the kindest heart other than that Angel drives an animal to suicide, but it was a pet owned by Benny so it’s okay in the world of this musical. Mimi is the drug addict stripper with the heart of gold. Roger is the recovering bitter drug addict with what we’re led to believe is a heart of gold, but I’ll get to the problem with him later. Collins is the professor sticking it to the man, Mark is the noble filmmaker afraid of selling out, Maureen is the hot lesbian performance artist, Benny is the jerk landlord and Joanne is the butch lesbian serious lawyer.

There’s also the issue with how bad the musical is. There are very strong flaws, such as lyrics like “Everything is rent!”, having underdeveloped characters, someone saying they’re on hold on 911 which doesn’t even make sense and having a character die in such a way that to those who don’t read between the lines they might think Angel dies from having really awesome sex.

Another issue is the musical could be accused of committing bisexual erasure because Maureen is always referred to as being a lesbian even though the lyrics of the musical imply that Maureen has had sex with men and women and she even states she loves how men and women flirt with her. But, no, Maureen cannot be bisexual. Maureen is a lesbian because the show says this and consistently refers to her as a lesbian.

Meanwhile, “Falsettos” refers to Marvin quite a bit as being “queer” and only “My Father’s a Homo” explicitly calls Marvin gay and that song is sung by a character who is 10. (There is a lyric in act two that introduces the act as having “homosexuals,” but it is worth noting there are three characters who are gay.)

And then there’s the fact that Roger is a pretty abusive jerk. After he start dating Mimi he becomes very controlling of her, telling her she can’t spend time around Benny. As is well-established, Roger dislikes Benny but that doesn’t give him the right to tell her to not spend time around him because he gets jealous easily. As a rational adult, I would rather root for Mimi to be with Benny, even though he’s cheating on his wife with Mimi, because Benny doesn’t treat her poorly. He even remarks in “La Vie Boheme” that she is a “bright and charming girl” while Roger is basically, “You’re pretty and remind me of my ex.”

The biggest sin committed by the show is how it ends. Mimi momentarily dies at the end of the show and then Roger sings a song he wrote for her. This brings her back from the dead because Angel told her to turn around.

What could be a very touching moment in the musical, everyone sad about Mimi’s death, Roger singing his great song he spent an entire year writing. And then maybe a reflection on the importance of them being together and working on the art because fuck selling out. Perhaps there would be a reflection on how them staying together and not having so much drama would be what Angel would have wanted. That would be a great ending. But no, this emotional moment is killed because God forbid a musical end on a depressing note.

I will admit it would be awkward for them to watch Mark’s video of random happy moments after Mimi dying, but then we could maybe go without seeing his movie. Which, by the way, the musical acts like Mark’s movie is this breathtaking documentary about life in Alphabet City. Yet in the movie it certainly looks more like a montage of random moments. It feels more like a lot of Vine videos people post than a groundbreaking documentary that would cause someone to feel the need to quit their job in order to finish it.

The thing about “Rent” is that it ended up having maybe more of an impact on people than “Angels in America,” which is the second most influential work I’m writing about. “Rent” ultimately is a more accessible work because it isn’t six-to-seven hours long and it’s a musical. It also ran on Broadway for more than 10 years and has gone on to be produced by various theater companies, as well as the “school edition” being done in high schools. Also, if you’re a 14-year-old in the Midwest, you will probably think this musical is awesome. I certainly did when I was 14, but then when I was 17 I went off to The Theatre School at DePaul University and I took what I learned there to discover the musical is very flawed.

Which brings me to the next question: If a musical is really not that good, is it worth overlooking the flaws because it brings awareness to issues? Possibly, but even when the musical opened on Broadway the world of the musical felt a bit distant because of the efforts done to clean up Manhattan. There is also the issue of the situation the characters find themselves in seeming a bit romanticized. However, people in this musical still die because of AIDS-related complications and face grave illness from drug addiction, which although not incredibly gritty, it still shows how things aren’t that sunny.

But honestly, this is not a great musical.

AIDS and the Theater: “Falsettos”

This is the second part in a series of blog posts examining major works of theater that handled AIDS. The previous part looked at “Angels in America.” Other blog posts will examine “The Normal Heart” and “Rent.”

Something bad is happening.
Something very bad is happening.
Something that kills.
Something contagious.
Something that spreads
From one man to another.

-“Something Bad is Happening (Reprise)”

Some spoilers for the musical ahead

A musical by William Finn entitled “March of the Falsettos” opened in 1981 off-Broadway and told the story Marvin, a man who leaves his wife to be with his lover, Whizzer. In 1990, a follow-up entitled “Falsettoland” opened off-Broadway completing the story of Marvin and all of the other people in his life. In 1992, both musicals were put together to create “Falsettos,” which opened on Broadway to a rave review from Frank Rich in The New York Times.

In the context of Broadway history, “Falsettos” is interesting in that it follows “La Cage Aux Folles,” which is generally viewed of the first time a musical with two openly gay characters appeared. However, “La Cage Aux Folles” presented a butch/femme relationship–Albin fits the stereotype of the screaming, hysterical queen–that is very tame, as if not to offend anyone. “Falsettos” uses the word “dykeish,” has a character sing a song entitled “My Father’s a Homo” and features two male characters in post-coital bliss. (The phrase “homo baroque” is also employed at one point and I wish I could use that at some point in my life.) Additionally, none of the same-sex relationships are overtly butch/femme.

It’s also worth noting when the two acts of “Falsettos” take place. The first act takes place in 1979, before the horror of AIDS starts emerging and act two takes place in 1981 when cases begin emerging, but before anyone knows what it is.

The threat of the new disease is brought in the number “Something Bad is Happening,” where Charlotte, an internist and lesbian from next door, sings about a mysterious disease affecting bachelors that has no name. Then Whizzer collapses and is rushed to the hospital where everyone feigns not being worried. They tell Whizzer he’s looking better, but only Jason, Marvin’s son, has the guts to say the truth.

Still everyone, even though they are afraid of what will happen to Whizzer, tries to put on an optimistic mask. The idea that Whizzer could die is presented to us when Jason asks to wait to hold his Bar Mitzvah until after his father’s lover gets better. Mendel replies “We can’t be sure when/he’ll get better,/when or if/he’ll ever get better.” At this point the audience and the characters are actually presented with the idea that one of the characters is probably going to die. Then, in an excellent number, Whizzer accepts this and sings “You Gotta Die Sometime.”

But “You Gotta Die Sometime” is not a cheery, cheesy song about how it’s important to live life to its fullest because you’ll die soon. “You Gotta Die Sometime” is an almost acerbic and sardonic song that is still incredibly moving.

Ultimately, “Falsettos” is not a musical about AIDS or about gay people; it is a musical about a family dealing with various forms of turmoil. The main form of turmoil comes from Marvin leaving his wife and son for a male lover, but still wanting to have a “tight-knit family.” Marvin is perpetually self-absorbed and childish, something he is aware of at the beginning of act two when he sings about wishing to be as mature as his son, Jason.

Even today, the idea of a family where the mother remarries while the father is off with his male lover seems a bit odd, so imagine it back in the early ’90s and how odd it seemed. Ultimately, “La Cage Aux Folles” presented gay couples in a way people could maybe feel comfortable with. “Falsettos” does not do so and that and the fact that it’s ultimately a depressing musical might be why it hasn’t been revived on Broadway.

The musical also presents characters who are not archetypes. Yes, all but two of the characters are neurotic Jews, but they’re all fully realized characters with complex feelings. What’s more incredible is even though for a majority of the play he’s selfish and childish, Marvin does evolve as a character and by the end of the musical is not a schmuck. Unfortunately by the end of the musical it almost seems too late, which is one of the most sad aspects of the musical.

Marvin finally manages to be a man and he loses someone he can’t imagine not being in his life. And so the musical ends on a down note without a glimmer of hope because the audience can only begin to assume what fate will occur to Marvin.

(This and “The Normal Heart” are possibly the two most depressing works I’m writing about.)

“Falsettos,” although very moving and well-written is not a perfect musical. (My vote for the perfect musical goes to “My Fair Lady.”) The lyrical content would probably offend a lot of people today and some people would probably argue the lyrics just aren’t very good. I personally have a lot of feelings about the lyric “People might think/I’m very dykish,” but that’s another blog post. Still, it’s an effective musical that isn’t hokey about talking about AIDS or gay characters. In fact, how Marvin’s sexuality is treated still seems oddly revolutionary today.

Someone please do a production of this.

AIDS and the Theater: “Angels in America”

This is the first part in a series of blog posts examining major works of theater that handled AIDS. Other blog posts will examine “The Normal Heart,” “Rent” and “Falsettos.”

Tony Kushner’s epic two-part play “Angels in America” is easily one of the best known American plays, largely because it’s in two parts and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Spanning about seven-hours, depending on the production you see, and a time period of less than a year as the characters are in the middle of a turbulent time in America–the ’80s.

There are many themes addressed in the play as it is subtitled “A gay fantasia on national themes,” but for the purposes of this post I will largely focus on the role of AIDS in the play.

Two of the main characters in this play, Roy Cohn and Prior, are infected with HIV and have been diagnosed with AIDS. Prior, in the fourth scene of the play, admits this is a death sentence and accepts that he is going to die. Roy, a few scenes later, listens to his doctor give him the diagnosis of AIDS and tells him he can’t have AIDS because he is not a gay man*. The almighty Roy Cohn has liver cancer, because that looks much better than having AIDS.

What then comes from this how these two characters end up dealing with trying to survive. Prior takes his pills, goes to the doctor and deals with the dreams he has of an angel telling him he’s a prophet. Roy, while in the hospital, gets in on his own private stash of AZT, at that point still in trials. As he admits, he was never good on tests and prefers cheating.

While Roy hides in the shadows with his diagnosis, Prior accepts it and deals with the awfulness, such as his boyfriend, Louis, leaving him, that comes with it. This is a flipside to “Rent” which almost seems to cheerfully deal with the disease. Prior gets mad, bitchy and sardonic about his disease. He’s dying and it’s ravaging his body.

What’s interesting about the play is even though it deals with political issues, largely in the form of monologues from Louis, it never is didactic. The play makes you care about the characters and even feel sympathetic to some of them, including Roy Cohn. Unlike another play I’ll look at later, it isn’t a polemic. It’s a play that explores various themes while also looking at the drama surrounding the characters, which is not an easy task.

Finally, while there is a bit of hope at the end of the play, but it isn’t forced. It comes naturally and leaves the audience feeling good at the end. While two of the other works I’ll look at end on rather dour notes, one does have a cheery ending that feels very forced. “Angels in America” is a perfect play that handled a major point in our country’s history excellently.

(Okay, I’m being concise here because so many people have written about this play I felt like I should kick things off by writing about it here, but I thought, “What could I say that hasn’t been said already?”)

Next: “Falsettos”

*Roy Cohn’s speech about how him having clout means he isn’t homosexual is one of my favorite speeches in theater