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Wall Street Journal


Among the 'Rentheads'

June 13, 2008

By Kay S. Hymowitz

Ah, New York in the '80s and early '90s: the dealers and hookers plying their trades in Times Square; the homeless guys in your face; the car alarms crashing your sleep; crack babies; wildings -- and everyone who possibly could fleeing for New Jersey. When my youngest child went to camp in 1996 and told a bunkmate that she lived in Brooklyn, the girl asked: "Have you ever been shot?"

Who would ever long for those days? Evidently the hordes of young "Rent" fans who, for the past 12 years, have been cheering, even fetishizing, the show's depiction of young love, downtown creativity and urban grunge; "Rentheads," as the most zealous fans call themselves, boast about seeing the show seven or 12 or even 20 times. "Rent" is due to close its Broadway run in September -- so it seems a good time to ask why so many people, large numbers of them young enough to have been in Little League during the period described, are so moved by a city defined by drugs, AIDS and crime.

First, though, "Rent" novices need to learn about the characters in what has become the seventh-most-profitable musical in Broadway history. Roger, an HIV-infected musician, lives in a Lower East Side tenement with Mark, an aspiring documentary filmmaker. Mark's ex is Maureen, a performance artist and now a lesbian, who is hooking up with Joanne, a black, Harvard-trained lawyer. For his part, Roger is smitten with Mimi, an (ahem) "exotic dancer"; Mimi also has HIV, which the characters are too kind, or too stoned, to mention might be considered a hazard of her chosen profession. Completing the ensemble is Tom Collins, an African-American anarchist and philosophy professor. He is saved from a mugging by Angel, a transvestite also suffering from AIDS, who becomes his lover.

"Rent" was modeled by its creator, Jonathan Larson, on Puccini's opera "La Bohème," whose central characters are struggling artists living in mid-19th-century Paris. But as you might guess, given its appeal to an MTV generation not known for a taste in Italian arias, the show is thoroughly of its own time.

For one thing, "Rent" 's characters reflect contemporary demographic shifts. Young strivers have always ventured to Gotham, but 15 years ago, as a growing number of men and women put off marriage into their late 20s and 30s in order to establish their careers, the life of New York singles was gaining a certain cultural mystique.

Television producers quickly grasped what was going on: In 1994 they launched "Friends," a series about a group of singles living near each other in New York apartments. "Seinfeld" -- coincidentally about a group of singles living near each other in New York apartments -- arrived at NBC in 1989, but it became must-see TV only in the mid-1990s; "Sex and the City" -- a series about a similar crowd, but with a few wrinkles -- would arrive on HBO in 1998.

Like "Rent," these shows reflected the urban orientation of their young audiences. But they also provided viewers reassurance in the midst of the disorientation that came with leaving home, family and residential advisers. Don't worry, the creators of these TV series seemed to say, you are not really orphans; you can create your own family. The city may be bewildering, you may not have anything but leftover Chinese in your refrigerator, you may be terrified of your boss, your love life may be a tale of woe -- but you can still have a community of people who will buy you shots on your birthday.

"Rent" conveys something of this group-hug spirit. But with its dying protagonists, it is less reassuring, and it has a different attitude toward the changing urban scene than its TV counterparts. "Friends," "Seinfeld" and SATC portrayed a safe, gentrifying city that was rising from the ashes. Critics often noted that this city was a Disneyfied yuppieland: Everyone was clean-cut (and white), living in airy apartments without a cockroach in sight.

To the credit of Mr. Larson, "Rent" is savvy to the way that money, or rather a lack of it, cramps the style of most people in their 20s. The show begins as Mark and Roger, who have been living rent-free for a year, are told by their new landlord that they need to pay up -- which threatens both their artistic ambitions and their social life. Rent -- the money due, as opposed to the musical title -- is adulthood crashing the post-adolescent party.

But "Rent" is still a fantasy, which ironically helps explain the appeal of its miserable setting. Fans appear to be mostly middle-class suburban kids whose parents have been priced out of a decent life in Manhattan and now, increasingly, Brooklyn. Many seem to view themselves as outsiders, at least if one judges by the message boards where they are saying goodbye to the show. For them, the city represents the romantic adventure that their own comfortable lives lack. Muggings, disease, poverty are not depredations to be gentrified. They are the stuff of authentic experience, a kind of Outward Bound for the suburban crowd.

Like all self-consciously countercultural productions, the show scorns bourgeois life; the solicitious phone calls from Mark's mother in Scarsdale, for instance, are a running gag. In contrast, sexual deviance and the suffering caused by AIDS transform twentysomething bumblers into heroic figures who can see past society's materialism and conformity.

"Rent" is at odds with the far more realistic -- and skeptical -- view of the Lower East Side hipster scene depicted in "Lush Life," Richard Price's fine new novel. Mr. Price's protagonist is a onetime aspiring artist named Eric Cash (as in lacking) who at age 35 has little to sing about. Especially after he witnesses a murder on his way home from a night of carousing, his already disappointing life promises only middle-age despair.

Mr. Price also knows that -- in reality -- bohemian urban life is no "gorgeous mosaic," as Mayor David Dinkins, who presided over the city's decay, often put it. Lower East Side hipsters are almost all white; many of them are kids who grew up in the 'burbs. When they move downtown, bars and cafés, and increased demands for safety, follow -- and these things in turn bring soaring rents afforded only by Morgan Stanley bankers. In other words, the artists who moved into the Lower East Side and Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens, or who are now swarming Bushwick or Williamsburg (if they can still afford it), are no more authentic than the yuppies who arrive after them; the artists themselves upend neighborhoods where immigrants and the poor were minding their own business.

And so the city turns, fortunately for those of us hoping to get home from work safely. Not that downtown romance is dead. My daughter, once pitied for her Brooklyn roots, is in college now, where many of her classmates are from places like Scarsdale. She tells me that they're all dying to move to Williamsburg.

Original Source:



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