A Lament for ‘Rent’

Worth a read: Theater reporter Campbell Robertson’s reflection on the demise of Bohemia viewed through the lens of the soon-to-shutter musical Rent. Of note:

“Rent” is about New York, far more than, say, “Chicago” is about Chicago. I have tried to think up a title that could tap as deeply into New York’s consciousness — “Car Alarm, Car Alarm,” “There’s a Very Angry Woman on the Subway,” “Class Envy!” — but nothing comes close. This is a city whose founding mythology involves not a magic spring or a she-wolf but a sweet real estate deal, one in which it’s still unclear who was bamboozling whom, making it all the more touchingly New York.

God, that last observation is kind of wonderful/brilliant.

And!

“Rent” is a safe, accessible show that at times struggles, even strains, to put up a dangerous front. The “Rent” marketing campaign has tempered that gritty facade in recent years; the show now, like “The Phantom of the Opera,” advertises itself as something you simply have to see — and come back to — because of its place in the culture.

But think about that. Is there a more accurate reflection of recent New York history? Friendly, clean, low-crime, nonsmoking, trans-fat-free, cabs-that-take-credit-cards New York? A city we can’t honestly pretend is rough and gritty anymore?

And then Robertson quite deftly analyzes the lyrics to “La Vie Boheme,” the shows cri de coeur:

Take the lyrics to the song “La Vie Bohème,” the show’s anthem in defiance of respectability. It is Christmas Eve. A protest against the development of a lot on 11th Street populated by homeless people has suddenly turned into a riot. Afterward the characters gather at the Life Café, where they see their former friend, the sell-out, the compromiser, the cynic, Benjamin Coffin III (that imperial, insidious “III”). Benny is behind the development and is having drinks with his father-in-law, an investor in the project.

After some smarmy back and forth, Benny declares the death of bohemia. The cast begins its song in response, a hymn to the subversive, the antiestablishment. At least that’s the idea.

“To handcrafted beers made in local breweries,” Mark sings. “To yoga, to yogurt, to rice and beans and cheese.” Also: “To riding your bike, midday past the three-piece suits/to fruits — to no absolutes,” and get this: “To Absolut.” Like the vodka.

The song goes on. To Vaclav Havel. To Sondheim, Sontag, Antonioni, Bertolucci and Kurosawa (sounds like a sold-out Saturday afternoon quintuple bill at Film Forum). To German wine.

In other words, Park Slope for dummies.

Zing! Though one wonders if Robertson, lamenting New York’s lack of danger and grit, is taking his longing to the far extreme: he’s soon to leave his “shiny new skyscraper on 41st Street” to serve as a war correspondent on the frontlines in Iraq.

Bohemia Takes Its Final Bows [NYT]

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