It had been at least six or seven years since I'd seen Rent, and ten since Stephanie and I had seen it more regularly than we got our oil changed (sometimes two or three times during a run, camping out for rush tickets when we could, blowing our savings on full-price tickets if we had to, once driving to Arizona on a whim). I still had a deep affection for the show, but when I talked about my Rent years to others, I talked about it as if I'd been a hardcore New Kids On The Block fan.
Then Rent showed up at the Pantages, and Stephanie wanted to try our luck in the cheap-ticket lotto (they don't let you camp out anymore--it's unclear whether they're afraid of terrorists or it's a liability issue or they just got tired of hosting fan-kid slumber parties). For a little while it was just a thing on my calendar. Then, on the way home from work Friday, I listened to the soundtrack for the first time in ages, traffic melted away, and I realized I really, really wanted to see my old friend Rent.
When we got to the Pantages, the strip of the Walk of Fame outside the theater was packed with an eclectic batch of ticket hopefuls: fan-kids, yes, but also tourists and parents and old queens and young ones and girls in prom dresses and people in flip-flops. Stephanie reminded me that we'd never won a ticket lottery before.
"We have terrible luck," she said.
Fortunately her friend Michael, visiting from New York and along as an extra name to increase our chances, did not. His name was drawn (though it was hard to tell at first, because the way they pronounced his name sounded like "finger floss") and he gallantly turned his tickets over to us.
But then Stephanie decided she really wanted him to see it. Michael shrugged. "I don't know, I had lots of chances to see it in New York. I knew some people who were in the cast. But I just never got around to it. And I was just singing that song from Lease, the spoof on Rent they do in Team America. Isn't that blasphemous or something?"
Nevertheless, we found ourselves waiting in the cancellation line hoping for a third ticket. The girl in front of us, a petite baby dyke with a fire engine-red crew cut and a "No day but today" tattoo (she also had a "Defy Gravity" tattoo from Wicked), was visiting from Hawaii. She'd seen the show once already on this trip, but she wanted to see it again before flying back home.
Although thankful that I didn't seriously consider getting a tattoo until I was 25, I remembered how much I loved the insanity of Rent, and the nervous hustle for tickets: After listening to a security guard chant, "Have a plan B if you don't get tickets, folks. Plan B. Plan B," and calling Michael's friend who knows Anthony Rapp (who plays Mark), who called Anthony on a whim just in case he could get us in, Stephanie spotted a couple eyeing the cancellation line and zoomed over to them. Sure enough, they had an extra ticket to sell.
(Michael's friend on the phone, re: Anthony Rapp reprising the role he originated 15 years ago: "It's cute when they can't pay their rent in their 20s, but when you're 40, isn't it more like, Just pay your damn rent.")
2. ...and show
I'd worried that the show wouldn't hold up. After all, even though I liked the movie version that came out a few years ago, it wasn't exactly...good. I was worried that I'd be too lost in either nostalgia or cynicism to have any kind of real reaction.
But you know what? Rent is good.
Sitting in the front row just feet from the band and scaffolding, the chills came back right on cue. And more than that, I appreciated how well-crafted the show was: the little pieces of back story Jonathan Larson worked in, the complexity of characters who have to convey their entire selves via song.
I thought maybe I'd relate most, now, to Benny, the sell-out gentrifier who arguably makes a good point that there's nothing romantic about a neighborhood where people piss on your stoop every night. But if I related a little more to Benny, I related a little more to everyone. They seemed young (even if I could see Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal's crow's feet, which I guess is a testament to their acting skills), and more fragile than ever, making their on-again, off-again love and friendship seem brighter and sadder.
When I was in college, Rent was as much my religion as it was my favorite musical. And I secretly like to think I've done it proud, living as an artist if not quite a bohemian (I do have a weakness for stability). But I'm not sure I've ever been able to live its bigger message, of appreciating the fleeting aspects of life, of loving even when you know you'll have to let go sooner rather than later (it's that stability weakness again). Now that I'm old enough to believe that death is real, not just a romantic construct, I found Roger's struggle to love Mimi when she's sick and dying that much more poignant, and Collins' easy ability to do the same for Angel that much more heroic.
3. life after rent
Michael liked the show too, which was vindicating. A real New Yorker! A real actor! A straight guy in his 30s! As a grown-up bohemian, perhaps it wasn't surprising that not only was he two degrees from Anthony Rapp, but one of the girls in the cast turned out to be an old friend. When we found ourselves backstage with maybe a dozen other people, I was starstruck.
"Karen!" Michael said when he saw his friend.
"Michael! Michael St. Clair, Saint something--how the fuck do you say your last name again? I could never get it right."
They chatted about the show, about Karen's family, about life on the road. "After the tour ends," Karen said, "my husband and the kid and I are moving to L.A. We're gonna try to buy a place. I just can't throw any more money away on rent."
"Oh, I know," Michael said. "I finally bought a place too. You have to do it."
OMG, I thought, do you guys know how ironic it is to have a conversation about the importance of owning property backstage at Rent?
Ironic, yes, but do I think we've all sold out? No--Karen is still performing in and writing shows. Michael has his own recording studio and spent much of our pre-show wait trying to sooth a difficult actor who didn't get a part. Stephanie acts, voice-acts and is making one of my stories into a short film. I get up most mornings and write at little cafes that are the L.A. equivalents of Rent's Life Cafe.
The only difference is that, unlike Mark, I can pay for my tea these days. Maybe I'm flattering myself, but I like to think that this is where Mark and Roger and Maureen would have been in another decade. All that love and work pays off, and sometimes it even pays your rent.