It’s 1996, probably February sometime. I’m in the second semester of my first year at NYU. I’m part of the Gallatin Scholars, a group that gets to go to cultural events as part of our scholarship package. We get tickets to this show at New York Theater Workshop. We sit in the front row.
Let me back up for a second, actually. My original plan when I came to NYU was to study acting and psychology, but when I get to New York City, I see the life of the student/actor, and I know it’s not for me. Luckily, I’m in a flexible program; I decide to transition into a more broad-based approach to my studies, with a steady helping of theatrical education as a basic structure. I’m studying the History of Drama and Theater, mostly dramatic literature, just sort of starting to understand that there’s a whole lot more to the theater world than the stuff they teach you in college.
So I’m excited when we go see this show at NYTW. I’ve heard about it. There’s buzz, although at the time I’m not quite aware of exactly how much buzz there is. A few weeks later, the show would hit the cover of Newsweek. At the time, this doesn’t seem all that unusual to me. It also kind of doesn’t seem entirely unusual that this is a show about young people in the neighrborhood I happen to be sitting in–there’s lots of New York theater about New York, right? So we sit down, and the theater’s kind of small (compared to Broadway, but big compared to lots of the Off-Off houses I was just starting to discover), and the stage is HUGE (feels like the stage is as big as the house), and we’re in the front row, and the lights go down.
And it takes a little while for it all to get going. The first few songs have fun moments and rock guitar, silly humor (in the form of Mark’s mom on the answering machine), an incredibly sweet meet-cute (between Angel and Collins), some sexiness in the form of Daphne Rubin-Vega (a brief aside: years later, I’d meet Daphne whil working for Joe’s Pub. I attempted to introduce her to our staff, including our graphics designer, who was a good friend of mine. I completely — legitimately — forgot my friend’s name while making the introduction. Daphne has that kind of presence.), and a lot of goodness going for it, but it hasn’t yet blown me away.
And then…it blows me away.
I’ve said this before, and nothing will shake my faith in it: the first quarter of Rent is pretty good, the last quarter is pretty terrible (seriously), but that half in the middle, starting with “Today for You” and ending with “I’ll Cover You (reprise)” is remarkable, incredibly, devastatingly good and relevant and important and powerful. It hit me there in the theater, and it stays with me to today. I can’t even express what it is, but that middle chunk gets it right, so right — it’s the kind of thing that musical theater could be and can be and should be, the kind of thing that In The Heights and Passing Strange got right in chunks and pieces, the kind of thing that Crazy for You did as well as anything I’ve ever seen, only with more heart, more real soul, and more of the voice of a group of people who actually exist. That middle chunk of Rent is a time capsule, and it was a time capsule from the moment it was created — it gets that world right, or as right as you can get it in a musical theater context.
So it’s 1996, and they’re singing La Vie Boheme, and Maureen is mooning Bennie (and they’d go on to get married in the real world), and I’m maybe ten feet from her ass, and she pulls up her pants, and I swear she winks at me. And then it’s intermission, and I’m shell-shocked, not from the bare ass, but from what I just saw — something that felt real to me, and was full of emotion and subversion on some level, even though it’s a big musical and therefore how subversive can it really be? But it is, and they’re singing about stuff that I don’t even know what it is but I know that in the fact that they’re mentioning it, it’s important, and I’ll come across it someday (and then last year I finally read Vaclav Havel, and lookie lookie: it leads to a name for my blog) and it’ll impact my life when it does.
And then they line up across the stage at the top of Act Two, and it’s “Seasons of Love,” and I swear they’re a foot away from me, and Taye Diggs spits on me (in the act of singing, of course), and I’m right up close in their eyes, and they’re singing this song about dead friends, and it’s written by their dead friend, and they’re singing it for him — you can see it, they’re singing that song for Jonathan Larson, and I mean — how am I ever going to settle for creating theater that isn’t founded on that close a relationship?
And also, there in the middle of it, there happens to be one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever see — and it’s a gay couple’s story. And you have to realize that I’m 18-years-old, coming from suburbs (not far from Mark’s mom’s house, actually), and I’m only now meeting my first gay friends, and as a straight boy/athlete from the burbs, you’re not exactly conditioned to expect to be moved to the core by a gay relationship — but there it is, in front of me, and Collins sings the “I’ll Cover You (reprise),” and good god, it’s maybe the most beautiful moment I’ve ever seen onstage.
And it ends, and I’m shaken, and everything has changed, yet I’m still not sure that anything has changed beyond me, if you know what I mean. I’m still not quite understanding the cultural significance of what I just saw.
A few months later, it moved to Broadway. So I saw it again.
(I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.)