Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Suburban Renthead

I’ve always loved musical theatre, and a few weeks ago my wife and I watched the DVD of the movie version of Rent. I’d never seen Rent on stage, but I’d heard a lot of buzz about it back in the 90s. It was mentioned in the book Virtual Faith as a religious experience for many Gen X attendees. I felt that way when I first saw Les Misérables, so I was curious about seeing Rent.

I was disturbed by it and loved it at the same time. Rent highlights both the worst and the best of human experience, from self-destructive behavior and hedonistic worldviews to real community, relationships and love. I don’t always watch DVD bonus features, but we watched the full two-hour behind-the-scenes documentary. I was haunted by Rent’s anthems and melodies, so I checked out the soundtrack, a memoir by a cast member, the coffee table book/libretto and sheet music from the library. Even just reading the lyrics of the finale continues to move me to tears.

Interestingly, even though the play takes place in the urban setting of New York City’s East Village, the librettist/composer, Jonathan Larson, grew up in middle-class suburbia, in White Plains, thirty-five minutes north of New York City. He first discovered his talent and love for theatre in his junior high and high school plays and musicals. Ironically, Rent, a celebration of bohemian urban artistic experience, is partially indebted to suburban school systems’ championing of theatre and the arts.

It seems that our culture often holds either an urban or a rural ideal, to the exclusion of the suburban, and the theatre world reflects this. There have been musicals in urban settings from West Side Story to Rent, and musicals set in rural small-town settings like Oklahoma! and The Music Man. But suburbia? Nothing comes to mind. Someday, perhaps, a daring, creative playwright will focus his or her talents into a dramatic, Tony-award-winning musical set in the world of suburbia. Somebody should go for it. And more significantly, we who live in suburbia could live as compellingly and intentionally as the characters in these narratives. No day but today!

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