It introduced thousands to Broadway. Every night it played at the Nederlander Theatre, it touched the souls of hundreds. It did so with one simple message – no day but today.
I am, of course, talking about the rock musical sensation of Rent. Born of Jonathan Larson’s creative ministrations and orphaned just before its first preview by Larson’s unfortunate passing, the musical about a band of young bohemians trying to navigate life riddled with death, bills and AIDS is loved by millions, and for good reason. For its brash, coarse yet utterly real content matter – not many musicals unabashedly yell odes to “mucho masturbation” in their Act 1 finales – it truly touches the heart too. The harsh electric guitar and frenetic energy of “Out Tonight” is tempered by the soft guitar melody and haunting repetition of “Will I”, inspired by one of Larson’s own visits to an AIDS support group, while the lighthearted romance of “I’ll Cover You” is turned on their head by its reprise in the second act. Not to mention, of course, the joyous, life-affirming finale with everyone belting their hearts out to affirm the show’s message and show that all does, indeed, work out in the end and that there truly is no day but today. And that is truly among the show’s biggest flaws.
Thing is, Rent is just too perfect. Everything, all the dramatic tension, the underlying question of “will I lose my dignity” and the ever-present fear of death within all the scenes, is thrown away quite simply on a whim in those last few moments; a true deus ex machina, if I’ve ever seen one. Angel’s death leaves a grim, stark impression on the cowed audience; that one of the most beloved, kindest and most selfless of people the audience sees in the show can so easily be taken away is one of the most grim reminders of the true dangers of AIDS back then, in a time when the epidemic was so widespread and few knew what to truly do to contain it. In light of that, Mimi’s sudden, seemingly magical (or rather, illogical) revival and second wind comes across as a scoff in the face, a ‘whatever’ moment. It makes for a heartwarming ending to the show, sure, but it doesn’t make the touching, heart-wrenching one we as the audience have been led to expect from the show. Not to mention how some parts of the show simply don’t quite make sense – dogs do generally know not to jump off buildings, even when in extreme auditory discomfort from a street drummer’s fierce drumming – while others do feel a tad awkward (“Your Eyes” isn’t the most touching goodbye song, not in the same way “One Song Glory” or “I’ll Cover You Reprise” are heartbreaking ballads setting near-impossible standards to match, at least).
And yet, does that change the perfection of the show one bit? Does it make the tears of joy as Mimi and Roger embrace any less heartfelt or the joyful reunion of the cast – plus Angel – at the end to belt out the final lyric “no day but today” any less beautiful? Does it mean that “One Song Glory” suddenly loses its meaning, ceases to remind one of our inner fears, of death and failure and of making a mark? Does it make the show as a whole any less poignant and coarse and utterly real? The answer, in my opinion, is no.
Sure, Rent’s ending leaves something to be desired. Sure, there are a couple of songs – particularly in the second act – which fall a little flat, perhaps somewhat explainable by the fact that they simply couldn’t be revised or replaced by their original composer between the show’s initial Off-Broadway debut and its inevitable record-breaking run on Broadway. Sure, the show as a whole could have been made more watertight had Larson had more time to work on it or simply written it with another ending in mind (he was, after all, insistent on Mimi living in the end, though who knows if time and additional previews/performances might’ve changed his mind). But nothing changes the fact that the story and message of the show are just so incredibly necessary in a way that one cannot comprehend unless they’ve seen or heard it and so perfect in that they, even in spite of being imperfect and flawed, make you feel a whole rollercoaster of emotions and then some in a mere two and a half hours of runtime (plus the obligatory 10-minute intermission). If you were to ask me to choose between a technically perfect yet bland show and the raw, imperfect truth of Rent – made ever more poignant by the fact that its composer and writer lived, breathed, and died in the same world as the musical he wrote was set in – I’d choose Rent any day as an example of what a truly perfect musical should be. For it, unlike any other show, truly reminds one that there is no day but today.