Posts Tagged ‘Rent’

I was lucky enough to see Next to Normal on Broadway when I was attending the SCBWI Winter Conference last year, and it completely blew me away. Not only did this show win the Tony Award for Best Original Score in 2009, but it also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the first musical to win this award since Rent in 1996).

Next to Normal can be easily compared to Rent in many ways. In watching it, I felt I was seeing the promise to American musical theater made by Rent a decade and a half before finally coming to fruition. We saw a profound movement in this direction with the success of the award-winning Spring Awakening in 2007, but Next to Normal took this progression still further. It combines the rock-inspired score with a book scored with deep contemporary issues. The lyrics are also a stand-out here; not since Jonathan Larson have I seen such clever and facile lyrics being used for dramatic (as opposed to comedic) effect.

An article about the Pulitzer prize win says, “The Pulitzer jury recognized the work for its subject matter and stated that it “expands the scope of subject matter for musicals.”” You might be noticing a trend by now in my favorite musicals. They all expand the scope of subject matter for musicals. They talk about things that matter; they have something to say. Just as I mentioned last week that this is a major quality I look for in the short fiction I read, so is it also an important criteria for the theater I love best.

In the case of Next to Normal, the subject matter is mental illness, grief, and a family in crisis. And I have to say that, while the score is excellent, it’s the emotional subject matter that makes this show so memorable for me. The show follows the journey of Diana Goodman, a mother suffering from bipolar disorder and hallucinations, along with the struggles of her family, including her husband who is suffering from depression himself and her teenage daughter Natalie, who feels ignored and isolated. It is often quite dark, and the emotional notes ring very realistically. I’ve done a fair amount of reading about dysfunctional families, and many of those dynamics were shown — indeed, played out to their messy conclusions — during the course of the play.

I can’t talk about Next to Normal without mentioning how important I find it that this show introduces an open discussion about mental illness, a subject that is often marginalized in American society. Diana Goodman is without question the main character of the musical, and we are taken on a tour of her highs and lows, her moments of lucidity and complete mental breakdown, her pain and regrets, and the tough questions she is forced to answer. But for me, it was the character of her daughter Natalie who tugged on my heart-strings the most, just wishing for as “normal” a family as possible and trying to survive in a turmoil she can’t change or leave behind her.

Here are a few of my favorite musical moments:

Natalie’s song “Everything Else”, which is sung to a Mozartian piano accompaniment. I should note that Natalie’s song “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” is possibly the more popular of the two, and also excellent.

“Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I”: this song is all about the lyrics.

“Maybe (Next to Normal)”: the song that gave the show its title, coming towards the end of the second act.

Happily for me, Next to Normal is currently on a national tour so I’ll have the opportunity to see it again in a few weeks. And as I said about Adam Guettel, I’m very eager to see what comes next from the talented Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey.

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Rent has been on my current list of favorite musicals for the longest amount of time.  It came bursting on the scene both off and on Broadway in 1996, and I discovered it by late 1997.  In fact, it is possibly the first CD I ever bought after I received my first CD player in 1998. 

Rent is very much a product of its time.  It shows the HIV/AIDs epidemic when it was at its peak and is set before cell phones became popular, featuring an answering machine used for screening calls.  And yet, its music has a very modern feel and it was always a very popular show with my students, many of whom were born the year the show came out.

From a musical perspective, Jonathan Larson, the composer and lyricist of Rent, was trying to modernize the American musical, and in many ways he succeeded, although it took many years for other composers to successfully build on his innovations.  While the “rock opera” had been quite popular in the 1980s, as showcased by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and Schonberg and Boublil’s Les Miserables, among others, Larson was going for a different sound, more influenced by modern rock and rap.  Combined with his genius for clever lyrics, Larson wrote a score that popped with originality and vitality.  The sheer energy that crackles from a live production of Rent can be spellbinding.

The story of Rent is a modern adaptation of Pucchini’s opera La Boheme, set in New York and featuring several starving (and in many cases HIV-positive) artists.  For me, the first act has always been the stronger of the two, focusing on the action of one night, whereas the second act is more diffuse and covers many months.  Our protagonists struggle with poverty, sacrificing and striving for their art, living with terminal illness, death, violence, homelessness, mainstream disapproval, and heartbreak/lack of trust/relationship drama.  I heard this musical and realized, more deeply than I had before, that musical theater can have just as much depth and as much to say as other art forms.

The show is not without weaknesses.  As previously stated, I feel it loses some of its focus in the second act, and some of the sung dialogue passes by so quickly it can be missed by newcomers to the show.  What always drives me nuts, however, is that the musician Roger’s song “One Song Glory” in the first act, in which he sings about trying to write the perfect song, is infinitely stronger and more moving than his song in the second act “In Your Eyes”, which is supposed to be the one perfect song but is, in my opinion, much more clichéd and not as musically or vocally interesting.  And the end feels rushed and doesn’t quite match with the rest of the piece.

For me, Rent is inextricably tied to the time in my life when it was introduced to me.  It deals with artists struggling to make a mark on the world, while I was a music student struggling to improve my singing.  It shows main characters with terminal illness, and delves into the realities of living with illness and with death.  At this same time, my mother had a terminal illness and later died from it.  This musical spoke to the nineteen-year-old me in a way for which I’ll always be grateful.

Here are a few, out of many, of my favorite songs from the show:

– Seasons of Love: possibly the most well-known song from the show.  It raises the question of how to measure a life: what is it in life that we value most?

– Will I: a moving testimonial to the fears relating to terminal illness
– One Song Glory: one of my very favorite songs of all time.  This song alone makes me wish I was a male tenor.  Every time I listen to it, I get tears in my eyes.  It’s about the desire to create lasting art in the face of mortality.
What is your opinion of Rent?  Do you have favorite songs or moments, or see different strengths and weaknesses than the ones I picked out?  Let me know!

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