During last Sunday night’s broadcast of “Rent: Live” I found myself tweeting like a madman. Dozens of tweets. Cranky tweets, snarky tweets, tweets full of praise: “Brandon Victor Dixon is the real deal.” Or complaint: “This all feels too canned.” The commentary was launched from my fingertips — a ritual on these annual musical theater tele-gatherings — but even my most visceral reactions rose up from somewhere much deeper.
Because “Rent” and I, we’ve been going together for 23 years.
It’s hard to express just how profoundly certain musicals are a part of me. And I know, from my wanderings on social media, that this particular inarticulateness does not dwell in my constitution alone. Musicals consoled me as a kid. I made the acquaintance of Stephen Sondheim on my record player in New Jersey, the one on which I wore out the grooves of the cast albums of “Company” and “Follies,” and memorized the entire scores of shows as celebrated as “West Side Story” and little remembered as “Purlie.”
So by the time I became a theater reporter at the New York Times, which was shortly before “Rent” debuted at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1996, my wiring had long since acquired all the required circuitry for another long-term commitment. And “Rent,” with a passel of young, passionate performers and a score by Jonathan Larson that positively oozed heart, would prove to be one of those shows that penetrated mine.
This is all by way of explaining that even if musical lovers are entitled in no legal way to claim ownership, the shows we metabolize are ours. In my case, the bonding process was intensified by proximity. On “Rent’s” way from East Fourth Street to Broadway in 1996, I was assigned to interview each of the 15 original cast members for a capsule profile of each. (Idina Menzel, the original Maureen, told me she was a rocker, not an actress, and Taye Diggs — the original Bennie, and whom Menzel would later marry — waxed poetic about his mother.)
Over the years, I was a witness to “Rent” growing up, as if I had a metaphysical ruler at the ready, always waiting to take the latest measure of the heights it had scaled. I was there, for instance, at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway, to deliver the news that “Rent” had won the Pulitzer Prize. I attended both “Rent’s” opening night at the Nederlander and, 12 years and 5,123 performances later, the night it ended its Broadway run.
My daughter Lizzie inherited the musical bug from me — or really, via the late Larson and the show’s indelible stars, including Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin and Daphne Rubin-Vega. Some people, in fact, looked at me aghast at the time when I told them I’d taken my 10-year-old to “Rent,” with its colorful language (excised on the three-hour Fox version) and frank portrayal of the ravages of AIDS.
I knew better. “Rent” had more humanity in one of its songs than most of the junk being marketed to kids her age revealed in their entirety. Lizzie and I would make attending “Rent” a father-daughter ritual, on any occasion it toured to Washington or she happened to be with me in New York. Our joint outings added to the tally of my “Rent” viewings, which at this point amount to 15. Yes, my name is Peter and I am a Rentaholic.
All of which brings me to my tweetstorm, a veritable involuntary display of devotion and pique. “Rent,” based on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” has a challengingly slippery plot to begin with: Perhaps Larson would have refined the structure had he lived to see his show’s official opening. Fox’s telecast, before a shrieking audience, resolved none of the musical’s shortcomings: Love means accepting the flaws in the object of one’s affection. It even added a few. And it turned out not to be the live offering the network promised. An accident befalling the production’s Roger, Brennin Hunt, during the previous evening’s dress rehearsal led to a decision by Fox to air the tape of most of that rehearsal, with a shift to live theater only at the end.
The result, directed by “Rent’s” original stage director, was a disappointingly bland — and seemingly canned — performance. The singing was by and large subpar. And some odd bits of editing were irritating. An AIDS patient’s lyric: “Because reason says I should have died three years ago,” was changed to “six months ago,” for example. This sort of thing can drive a “Rent”-head to drink. Of course when I mentioned this abomination to my wife, her look of worry for me suggested that what I may have drunk was too much of the Kool-Aid.
In my defense, love can make you a little crazy. After all, Fox devoting three prime time hours to a Broadway musical, a week before the Super Bowl — and one containing the lyric “Sodomy, it’s between God and me” — should be viewed as a modern wonder of the world. Even if the wonder contained too many commercial interruptions.
And who knows? The silver lining on an erratic evening may be that newly lovestruck kid in Bismarck or Little Rock or Spokane downloading the original cast album.