So, for some reason, I always find myself queuing up the Rent original cast recording around this time of year. I think it’s probably because more than half the show takes place between Christmas and New Year’s, and I like the slightly fractured sound of Christmas carols that slither through the score. But this year I really noticed a shift in how I feel about the show, something that’s been coming on for a while, I think. While in middle school and high school, I–and every other artsy girl in the country–definitely identified with the dramatic and freezing artists who make up the core of the show’s cast, I’ve come to a place where I identify a lot more with the characters who are pursuing art and justice through the system, namely Benny and Joanne.
I feel deeply strange about this. I was a bit of a college radical. I got arrested in a protest! I had to go to a disciplinary hearing! I want to sympathize with the yippie protesters demanding that homeless people not be evicted from a vacant lot around Christmas! But I kind of can’t deny that I find the starving artists in Rent a little…obnoxious. It’s not actually romantic to freeze and live in a slum (or a hipster trailer)–romanticizing that experience is just a way to make it bearable. And when Benny points out that “Maureen is protesting losing her performance space / Not my attitude,” he’s absolutely right. Her protest has nothing to do with the lived experience of homeless people in New York. It’s all about a kind of bohemian posturing. And as much as Benny’s kind of an ass, sexually harassing Mimi, threatening to kick his old buddies out of their apartment, and declaring the death of Bohemia, he also ultimately gives them their housing back (not that they’re remotely grateful or anything, which always rubbed me the wrong way), offers to get Mimi into rehab, and pays for Angel’s funeral. Like it or not, living does take money, and Benny’s one of the only characters practical to recognize that.
But he’s still basically an unpleasant person, and in truth, the person I like most in Rent now is Joanne. When she sings ”I look before I leap / I love margins and discipline / Baby, what’s my sin? / Never quit, I follow through / I hate mess but I love you / What to do with my impromptu baby? / So be wise, ’cause this girl satisfies” in “Take Me Or Leave Me,” that’s basically my personality. Joanne, tied with Benny, is probably the most effective character in the entire show. She’s working full-time as a lawyer along with producing Maureen’s show; she’s the only person with enough knowledge to figure out that Mark, Collins and Roger have squatter’s rights; and she and Maureen find and save Mimi at the end of the show. Joanne is engaged with the artistic efforts that absorb the rest of the show’s characters, but she’s also working for change in a larger world–she’s not myopic, though it’s clear from her calls with her parents that she’s blazing her own path within the legal profession. Joanne wants a world where wearing Doc Martens is no impediment to being a badass attorney, which is essentially what I’d like to see, too.
I even feel like Alexi Darling, Mark’s producer at Buzzline, gets a bad rap. The disdain with which she’s treated, despite the fact that she gives Mark an income and the financial means to finish his movie is really kind of disgusting. The news business may not be art, but at least Alexi wants to cover a protest in support of the homeless. I don’t really see a reason why Mark, et.al. are purer than her.
Now, let me be clear, I have a lot of respect for people who throw themselves into artistic work, despite the fact that it’s rarely financially rewarding and exposes them to a deeply uncertain life. I recognize there are major problems with gentrification, the treatment of the homeless in New York, etc. I just respect people who work within the system to foster support for art, to combat sexism, to make the law fairer. And ultimately, I grew up to be one of them. My pre-teen and teenage ambitions to write fiction are basically shelved. I work as a reporter, and write about popular culture in a mainstream publication that’s been hesitant in the past to really dive into the subject. And frankly, I’m okay with that. I don’t think it’s a path that automatically deserves disdain. I still like Rent. But I see very differently than I did when my neighbor first taped the cast recording for me.