There is no future, there is no past: Rent and Tick, Tick…BOOM!

February 4, 2010 at 2:00 pm (Uncategorized)

When I was younger and kept a journal, nearly every entry began: “Wow, it’s been so long since I wrote!” So, um, hi. It’s been so long since I wrote. But now I’m back, and with lots of movies, music, art and books to talk about. Please join me as I try to make my way through the cultural landscape.

Last night I saw the musical Rent, Jonathan Larson’s rock opera, as part of Broadway Sacramento. I’ve long been a fan of the show, which brings a grittiness and chaos to the often cheesy world of musicals.

A quick rundown of the background, in case you’re not familiar with the Larson mythology. He wrote Rent over seven years, and then it was staged in a workshop production at the New York Theatre Workshop. The night before the first public performance in 1996, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at age 35. The show went on to Broadway, injected the staid stage with sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, and became an awards-draped global phenomenon.

On this current tour, which closes here in Sacramento on Feb. 7, original Broadway cast members Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp reprise their roles as musician Roger and filmmaker Mark, respectively. Across town, at the Artisan on Del Paso Blvd., the New Helvetia Theatre Company is re-staging their fall production of Tick, Tick…BOOM!, an earlier Larson musical. The two productions combine to create an exhilarating portrait of late 1980s New York City, and of Larson himself. (I highly recommend the New Helvetia show, starring Tristan Rumery, Nanci Zoppi and Connor Mickiewicz. It runs through Feb. 13. Stay tuned for my interview with Nanci this weekend!)

What’s odd about watching both these shows is that they’ve become a never-never land, a place where Larson and the lost boys that are his leading men never grow up. Larson was obsessed with the passage of time. The semi-autobiographical Tick, Tick…BOOM! anxiously counts down until his 30th birthday, which he sees as the end of his youth. You can’t help but hear lyrics from songs like “30/90” in the context of Larson’s early death:

Stop the clock -Take time out

Time to regroup before you lose the bout

Freeze the frame – Back it up

Time to refocus before they wrap it up

Not just another birthday, it’s 30/90

Why can’t you stay 29

Hell, you still feel like you’re 22

Turn thirty 1990

Bang! You’re dead

Even the re-casting of Pascal and Rapp in Rent seems like an attempt to stop the clock. Fourteen years after the premiere they’re both pushing 40. We know they’re older, and are supposed to pretend that they’re youthful bohemians for nostalgia’s sake, and the chance to see great performers. For the most part it works, if you buy into the refrain, from “Another Day” and “No Day But Today,” that “there is no future, there is no past.” We’re trapped with these characters in the eternal present where nobody gets older or has to get real jobs that can actually pay the bills, and it’s joyful and hopeful—an attempt to seize the moment and connect in a disaffected world–but it’s sad, too.

Rent’s most famous song, “Seasons of Love,” begins:

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes,

Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

How do you measure, measure a year?

Again Larson tries to wrap his head around the passing of time, re-characterizing it with unusual measurements (30/90, 525,600, cups of coffee, love) that perhaps allow him to get a grip on its slippery, unstoppable nature.

The reprise then asks, “How do you figure a last year on earth?”

This is not to say that Larson somehow knew he would need to make the most of his short life—after all, his musicals are set in the age of AIDS, when for many people in the New York arts world days were numbered. Instead, since I’m wowed by the passion and creativity bursting from his work, I see him as someone who acutely felt the crush of the future because he had so much he wanted to accomplish.

Rent and Tick, Tick…BOOM! are firmly rooted in a place and a time and a moment; it will always be New York City at the end of the millennium, and Larson will always be a struggling young artist. I only wish that he’d lived long enough to experience other times and moments, and write musicals about those, too.

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1 Comment

  1. Liz said,

    Wow, I need to visit Sacramento, if only for the theatre! (PS, that’s exactly how every one of my journal entries started, too)

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