by the Rev. Msgr. Kevin M. Wallin
Initially, the thought of seeing Rent was not appealing to me. A rock musical would be unbearable if it was as loud as Tommy. I was not sure I wanted to sit through anything that might be on the cutting edge, as Hair was in its day. On the other hand, I like Jesus Christ Superstar and so was hoping that Rent would be somewhat like that. In reality, it stands in between any extremes. The decibel level is comfortable but there is not as much compassion and reflection as there is in Superstar. It is not so much cutting edge as refreshing. All in all, I have now seen Rent twice and like it. The second time was more enjoyable than the first, not only because I knew the plot but also because the acoustics were better in the area of the theater where I was sitting.
Rent is loosely based on the classic opera La Bohème, however one does not need to be familiar with the opera to follow the plot. (For those who know Bohème, this Mimi doesn't die). It is the story of seven friends, three couples and one single person. Set in the East Village of New York City and revolving around the bohemian life style of the characters, not all relationships would be in keeping with Catholic morals and values. In spite of that, Rent has a strongly religious theme. The play deals with loneliness, disappointment, sickness, trust, joy, compassion, human dignity and all of life's dimensions. It even has a clear reference to resurrection. One has only to put oneself in the place of the characters to understand that we and they are one and the same. It is the universal human story being played out on the stage.
The second act opens with a musical number which poses the question: how does one measure the value of a year in a person's life. That proposition is raised throughout the second act and answered in a variety of ways. The clearest answer is easily appreciated - the primary measure of a person's life is the love it contains. As I listened, I was reminded of what the Wizard of Oz explains to the Tin Man; namely, what matters is not how much you love others but how much others love you. I also could not help but recall the Lord's instruction that those who love much make up for their transgressions. These aspects of genuine love are highlighted in Rent.
Any follower of Jesus Christ should see this production as an opportunity to examine one's conscience and ask how he or she measures the value of his or her own life. Rent reminds us that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for the Lord Himself. It is He whom we meet and serve in others. Despite the shortcomings, anxieties, vices and self-destructive habits which some characters in the play exhibit, the overwhelming frailty of the human condition and the need to experience the love of God and the care and compassion of others is constantly brought forward for the audience's reflection. The destructive power of prejudice, violence, addition, hate and fear is demonstrated and deplored. To comprehend the real value of this musical, one must put oneself in the actors' places, not merely be an observer.
To highlight the human focus of this production, the costumes, lighting and sets are there merely to serve the drama. They in no way draw attention to themselves. Indeed, the theater appears to be run down and in disrepair, clearly an attempt to place the audience within the tenement environment of the play. It is our lives we are watching, whether we realize it or not.
This is an ensemble production. Each character is central to the development of the plot and its successful resolution. The acting bears this out most effectively. The cast consists of unknowns - at least they were before this production - who make their characters and relationships come alive. Together they are wonderful to watch.