Broadway’s “Rent” and Nostalgia

The only thing good to come out of “Rent Live! was a rejuvenation of my interest in the musical.

I was in 8th grade – around 2007 – when the show had already celebrated many accolades and a 10 year anniversary the year before. It was the perfect match to my angsty, teenage years of feeling discontent with my generation and the world around me.

I was also undiagnosed with Bipolar II depression, anxiety and other conditions at the time and not medicated. So while I was suffering and wondering why I acted and reacted the way I did the lyrics of Jonathan Larson’s musical struck a chord – especially the more dramatic moments, and (again) overtly angsty moments, like “Halloween,” “Goodbye Love,” “Will I?” – etc.

As I grew up and went to college and started studying arts criticism, I began to see flaws and the problematic elements of the musical and distanced myself from any nostalgia of it and advocating works I felt handled the AIDs crisis better like “Angels in America” and “The Normal Heart.”

I have a long list of issues with the book and the characters, but that’s not what this post is about.

After I saw Rent Live – sheerly based on being invited to a viewing party, hadn’t planned on watching it otherwise – I couldn’t help but feel a tug of nostalgia as it was the first time in years I had seen any professional production of the musical. However, I wasn’t nostalgic for the performances I was seeing (possibly with the exception of Brennin Hunt as Roger). I wanted to see what made me love the musical so much as a teen – even though I saw it on Broadway long after the OBC had departed. Still, this led me to seek out content on YouTube including low-quality press reels and other recordings of the original cast.

Watching them has definitely re-inspired nostalgia and has actually altered some of my criticisms (Daphne Reuben Vega’s Mimi is actually great and it doesn’t come across if you only listen to her on the soundtrack).

I still maintain my views about Rent as a problematic musical (and yes, if Jonathan Larson had not died it might have been less problematic final product), but it still worth celebrating the parts of it that do work and the original performers – who radically exceed expectations for anyone who has only seen the movie (not even going to get into that piece of… yeah) and the so-so recording of the Broadway show.

A Tale of Three “Annie”s

*Note: This post is not meant in any way to discredit the talent of the cast or production teams behind the productions of “Annie” being produced on Long Island this month. Nor am I advocating for audiences to see any particular productions other than “Annie.”

A certain little optimistic ginger has taken over Long Island – or at least the theatre scene.

Three Long Island mainstage theaters – to my knowledge – are producing the story of the debateably sickeningly sweet orphan.

As a Long Island performer and critic I have to wonder – why? Why would three (or more, if you count touring companies and Annie Jr. productions) theaters choose the same show to play at the same time?

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy “Annie.” It’s entertaining for the most part (usually the scenes that don’t include the titular redhead) and it has one of the best villain songs in musical theatre (no one can top Alan Cumming and Kristen Chenoweth’s “Easy Street” in the 1999 Disney TV movie adaptation, fight me.)

But from a business and artistic perspective the oversaturation of this musical on Long Island this holiday season is pretty puzzling.

You would think theaters would want to offer patrons a variety of options.

For example, let’s say I’m Ralph and Shirley Mudge from Lindenhurst. We’re not subscribers to any particular theater, but we’re looking for a couple of shows to see over the next month. We check the local listings: “Annie” in Oakdale, “Annie” in Syosset,” “Annie” in Merrick.

We’ve been to all three theaters and they each have something different to offer. So how do we choose? Maybe it depends on where we want to have dinner beforehand. Maybe it depends on if we know of a particular actor in the show. But we know one thing – we’re not likely to see three productions of the same show.

But let’s say the same three theaters produced three different productions, disregarding the fact that other theaters may be doing any of the following musicals as well. One does Annie – okay, fine. Another does “Holiday Inn” – Shirley’s favorite holiday film. And the other one does “White Christmas” – Ralph’s top pick for holiday films. Now they’re more likely to see all three.

I don’t pretend to be a business expert – I’m pretty awful at math and spreadsheets confuse me – but it just seems like it makes more sense to offer a variety.

And that brings me to my second point – artistic variety. I am a big advocate for theaters pushing boundaries and offering audiences a chance to see shows that challenge them to step outside their comfort zone. But I’m not ignorant. I know theaters need to sell tickets to stay afloat. However, I wish more theaters would consider tossing in a non-mainstream show into their season. Maybe the holidays aren’t the time to do that. There are maybe 10 musicals at most that are specifically holiday oriented shows so I understand why a theater would go with a safe bet like “Annie.” In one case, subscribers for one theater voted for it to be the theater’s holiday musical.

Still, I continue to wonder – do we really need three or more productions of “Annie”? Even if they were all Broadway caliber, I know I don’t have time or the desire to see all three and I’m not alone on that stance.

I wish everyone involved with these productions the best of luck and I hope the theaters all do well financially, but I continue to ponder if three productions of the same musical will bring something special to patrons this holiday season.

But hey, at least there isn’t a stage adaptation of the 2014 movie…

No one let Cameron Diaz sing again. Ever. Seriously.