I've had this topic rolling around in my head for a month and a half, so here we go.
I saw Rent at the University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music. (That's CCM to you and me).
My love and personal feelings about Rent are well documented on this blog, and in previous incarnations, so I was predisposed to loving it. Or maybe I wasn't? I think I wanted to love it, but I think that actual love was much less a given.
I certainly did find it moving, and beautiful, and full of heart. I was definitely weeping like a fucking baby through most of Act 2. I really did love it. It was one of those experiences where I wanted to commiserate with anyone and everyone about every little detail, so I started checking out the reviews, and...many of them just merely liked it, (but with reservations). Some of them didn't like it. I couldn't believe it! They said things about how the show wasn't gritty enough, or raw enough, or real enough or something. Clearly I disagreed, but I also started wondering if maybe the reaction was inevitable. Perhaps CCM saddled itself with an impossible task.
I start to think about how Rent, for many people of my generation, exists in this sort of otherworldly level of reverence... It's the signature musical of my formative years. It's like West Side Story for people who were teens in the late 50s, or Hair for kids from the early 70s. There have been very few musicals in history that have held the same importance for the people who saw it as Rent did during it's Broadway run. Hell... The Office just used "Seasons of Love" in the most recent episode.
Rent captured a particular part of our culture unlike any other theatre piece in my lifetime. Some may have been "better", but none were more iconic. Rent combined many of the ideals of the mid-Nineties artist life, and the still very, very real plight of the AIDS epidemic (three of the main characters have it). It also had the added publicity and notoriety of the extremely sad, tragic death of writer and composer Jonathan Larson, who died the night before opening.
Oh... and it's also, more than anything, beautiful and visceral and memorable.
Okay, so it's great and all those things I've talked about, but why did CCM have no chance?
Because, I believe that some things are, for many people, untouchable. You can't remake The Godfather. When an actor plays Colonel Jessup in the stage version of A Few Good Men, they have to be compared with Nicholson. People could make amazing covers of Yesterday, but it will never be The Beatles. In each of these cases, the public knowledge and sentiment for the original makes it impossible to truly be measured independently.
Every musical theatre nerd has a copy of the original cast recording of Rent. Every single one. You ask most buffs to name the actors in that cast, and they come up with them in short order. Quicker than any other show of the time. It's like naming the 76 Cincinnati Reds for a baseball fan.
Every Tom Collins singing "I'll Cover You" will be compared to Jesse L. Martin. The little inflections of every Roger and Mimi will be compared (usually negatively) to Adam Pascal and Daphne Rubin Vega's rendition of "Light My Candle". Idina Menzel is the gold standard for "Over the Moon". That's just the way it is.
I think Mia Gentile, who played Maureen at CCM, is better than Idina Menzel. I'm not forgetting who Idina Menzel is. It doesn't make that original, Tony winning performance, any less iconic or spectacular. It certainly doesn't diminish her performance as Elphaba in Wicked. But yeah... i said it. Mia Gentile can sing the ever-loving shit out of that music, is exceptionally well trained, and just rocked it from moment one.
Max Chernin's performance during "I'll Cover You" made me cry like a little tiny baby. This doesn't make that one track on disc 2 of the original cast recording any less worn out. I've had to replace my copy of Rent two times. This is owed in no small part to Jesse L. Martin's heartbreaking performance. That said.. If I remove my sentiment, Max absolutely crushes his performance, and no amount of nostalgia for singing that song along wtih Jesse L will change that.
I'm not saying that this was a better production than the original Broadway... What I'm saying is that I don't think people have the ability to separate their very personal feelings for this particularly personal show that means so much to so many of them.
The thing is, though... as great as that original production was, I wonder if maybe people haven't... I dunno... Made it even better in their heads. Is it possible that what people consider grit is really just Daphne Rubin Vega not being that great a singer? (OH, NO I DIDN'T!!) Is it possible that Adam Pascal really does kind of sound a little wooden, if you're listening real hard? (OH, YES I DID!).
The thing is... it doesn't matter. The original cast of Rent is untouchable. It's impossible to separate the Legend from the Reality anymore. So... Basically, no matter the artistry of the CCM production (or any other), the people who choose to view any new production in the kaleidoscope of the original can never be good enough. To be honest... I've seen Rent three times in Cincinnati, and this was the first where I actually thought that even someday the specter of the original could potentially be pushed enough aside to view it independently. The two tour productions I'd seen before were both good, but not great. Not productions I'd wanna see again.
I'd have gone to see CCM's show over and over.
Can anyone think of other untouchable performances or productions? Does Gus Van Whatshisface's remake of Psycho make you angry?
PS: Apparently I've mentioned Rent so much I have a tag for it.