Help wanted: Seeking a composer and playwright to fix the only two problems with "Rent": the script and the score.
Granted, the production running this week at the Lyric is top-notch. And granted, the musical won every award the theater community had to offer in 1996, including the Tony Award for best musical and the Pulitzer Prize for best drama.
But every committee has its off days, and the performers can only sing the notes and words they've been given. We might want "Rent" to be an artistic triumph given its tragic history; its creator, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly at age 35 just hours after the show's final dress rehearsal. Unfortunately, the musical about perennially unemployed young Bohemians living hand-to-mouth in New York's alphabet city doesn't live up to its reputation as landmark theater.
The plot, modeled on Puccini's "La Boheme," follows a pair of young lovers. Roger is an HIV-positive, aspiring musician seeking to write one great song before he dies. He falls in love with Mimi, the girl next door - although in this case, she's a junkie with the AIDS virus who dances in a leather bar.
Their friends include: Mark, a filmmaker; Maureen, a performance artist; Joanne, a Harvard-educated lesbian lawyer; Benny, a turncoat yuppie landlord; and Angel, an HIV-positive drag queen and doggy-killer.
But the characters are dwarfed by huge shadows projected on the rear stage wall, perhaps created by lights positioned beneath the stage. One implication is that Roger, Mimi and friends are iconic, larger than life. But they seem merely small, like ants scurrying under a magnifying glass, until one or another disappears in a twist of smoke.
The plot is too busy by half. Because the narrative careens from one multi-character, multi-location scene to the next, the audience never gets to know the characters. The lovers quarrel and part and get together again, and we're never shown why; Christmas turns to New Year's Eve and becomes Valentine's Day before we've mentally taken down the tree.
It's not that the performers don't try. In some ways, the cast of the second national tour is superior to the first. The actors display the same crash-and-burn energy, and, unlike their predecessors, they articulate well enough for the audience to understand the lyrics.
Nearly everyone sings extremely well, even the performers who start out slowly. For instance, Jacqueline B. Arnold (Joanne) has a voice that hums along well enough in low gear; it's appealing, if not spectacular. But when the score requires Arnold to floor the gas pedal, the surge of power pins theatergoers back in their seats.
As Mimi, Dominique Roy has a warm, liquid tone and a lovely way of molding a phrase. Unfortunately, the poor girl is saddled with one of the sillier endings in theater history: After dying a fittingly tragic death on stage - sweet Mimi's taper extinguished at last - she pops back up like the flame on one of those trick candles. She's not dead after all! She met Angel, who told her to turn back!
And no one on stage seems particularly nonplussed.
But the audience might forgive even an ending this laughable if the score were less mediocre. Larson hoped to make his mark as a composer, and he seems to be suffering from a bad case of Puccini-envy; Roger strums "Musetta's Waltz" incessantly whenever he's seeking inspiration. Unfortunately, the dead composer's ghost must have been busy inspiring a worthier supplicant; while Larson's songs are pleasant, none is memorable.
He wasn't without a certain facility; like an early mentor, Stephen Sondheim, Larson wrote about the people he knew and the problems they faced, and he had a knack for putting everyday expressions and rhythms into his lyrics. Both Larson and Sondheim (in "West Side Story") explore the problems of the urban young. And both musicals update classics - "West Side Story" is a retelling of "Romeo and Juliet."
But "Rent" has none of Sondheim's ironic wit, his capacity for expressing vulnerability without sentimentality, or his devastatingly accurate insights into human relationships. So instead of "America," we get "Seasons of Love":
"Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six-hundred minutes. How do you measure, measure a year? How about love? How about love? How about love?"
How about a Timex?
According to my watch, "Rent's" 15 minutes of fame has long since expired. By 525,545 minutes, to be exact.