How do you connect in an age where strangers, landlords, lovers, your own bloodcells betray?
By Sam Perwin
There are a lot of inspiring, awesome people in my life, and one of them is undoubtedly Erin Cronican. Not only is she a brilliant actress and singer, but her buisness, The Actor's Enterprise, has helped me make some really smart choices for my career and tuned me into a lot of amazing resources. One of these is a musical theatre collective she runs called Actor Own. Once a month, we get together and sing through the score of an entire musical. It's a great way to learn a dream role, brush up on your choral singing skills, or get to know an unfamiliar show. Parts are assigned a few weeks in advance and scores, libretti, and recordings are made available; there's no rehearsal, and we all just gather and hope for the best. It's a wonderful time. This month, we're doing Rent.
Now, of course, there's no obligation to perform in each one, The collective is large, and people come and go. Only those available and interested each month are cast. Initially, I had kind of shrugged my shoulders because there's not really a part for me in Rent. I'm not really a Roger or a Mark, and the parts that are right for me vocally, Collins and Benny, are usually cast black. The ensemble doesn't do too much, and obviously since I was a high-school drama nerd in the 90's, I already know every word and note of every song. But since Actor Own is a safe place with few casting rules, I'm playing Benny, which is actually awesome. I love playing villians
Revisiting the score as I prepared for the reading obviously brought back a lot of memories of being a angsty 14 year old who wanted to move the East Village and become a recovering junkie (not really - but didn't they make it seem fun?). But also about how Rent was so emblematic of both New York and America at that time and how it is undoubetdly the musical that defines the end of the 20th Century. One of my best friends, a similarly educated, arsty nerd, brought up the fact that it's such a shame that since Rent there's been no real defining artistic work because the early 21st Century, so far, has been kind of about nothing. Or at least about pretending not to care about anything.
There was an op-ed in the New York Times a while ago about moving past irony as a way of life. Its basic thesis was that since hipster culture, which deifies the out-of-style in an overtly ironic fashion, has basically become the dominant culture (lord help us all), we now have to move past that and get excited about things that..well, are actually exciting. Rent, and by extention La Boheme, was about artists clinging to their souls in an age of gentrifying commercialism. That was true in the 19th century, and Rent took that idea and made it contemporary and relevant. That wave of materialism reached a peak in 2008, followed by a sharp dive from which we're still recovering. Yet art and culture are really just starting to catch up in documenting that - where's the Rent for the last decade?
The only thing that comes close, I'd say, is Next to Normal, but even that is too narrow a focus. Yes, the modern-day family is completely fucked-up, everyone is over medicated, and grief in any form is difficult to deal with. Next to Normal handles all of these ideas beautifully, but is that how we want to remember the first decade of the 21st Century? I suppose this post is a call to arms to the writers out there in Crazytown. Musical Theater needs a seminal work of the past decade, so get on it.
 A note to casting directors: No offense to Taye Diggs, whom I love, but Benny is actually written very white, and the only reason he's typically cast black is because of Taye Diggs. Yes, black people can be waspy assholes too, but the whole point of colorblind casting is that it's colorblind. Just because the original Benny was black doesn't mean he should always be.