“Rent The Musical” Review | Wales Millennium Centre | 8th April 2017
In celebration of its 20th anniversary, the multi-award winning rock musical ‘RENT’ embarked on a brand-new national UK tour this year. The now legendary production tells the story of a group of barren young artists as they struggle to survive in New York City’s East Village during the days of Bohemia as well as to the backdrop of the HIV and Aids crisis of the late 80s and early 90s.
As a fan of the occasional musical, and having never seen RENT, I was fascinated to see what this latest re-imagining would put forth and offer. I was not disappointed. The entire troupe was impeccable; apparently, this version was more cast-orientated than previous incarnations. However, there is no question that Layton Williams’ portrayal of the life-loving ‘Angel’ steals the show on more than multiple occasions.
A stand out moment, though, was the casts rendition of the famous ‘La Vie Bohème’. As they take it in turns to toast to the Bohemian lifestyle, they sing passionately about all things from “Huevos Rancheros and Maya Angelou”, “Compassion, to fashion, to passion when its new”, “to Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham and Cage”, “La Vie Bohème!” It’s a magnetic, highly coordinated number, in which we get to see the whole cast belt out passionately their love for all things Bohemia.
“But what exactly does ‘La Vie Bohème’ mean?”, an uncultured, non-French speaker like myself may ask. Well, in English it translates to ‘The Bohemian Life’, which essentially is an arty, liberal bliss inhabited by wanderers and vagabonds alike. And yes, everything from Maya Angelou to fashion and compassion is entailed under the umbrella of Bohemia.
The movements long history extends much further back than late 20th century Manhattan, however. France has traditionally been Bohemia’s home, as you may have guessed, where cultural ideals of frugality, rebellion and unscrupulousness flourished after popular artists such as Renoir began portraying lower class Romani neighbourhoods in their paintings.
It was during the latter end of 19th century that Bohemianism found its way into America, beginning with a group of pre-Civil War journalists and authors and evolving into the exclusive Bohemian Club of San Francisco. This club also gave birth to a rather nice sounding ‘Bohemian retreat’, where Presidents and Businessmen would visit for a two or three-week encampment each year. Doesn’t sound very ‘bohemian’, does it?
Fast-forward another 20 years and the post-modern, slightly more traditional, Bohemian culture of New York City is where we find ourselves with RENT and the song which marks the end of the first act.
But where do we stand with Bohemianism today, now we find ourselves well into the globalised and technological 21st century?
Thoughts you may conjure up upon hearing such a term could range from long paisley fabric and headbands to celebs like Vanessa Hudgen’s at sunny Coachella – a mainstream, boho-chic kind of Bohemianism. When you really delve into it, you begin to realise that Bohemianism, in the East Village or Romani sense, doesn’t really exist anymore. So where, or on whom, do we place the blame?
As Bea Hannay-Young states in an article for Varsity, “Bohemianism is born out of two tenets: first poverty”. Yet, rising house prices in Greenwich and Manhattan’s East Village are pushing the poor and the artists out and attracting a whole host of tourists and well-off students in their place. They think they’re getting a taste of true Bohemia when really, they’re just participating in a process of gentrification.
The second tenet, according to Hannay-Young, is a rejection of cultural norms. ‘La Vie Bohème’ has verse after verse dedicated to anything considered “taboo” – bisexuality and marijuana to name a couple. But I think this is where RENT has aged and Bohemia has inevitably expired as (thankfully) in today’s more progressive society, such things are not wholly outside our cultural norms anymore.
Whilst RENT’s contextual backdrop of late twentieth Bohemia may not be as relevant today as it was twenty years ago, its themes of love, community and empowerment are everlasting. The musical’s writer, the late Jonathan Larson, was very ambitious when it came to bringing RENT to life, striving to “bring theatre to the MTV generation”, as he once said.
He never saw it get to stage, suddenly passing away the morning of RENT’s first Off-Broadway preview. It’s curious to think what RENT may have become if Larson was to have been around to tweak it a little. For all its good bits, the show does suffer slightly from a lacking story-line. Nevertheless, it became a monumental success and Larson undoubtedly accomplished his endeavour, hence these 20th anniversary celebrations.