Dilettante 40: ‘Rent’ (the musical) premiere ’99

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Rent is a reimagined “La bohème” story. Any chance that, when “La bohème” came out in 1896, the hipsters who lived like the characters in that opera were vaguely uncomfortable with their collective portrayal?

Did they clap and boo internally at the same time, like we did? Why was it so squirmy? Team America: World Police might have the answer.

And now there’s a 20th anniversary tour coming around this summer. I mean, how dare an incredibly gifted artist with AIDS write something hopeful and inspiring for other struggling bohemians like himself. If someone gave me tickets I’d probably go see it again.


Scroll down or click through to read “If you lived here, you’d be home now,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on March 17, 1999.

This is the 40th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; Dilettante’s first installment is here.


summer burkes dilettante logo sf bay guardian 1997-2001_resized

If you lived here, you’d be home now: Rent‘s soft underbelly exposed.

by Summer Burkes, 03.17.99


The bourgeois appropriation of a counterculture in a high art context often, if not always, signals that counterculture’s extinction. Rent, the award- winning musical written by HIV-positive NYC squatter and artist Jonathan Larson, was based on Puccini’s La Bohème and is supposed to be a loosely autobiographical account of Life as a Poor Artist in the Nineties.

Although that may be what it is (in Broadway musical form at least), it’s not likely that other warehouse dwellers, found-art sculptors, writers, cyber-renegades, performance artists, and experimental filmmakers will ever embrace it as their own.

The tony Golden Gate Theatre on the opening night of Rent last Tuesday wears props that indicate it’s being dolled down for the production: a broken tile mosaic spells out the play’s name above the ticket office; ridiculously expensive souvenir merchandise is artfully priced with enlarged-and-Xeroxed punk-rock typeface; chain-link fencing (lobby) and scaffolding (proscenium) slum up the immaculately painted walls; even the press kit has been purposely worn and torn.

Surveying the crowd as I take my seat with my companion, herself a rising star on the San Francisco theater circuit, I’m hard pressed to locate anyone who looks likely to jump onstage. My companion spots Chron theater reviewer Gene Price in the press section and gleefully points out, “That’s the guy that gave me a bad review!” within his earshot. He harrumphs at us as we retire to the lobby for Corn Nuts and vodka before curtain.

why would you give her a bad review. monster

Sarcasm is my generation’s racket, I know, but although I spend the first act of Larson’s paean to bohemia trying hard not to be derisive, the show still feels like a trippy dream sequence in which my friends suddenly put down their beers to burst into choreographed song and dance.

I’m sure that it’s eye-opening to the lace-collared matron sitting next to me with her 10-year-old daughter (Oh my! The casual swearing! The drug use! The interracial bisexuality!), but although at times it’s surprisingly self-aware, Rent cheapens itself by even existing. (The 8mm-toting “Mark” character says it best at the beginning of act 2: “When I capture it on film, does that mean that it’s over?”)

Jonathan Larson died of an aneurysm the night that Rent went into dress rehearsals — he never got to see his own baby. I’m sure lots of the scenes would have seemed hokier (Oh, I’ve got HIV too! Come away from the light! etc.) if he hadn’t died, but for whatever reason, once our sneers have unclenched and the Why God Why filter is gone, it’s pretty good. We laugh, we cry, it is better than Cats.

The “Christmas tree” on the set of Rent was supposedly based on something Chicken John used to do on top of his building when he was a young punk living in New York but you’d have to ask him about that

Frankly, Larson could kick Sir Lloyd Weber’s ass in a composers’ street fight any day. And when Mimi comes to… and then Roger doesn’t … and she…and he just…and she with the “good-bye love” and … oh, it’s too awful. Why even give a plot synopsis — now that it’s been extended to August 1, everyone in god’s creation is either going to see it or know someone who has.

After congratulating ourselves into finagling tickets to the invite-only after-party at the fancy Grand Café, my companion and I take a straight-outa-Rent trot through the ‘Loin. As we sidle up to the open bar, we notice that instead of a crowd sporting Rent-friendly vintage treasures and avant-garde hairstyles, the majority of the attendees look like Armani’s lackeys.

Caterers wander around with trays of crab cake and lamb legs, and the DJ starts up a mix of disco “classics” that would put even Casey Kasem to sleep. The cast of Rent socializes in an enclave in the center of the room. Women in black cocktail dresses and tasteful pearls mince onto the dance floor with their square-jawed dates. Aquiline, toothy whites pose for the society page photographer.

“I get the feeling the whole starving artist thing went in one ear and out the other for these people,” my companion whispers to me. An older woman congratulates her on her excellent performance as Mimi.

did you know that rich people can’t tell poor people apart

A dashing man with a suit that cost more than an intercontinental plane ticket taps me on the shoulder. “Excuse me, could you tell me where the rest room is?” he says. Noticing the somewhat bewildered look on my face, he qualifies: “Don’t you work here?”

Meanwhile, my companion is being read the riot act by the party promoter for passing out some flyers for a friend’s club. “You’re insulting me, the party giver, by passing out these awful flyers,” he says. (Anyone recall the first scene of the play we just saw? Where the characters refer to flyering as a kind of necessary grassroots publicity thing?)

His face reddens, and his voice gets louder. He’s showing off now. “Why would you ever pass out flyers at my party?” he booms.

Clearly we’ve worn out our welcome. We bounce the hell on out of there to meet our friends for drinks in a friendlier, dirtier place. Back in the near ghetto, we’re content. And during the course of the evening, no one bursts into song.


This is the 40th entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).

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