'Bright Lights' couldn't make the 'Rent'
By Lawson Taitte
NEW YORK - When Rent blows into Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall Tuesday, it arrives on the winds of a three-year hurricane of hype. From the night it debuted at the tiny downtown New York Theatre Workshop, the show has been acknowledged as the breakthrough musical of the 1990s.
Last month the same producer, director and design team brought another fresh musical to the same stage. Bright Lights Big City flopped just as emphatically as Rent flew into orbit. Forty-eight of 50 Big Apple critics vented an unnatural anger at the show. It closed March 21, any hopes of repeating Rent's Broadway and international success dashed.
If you sit down and look at both shows, though, Bright Lights Big City isn't all that inferior to Rent - perhaps not inferior at all. Rent's monster hit status and Bright Lights Big City's fast disappearance have more to do with the way the New York critical and publicity machines work than the musicals' merits.
"It's hard for me to be complacent about the whole thing," New York Theatre Workshop artistic director James C. Nicola says. "This is a real crisis in the American theater. People say there are no new theater composers coming up. But the way these works that aren' t perfect but are brimming with promise are being treated isn't going to encourage the development of new talent."
Bright Lights Big City's writer-composer, Paul Scott Goodman, agrees.
"What new musical theater writer is going to write a new musical if so many years of work are going to be dismissed like this?" Mr. Goodman says.
The attacks on Mr. Goodman's new piece were almost unprecedentedly vehement. Perhaps that was because Bright Lights Big City seemed deliberately to be following in Rent's footsteps - though the people who developed and staged the two shows stress that they were simply looking for another good piece to do and that the two works are very different.
Rent is a hard act to follow. It came along at just the right moment. European musicals had dominated Broadway for a decade, and new American works were getting scarcer every year. Writer-composer Jonathan Larson died suddenly and tragically of an aortic aneurysm just before the show opened - and the press loves a sob story.
Mr. Larson was undeniably a new and vibrant voice, and Rent's exuberant, romantic lyricism - set to a rock beat and staged with an innovative simplicity - quickly won a huge and deserved audience.
But Rent had some glaring problems that critics and fans passed over without seeming to mind. The plot - loosely adapted from Puccini' s La boheme - falls apart in the second act and ends in the expiring heroine's absurd return to life.
The work's moral vision also fails to persuade. Rent depicts Bohemian life on New York's Lower East Side. Its characters are performance artists, dancers in sadomasochistic clubs, junkies and transvestites - half of them addicted to drugs and/or dying of AIDS. The show's message of inclusiveness and acceptance is noble. But there's a catch.
One of Rent's signature songs has the memorable hook, "No day but today." It has become the show's mantra, emblazoned by advertising on the side of every bus in New York. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young theater buffs and aspiring actors use the phrase as their self-identifying quotation in places like America Online's personal profiles.
Michael Greif, who directed both Rent and Bright Lights Big City, denies that Mr. Larson's libretto takes a cavalier stance on drugs and safe sex.
"The whole scene in which [the character] Gordon attends an AIDS support group shows that Jonathan treated the subject seriously and responsibly," he says.
Still, it's a bit chilling that Rent has reared a whole young theatrical generation that hears the motto "No day but today" blaring in its head.
Bright Lights Big City is strong just where Rent is weakest.
Mr. Goodman has written one of the most tightly plotted, psychologically detailed books for a musical ever. His adaptation of the Jay McInerney novel focuses on the hero, Jamie. A fact checker at a prominent New York magazine, Jamie lives the high life, using vast quantities of cocaine and bedding every available girl. Especially as played by the wonderful young Patrick Wilson, Jamie is as three-dimensional as any musical--comedy character since Gypsy's Mama Rose.
In contrast to Rent's romanticized treatment of illegal substances and sex on the first date, Mr. Goodman's take on New York's 1980s club scene is uncompromisingly moral, even moralistic. Jamie recognizes near the show's beginning that the high-flying life isn't really for him. Although his career and personal relationships keep spiraling downward, he can't pull himself up before he hits bottom.
Jamie, unlike the characters in Rent, learns from his mistakes. He manages to work through one important reason for his compulsive behavior, his mother's untimely death. He becomes interested in a new girlfriend much better for him than his old party friends.
Ironically, Mr. Greif believes that a main reason for the outcries against Bright Lights Big City stems from the critics' failure to distinguish between the characters' sometimes shocking words and the author's moral intentions. Two of the show's most memorable songs are titled "I Love Drugs" and "I Wanna Have Sex Tonight."
"I think people had to understand things in context," Mr. Greif says. "We need to have the freedom to show people onstage being wrong. But the lyrics were there, and that's as far as people got."
Everybody connected with Bright Lights Big City acknowledges that, whatever its strengths theatrically and musically, the show failed to solve some problems. Mr. Goodman, a Scottish rocker who came to the United States because he loves American musicals and wanted to write them, had trouble at first catching the McInerney book's unusual tone. The novel is written in the second person, which both puts you into Jamie's head and distances you from him.
Mr. Goodman wound up putting himself into his script to try to convey that aspect of the book. He acted as a kind of onstage narrator or Greek chorus, introducing the action, commenting on it and even describing his own history of involvement in the piece.
Cynics made fun of the spectacle of a musician with an inexplicable Scottish accent wandering through the otherwise quite realistic action and injecting himself into it. Mr. Goodman and Mr. Nicola acknowledge they would write the composer out of the script if the show were continuing. Mr. Greif still believes in the concept but would like to see it refined.
As of today, it's not clear that there will be more opportunities for this team to rework Bright Lights Big City. They would all like to go on, but the overwhelmingly negative response will probably make it impossible to do rewrites the way people did in the old days of out-of-town tryouts before Broadway.
After all the carnage, those who found and staged Rent and Bright Lights Big City remain convinced that both are important pieces - and that there is a kind of positive-negative polarity that links the two.
"A friend of mine from Holland says they're bookends," Mr. Nicola says. "Rent is about poor people, Bright Lights Big City about rich people."
You can easily extend the compare--and-contrast exercise: Rent is romantic, its music eclectic, its sexuality polymorphic, its drug of choice heroin. Bright Lights Big City is realistic, its music hard- -driving rock, its characters straight, its favorite high, cocaine.
The biggest contrast between the shows, though, remains the most obvious. Rent is one of the decade's hugest hits, Bright Lights Big Cities one of the most abysmal flops.
So far, the only person who will certainly get a boost out of Bright Lights Big City is the leading performer, Patrick Wilson. Mr. Greif says theatrical insiders realize how impressive he is, even though the critics didn't rave.
"He's going to be a star," Mr. Greif says.
The original cast members of Rent got similar career pushes. Anthony Rapp is starring in Broadway's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Jesse L. Martin recently made a big splash on TV as Ally McBeal's latest flame. Even Gilles Chiasson, who played only small roles in Rent, will be prominently featured in this spring's new Frank Wildhorn musical, The Civil War.
Mr. Greif is leaving his current post as artistic director of California' s La Jolla Playhouse, but it seems unlikely that this setback will deflate his burgeoning free-lance career.
New York Theatre Workshop will still have its cushion of royalties from Rent. "Thank God!" Mr. Nicola says.
Mr. Goodman is broken but unbowed. Despite his rants against those who have tried to discourage him, he's working on a new musical for Broadway, commissioned by the Jujamcyn organization.
"My reaction isn't to go off into a corner," he says, "but to come out fighting."
It's a good thing too, since the tragic loss of Mr. Larson meant that the musical theater didn't gain a budding new career from the newly discovered hero. Somebody else will have to write the musical comedies of the future.
One thing's sure. He or she had better have very thick skin.