After The Ball

The Death of the Show Tune

A rant on Rent.

In the run-up to the 1991 Broadway hit The Will Rogers Follies, composer Cy Coleman took to doing the big song–“Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like”–at benefit performances all over town. Just before opening night, he sang it at the Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital. “You should have seen him,” said his lyricist, Adolph Green. “There wasn’t a dry eye, ear, and throat in the house.”

But where else would you hear the song? “Years ago, we used to have records of our stuff on the radio before the show opened,” Cy sighs. Not anymore. When did you last hear a show tune on the air? I don’t mean Natalie Cole doing Rodgers and Hart, but new Broadway numbers–from, say, Big or Victor/Victoria. The last Broadway song to make the charts was Gloria Gaynor’s disco version of “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles, and she had to change a few of Jerry Herman’s notes to pull that off. Before rock, the theater song sat at the apex of popular music; the most famous songwriters were show writers, and the pop boys–the Tin Pan Alleymen–longed to cross the tracks, as Irving Berlin did, and George Gershwin, Jule Styne, Frank Loesser. But Bill Haley and Elvis painted Broadway into a corner it never quite got out of: Musicals stood aloof from rock and became, by definition, staid, conservative, middle-aged–something your parents go see on their wedding anniversary. Never mind that on Broadway, in 1948, long before “Rock Around the Clock,” the score to As the Girls Go by old-timers Jimmy (“Sunny Side of the Street”) McHugh and Harold (“Time on My Hands”) Adamson included a number called “Rock! Rock! Rock!” with the tempo marking “Groovy.”

Now David Geffen figures he can bridge that 40-year gulf. Rent, launched at the Democratic Convention and including a guest appearance by Stevie Wonder on its Act II opener, is supposed to be a cast album you can play on pop radio stations. As every New York Times reader knows, Rent is a Pulitzer- and Tony-winning “rock opera” version of La Bohème, with a dramatis personae of HIV-positive performance artists, transsexuals, and drug addicts from the East Village, whose cachet was greatly enhanced by the death on the eve of opening of its young composer/lyricist/librettist Jonathan Larson. The show makes an interesting contrast with that other Puccini retread, Miss Saigon. The latter, a British musical, relocates Madame Butterfly to the most controversial conflict of our time, paints its story on a big, sweeping canvas and has gone on to play around the world; the other brings La Bohème home to Greenwich Village, and thus further reinforces the parochialism of the New York musical, as it shrivels away to its core audience. I would doubt its potential on the road or overseas. But Rent won its awards not just for its subject but also for its score. According to Stephen Sondheim, Jonathan Larson had managed to do what so many Broadway writers had tried and failed for years to do: He’d used the language of rock to propel a theater piece. He’d fused contemporary pop and drama. Rock ‘n’ roles.

J ust for the record, there’s a bit of Puccini in Rent. At the end, Roger the songwriter finally finishes his song for Mimi– bob-rent1–and in it, we also hear a brief snatch of “Musetta’s Waltz.” As it’s played on an electric guitar, though, it’s reminiscent less of Bohème than of bob-rent10.asf,” a pop adaptation of the waltz that was a hit in the ‘50s for Della Reese and which contains one of the laziest filler couplets in lyric-writing history:

I have fallen in love with youFor the rest of my whole life through

As the waltz echoes alarmingly through Rent’s finale, you’re reminded of a basic fact: Music is music. If a tune’s muscular enough, you can do it as an operatic waltz, a big pop ballad, an electric guitar solo. Rock, like swing or disco or bluegrass, is a style and, in the theater, its usefulness depends on the story you’re trying to tell.

M usicals can’t be on the so-called cutting edge, because they take so many years to get up on stage: By the time your grunge musical opens, grunge will be out and splurge will be in. That’s the problem with Rent: Only on Broadway could it be mistaken for state-of-the-art rock. The big driving numbers, like “bob-rent2.asf,” come out sounding like, say, Blue Öyster Cult, full of the same charmingly overheated metaphors:

You’re living in AmericaAt the end of the millenniumYou’re living in AmericaLeave your conscience at the tone …

The ballads, on the other hand, are overwrought and declarative. The best, “bob-rent3.asf,” affects the same ensemble solidarity as “bob-rent7.asf” in A Chorus Line. Both can find no better use for the pop ballad than as group therapy–one for those suffering the vicissitudes of life as a chorus gypsy, the other for those “living in the shadow of AIDS.” But the spare, slightly awkward chanted admonition–“measure in love”–is still a world away from the best pop lyric-writing. Alan Jay Lerner used to bemoan the fact that writers like Paul Simon never went into the theater. But, since the advent of the LP and the gatefold sleeve with the printed lyrics and the college courses that study rock songs for their elusive allusiveness, pop texts have been freed from the first requirement of a Broadway lyric: that it be made up of words you can catch when you’re sitting in a theater and they’re flying through the air at you. Paul Simon once took me through one of his songs, “bob-rent8.asf,” which begins, “One and one-half wandering Jews …”

He explained to me that it was “one and one-half” because the song was about him, and he’s Jewish, and his then-wife Carrie Fisher, is the daughter of Eddie Fisher, who’s also Jewish, and Debbie Reynolds, who’s not; hence, one and a half. So far, we’d spent about 10 minutes decoding just five words, but I felt on top of them and was ready to move on. Then Simon said:

“But it’s also a reference to the flower.”
“There’s a flower called Wandering Jew.”
“There’s a flower?”

And I realized that, had Simon followed Lerner’s advice and started writing musicals, we’d have had to get to the theater at 10:30 in the morning to read up on the textual footnotes.

I n that sense, despite Geffen’s marketing efforts, Larson is straightforwardly Broadway. The Act I finale, “bob-rent6.asf,” is a rock gloss on the hoariest of musical comedy staples, the bravura laundry list. The master was Cole Porter:

You’re a rose!
You’re Inferno’s Dante!
You’re the nose
On the great Durante!

Next to Porter’s marriage of the erudite and the everyday, Larson’s catalog seems somewhat single-minded:

To Sontag
To Sondheim
To anything taboo …

The Sondheim reference is apposite. Songs like “bob-rent4.asf” –glib, brittle dialogue at odds with the exotic tango rhythms–are a reminder of such early Sondheim works as “bob-rent9.asf.” In Company, Sondheim used the click-buzz of the telephone as a leitmotif for urban neurosis; in Rent, Larson tries to pull something similar with his “Voice Mail” numbers, a series of a-cappella answering-machine messages.

There are two good songs in Rent. They’re called “White Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and they’re briefly quoted in a yuletide scene. But Larson’s own title for that number–“Christmas Bells”–reveals his greatest weakness. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a title; so’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” But “Christmas Bells” isn’t; neither is “You’ll See” or “Out Tonight” or “We’re Okay,” all titles of songs in Rent. “Without You” is a good title but it’s already been used in My Fair Lady and as a hit for Nilsson and Mariah Carey. Ira Gershwin used to say:

A title
Is vital
Once you’ve it
Prove it.

A good title usually indicates a good song idea, a good central lyric thrust, something to resolve. As pop and theater have drifted apart, it seems that the rock crowd pays more heed to Gershwin’s advice than the musical men. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” (George Michael) or “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” (Billy Ocean) are better titles and stronger images than you get in most show tunes. In Rent, there are few strong song ideas, few resolved lyric thrusts. That’s one reason why it’s deficient as drama, but also why it will be hard to play on pop radio. David Geffen is likely to be disappointed: Rent continues the American musical’s long fade-out to a twilight limbo, caught somewhere between not-quite-serious music and no-longer-popular pop music.