last seen on TV @ FX
Hope you're sitting comfortably... this'll be a long one.
I've written before about Greenwich Village and how it's always been one of my favorite neighborhoods in New York. I think I've always favored, however slightly, the east side of the Village over the west side. I've worked there; for a month, I lived there; and I have stronger memories there, of good times and bad.
In high school, I took art classes at Cooper Union, a prestigious art college in the East Village, in addition to my regular classes in high school. I had a summer class during the week and a fall class on Saturdays. During the summer, some of us would hang around St. Mark's Place, a hip street that runs from CU to Tompkins Square Park, full of stylish boutiques, restaurants, and shops. We were, what, sixteen? Seventeen? We'd never seen anyplace like this - with all the punks and cross-dressers and musicians and artists and what have you. In the fall, when it got darker, we'd imagine we were out late at night, partying like rock stars.
Years later, I met Jenny. If I recall correctly, she was on Eighth Street when I first knew her, but soon moved to the East Village, specifically, Alphabet City, near the river. (She's lived in so many different parts of New York I've lost count.) She's always embraced a counter-culture lifestyle, so it seemed like a perfect fit. Through her eyes I saw the neighborhood differently: discovering underground comic books at St. Mark's Comics; bar-hopping to see her sing in her punk rock band; hanging out in Tompkins (or Washington Square Park, as well); all of it and more gave me a new appreciation of the place because I was sharing it with someone who had more of an affinity for it.
By the time I got a job on Avenue A, I shared that affinity. Sure, it meant shooing away homeless dudes who'd camp out on the doorstep at night, and walking a bunch of blocks to the nearest subway, but it also meant having neighbors like the girl at the smoothie shop next door, having a bathroom full of graffiti dating back years, having a wide variety of places up and down the street and beyond to go to for lunch, and spotting the occasional celebrity or two.
Of course, I also was aware that the East Village is the way it is, in large part, because of gentrification. Regrettably, I don't clearly remember the Tompkins Square riots, when the police forcibly removed the homeless from the park. Like Times Square, and other neighborhoods throughout the city, the price we pay for having nice things is sweeping the rougher things under a rug and out of sight.
Regarding Tompkins specifically, I've never felt completely at ease there, even now. I've gone to events there, and when I worked on Avenue A, sometimes I'd eat lunch there, but something about the way it's designed - lots of winding paths and trees that practically swallow the sky - can be a bit off-putting to me. And yeah, it's hard to completely shake its former reputation.
Seems to me that gentrification shouldn't mean throwing out the things that give a neighborhood character along with the genuinely harmful elements. I recently finished a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, a social activist in this town who lived in the West Village and was instrumental in a movement to prevent the city from splitting Washington Square Park in half with a freeway.
In her book, which she wrote over fifty years ago (and it still holds meaning today), Jacobs writes about the elements that make cities strong and vital, the things that city planners often fail to notice, and one of the big points she continually hammers home throughout is the need for a neighborhood, and a city, to have diversity - in its population, in the makeup of its buildings, in the services and activities it provides.
The East Village doesn't seem too different to me now than in 1989, or 1999, or 2009, although I don't live there and there are bound to be changes I can't see. (Not like, for instance, Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, which has changed so much in only FIVE YEARS that I don't recognize it anymore!) Finding that balancing act between maintaining a neighborhood's essential character while growing and improving for the better, is difficult, but I think New York does a better job at it than other cities.
All of which leads, in a roundabout way, to Rent. I saw the original Broadway musical with this kid I knew named Travis who was a big Broadway fan, and his friends. We had good seats too - maybe the fifth row or so. This was around the time that it was beginning to get huge, and the original cast was still performing. Also, this was one of the very few times I'd ever seen a Broadway show.
Three hours later and I was swept away. The thing about watching a live musical, as opposed to seeing it on TV or film, is that the artifice - not just people spontaneously singing in the middle of a conversation, but the way settings can be hinted at rather than fully realized, the way actors use the whole stage to suggest multiple locations and even multiple times - all of this and more is easier to accept somehow. We, the audience, fill in the gaps in order to bring the story to life. It all happens in front of your eyes in real time and unless you record it, once it's gone, it's gone forever. No other performance was like the one you just saw and no other one will be. Seeing it recorded puts you at a distance and makes you more aware of the artifice, I think. It's not the same.
But yeah, I was blown away by Rent. Bought the original cast soundtrack and learned all the songs by heart (I do a mean "Santa Fe"). Now, I only play it once a year - on December 24th, 9 PM, Eastern Standard Time, natch! Time passed and I saw the original cast move on to other roles in TV, film and the stage and was generally pleased.
Then came the inevitable movie version. Remember what I said about how in theater, settings tend to be implied more than specified, and the audience fills in the rest? Well, obviously, that's not necessary with a movie. One can actually see Mark and Roger's loft, or the lot where Maureen performs, or the Life Cafe, as specific places within real(er), not abstract, settings: the streets of New York, and beyond (Roger singing his half of "What You Own" on a rocky terrain, for instance). Though some numbers retain their theatrical feel. "Santa Fe," for instance, takes place on what has to be the longest uninterrupted subway ride ever.
I saw the film version of Rent opening weekend. If I hadn't seen the musical first, I might have liked it more than I did. Some changes were necessary to make it feel more like a movie than a theatrical performance, and I understand that, but it wasn't as satisfying for me. Mark and Roger's loft looked way too nice. Mimi is supposed to be a soprano singer (though Rosario Dawson was quite good). The timeline for Act One was changed. Songs and characters were cut. Everyone looks older than they should be. You get the idea. And yet, "Over the Moon" and "La Vie Boheme" came out terrific, [SPOILER]'s funeral was devastating, and it was nice that (most of) the original cast actually got the opportunity to be in the movie in the first place.
Rent is probably the one musical that I could be considered passionate about, for several reasons: seeing it on Broadway with the original cast, seeing it with friends, identifying with some of the themes in the story, but above all for the music. The movie may be a watered-down version, but the music still stands head and shoulders above everything else.