Rent sets the stage


I FIRST saw Rent in London's West End three years ago, not as a fan but a newbie without preconceived ideas about the show.

Sexuality, community & identity in modern urban life – Rent's core themes – are still very much alive here

My first reaction was surprised pleasure - it was raw, energetic, intelligent, moving and real, certainly the best urban musical I'd seen.

I also felt regret. Unlike jaded West End staples like Phantom Of The Opera and Les Miserables, I thought it would never make it to Singapore.

After all, it spotlighted bohemian anti-estab types, Aids, drugs, S&M, homeless people, same-sex relationships that worked, an exploitative yuppie class. Hardly kosher in our prim, clean, brochure-friendly city.

Never mind the rockin' music, great writing and the affirmation of life, love and kick-ass 'tude.

So when I first heard that Rent was in town, it seemed a real milestone in the arts scene here. What's more, it came hot on the heels of such risque shows as Asian Boys Vol 1, Shopping and F**king and the Vagina Monologues.

Was Rent to crown a new era of the arts, in which we would finally loosen up and have fun?

The good folks behind Rent Singapore must have felt the same way. It explains why the run-up publicity had played down some of the musical's edgier elements.

Or why Singapore Repertory Theatre had meekly accepted the National Arts Council's R(A) rating and denial of funding just three days before the show opened, despite much consternation, scrambling and extra costs backstage.

At least the show went on uncut, and the market got to give its verdict.

And to their credit, Rent's corporate sponsors stuck to their guns despite the setback. Some of them have even started a tickets-for-charity online drive to raise funds for Indian quake victims.

But why the last-minute decision? The NAC says it can't fund a play that acknowledges ''alternative lifestyles as an accepted way of life''.

Fair enough, except that Rent has been around for yonks - plenty of time to issue early objections to the effect.

Did someone fail to do their homework till it was way too late to stop the show without looking like a cad?

Here's a more charitable scenario: An enlightened NAC was keen to give Rent the green light, boosting our claim as a world-class show hub.

Until someone from the outside made noise, and the NAC was obliged to play policeman.

It's not improbable: On Rent Singapore's online message boards, there were calls for Rent to be banned for ''glamorising homosexuality'', as early as January - well before the NAC's announcement.

Other, louder voices might have made their reservations clear behind the scenes as opening night approached.

Online, these calls for a ban were shouted down by fans.

Some noted that a recent episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer with lesbian overtones had screened on TV here.

Others cited the positive themes of the musical - community spirit, creativity, and relationships based on mutual respect instead of money.

The NAC itself remains coy about why it funded shows like Shopping and F**king and not Rent, apart from saying the ''treatment'' of risque themes was ''different''.

Which is why I'm puzzled that some theatre-aficionado friends have called the musical ''dated''.

''We've moved past those issues,'' they say.

Far from it.

The NAC's decision, brickbats and bouquets online, even the heated exchanges on some of Eyeball's online forums, suggest that the debate on sexuality, community and identity in modern urban life - core themes in Rent - is still very much alive here.

The discussion deserves to be joined by a broader segment of society. Which makes Rent the ideal musical for a season of love in the 21st century.

Happy Valentine's!

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl