Sunday, January 01, 2006
Rent For The New Year
It greatly saddened me that on New Year’s eve, my favorite Broadway musical, Rent, did not pack the house with all the rebels in Beijing, however many there are. The seats were only 60-70% full. The show was supposed to run for 3 nights in Beijing with the possibility to extend for 2 more, depending on ticket sales. But on the first day, the performance was cancelled 4 hours before show time. The official explanation was that the equipments had arrived in Beijing too late for proper testing. This being in China, however, everyone knew that was just a lie, and the show would be doomed to two nights only.
The company that brought the musical to Beijing should have known better. Most of the expats were on vacations. Chinese artists seem too bobo to enjoy La Vie Boheme. And in a nation obsessed with superlatives and billings like “the longest…” or “the most…” (think Cats), few Chinese audiences are keen on shelling out Broadway prices (US$12-125) for any production, let alone one in English about AIDS, homelessness, drug addiction and dirt poor squatters.
Not even Karen Mok, the top billing Hong Kong pop star in the role of Mimi, could generate much excitement. Every time she opened her mouth, I worried that her weak voice would simply give out. Her right leg constantly lifted up towards her butt, in a cutesy pose that’s very Disney-style-girls-about-to-get-kissed, not very appropriate for a drug junkie and go-go dancer, IMHO. Camera still flashed whenever she was on, defying the reminder at the beginning of the show that no camera or flashes would be allowed.
Even worse, the Chinese subtitles, flashing on two narrow displays on both sides of the stage, were completely off beat. Sometimes the subtitles would run to the next song and stay blank for 5 minutes for the acting/singing to catch up. I wondered how much of the story the Chinese audiences picked up. Parents with teenagers and overweight businessmen with their mistresses clapped politely, unfazed by scenes of two women kissing, one woman baring her behind, two men kissing and stashes of coke being exchanged.
All of the which conspired to ruin my regular cleansing ritual of watching Rent. Since I watched its touring production in Boston in 1997, I had watched it in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, all together about 7 or 8 times (I’ve lost count). In the words of the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, who died at the age of 35 the day before the show’s premier Off Broadway, "Rent is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century." The storyline was silly at times. But the music was always able to bring out the tear from me. Lots of it.
So during the first act, it annoyed me greatly that my tear refused to come out to acknowledge the lame production in Beijing. It was not until way into the second act that the Beijing production’s daringness sank in. With the exception of calling the drag queen “the one who dresses funny”, the subtitles stayed true to the script. Chinese characters for “AIDS”, “homosexuals”, “condom”, “sex” and “rebellion” repeated constantly on the displays. It was amazing for the script to have survived through the censors, especially considering the venue was at the state-owned Beijing Exhibition Center.
I suspect that the authorities didn’t bother because the show was in English thus had limited impact. However, there’s already talk of developing a Chinese version of Rent. That, would be a miracle, if Chinese actors can sing about “AIDS”, “homosexuals”, “condom”, “sex” and “rebellion” in Chinese on stage, in a society that’s obsessed with “harmony” and covering up anything out of the ordinary.
The official site for Rent stated that “Over the past few years, Rent has played to cheering fans throughout North America. In fact, it has become a global phenomenon, packing houses in England, Japan, Australia, Germany and countless other countries.” As a die-hard Rent fan, let’s pray that some day the show will return to Beijing to pack the house.
Meanwhile, here’s my favorite song from the show to wish everyone a happy new year and lower rent or mortgage payment!
“There’s only us.
There’s only this.
or life is yours to miss.
No other road,
No other way,
No day but today!”