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Andrew had wanted only one thing for the past five years. He had wanted to experience the true and ultimate power of contemporary performance art, wanted to bask in the glory of what modern technology and research could produce when they come together in the perfect cornucopia that was the theatre. It had been, and still was, a dream of his to understand, in all its might and beauty, the true meaning of the live stage, to witness real life as it was captured through the eyes of one man or woman, the eyes of the writer. He wanted to observe how a show would play out when all the resources and people came together at exactly the right times, at exactly the right cues.
And here he was, finally staring in awe and amazement, at the Nederlander Theatre. He had made it to Broadway!
Even before he walked through the front doors and received his first, real playbill (not one printed on thrice recycled paper as they were at his high school), he was captivated and absorbed by the pure deco of the theatre’s façade. Before him stood an altruistic tribute to what artistic genius and style can do when everything comes together at the exact right moments, at the right focal points. Only through art could power, tangible power, power which shows up scarcely throughout a generation, be converted into a picture through the use of mind, body and soul. Genius! Incredible!
Plus they were going to see Rent. As far as Andrew was concerned, never before had there been written a more exact and precise tribute and representation of the modern Generation X. There were other musicals, comedies and dramas out there, ones which did their job of capturing precise moments, occurrences and themes, doing their part to fight racism, religious persecution or disease. Yet within the script of Rent existed something real; a form of truth that theatre had never experienced. Sure, there had been truth, but only before in the form of dumbed-down or overplayed facts, which had been exploited and enlarged as big as the hair in Hairspray. The form of truth in Rent was different; it was unique.
“Would you move it along, Drew?” Brian, Andrew’s best friend since kindergarten, ordered from behind. “Some of us would like to see the show, not the overplayed art deco on the outside of the theatre.”
“Look at it, Bri,” Andrew whispered, softly yet shrilly enough to be heard over the incredible amplitude of mid-day traffic in New York City. “It’s so beautiful. It’s so…natural.”
“It’s so not the reason why each of us paid a $300 airfare to come to New York City,” Brian said, agitated by Andrew’s apparent paralysis. “Now move!”
Making their way deep into the theatre, Andrew and the rest of the Ridgewood High School theatre troupe gazed around at a playhouse not starved by the effects of social poverty and lack of community concern for the arts. The seats themselves cost more individually than the two-score old soundboard the school had purchased after years of going without microphones or audio playback. And then there was the stage. Massive in its size, majestic and non intimidating in its presence, the dense wooden space stood before them, elevated, open so that they could clearly see the set and the action occurring upon it. Stagehands were moving causally back and forth, presetting props for the show. Musicians sat leisurely at their places, giving their instruments one final tune up before the performance began. Andrew was so overcome by the sheer might of the set that he didn’t complain; he found it unprofessional for musicians to tune their instruments while the audience was in the house.
Even the apathetic Brian took a few moments to look up at the booth, appreciating the true beauty of that which was Broadway. “Look, man,” he whispered, afraid of being heard by seasoned New York theatergoers, ones who were “accustomed to” and “educated on” the modern theatre, unlike him, a simple farm boy from H-Town, Ohio (with the “H” standing for hick). “I bet they have a real soundboard, and a computer input. Hey, I bet they own wireless microphones, too.” Brian was the sound designer for Ridgewood, and was pretty good at it.
“I’d hate to have to deal with that stage every day,” Sue Ellen St. James, the props mistress for the high school’s theatre, said. “So many moving parts.”
“I could do this,” Erin Tennison said to herself, though she knew perfectly well that everyone else could hear her. As stage manager for the troupe, she had adopted the habit of talking out loud, as it is necessary to keep the running crew on board throughout a production. “I could so do this,” she repeated.
“Well, we all know what Drew’s looking at,” Brian said, allowing his voice to adopt a sense of friendly frustration, the tone that occurs when a person becomes too familiar with another’s personal habits.
“Yah,” everyone else in the group agreed. Andrew wasn’t too hard to figure out when it came to theatre. He held only one true fascination, one true passion: lighting. He was determined to become a professional theatrical lighting designer when he graduated from college. He was driven by the desire to play with colored gels and to win a Tony Award (and to do so while maintaining his heterosexuality). Not that Andrew ever wanted to offend anyone, but there were so many temptations now-a-days.
Something about stage lighting lit a fire under his brain, a metaphorical pilot light, causing him to think harder and process information faster than he had ever desired. There was a feeling of satisfaction when, after hours of backbreaking work on the catwalk, slaving over lights which burned your hand every time you touched them, before you on the stage unfolded a magical show of light and splendor that could cause a person to become lost in its tenderness and warmth. But with only an assortment of Lekos, two Source Fours and a shoebox full of gels and gobos, there wasn’t much to practice with.
The lights in the house faded (a little too fast for Andrew’s taste), allowing the production to begin. And begin it did. Although it got off to somewhat of a slow start, a couple of conversational songs to set a mood, the show leapt to life with the title song “Rent” and never slowed down. After “La Vie Boheme” the entire troupe gave the actors a standing ovation, even though it was simply intermission. They cried during life support sessions and let the music captivate their souls during the shows finale. They danced and loved and cried and lost, all within the very close-knit vicinity of their seat.
But the lighting, the lighting set the show on fire, blinding you at precisely the right moments, crushing you emotionally at others. Bright lights, dark lights, blankets of color on the stage, small patches used to make one part of the stage a completely different part of the world, when everyone knew subconsciously that the rest of the set was sitting just five feet away. Andrew was thoroughly amazed, wishing that he too could one day have the resources to create something so incredible and so articulate. No wonder this guy was nominated for a Tony.
As with most musicals, the show ended much sooner than the audience would have liked. Exiting the theatre now fully awake and ready for life, the theatre troupe began the long, carefully guarded walk to the hotel (there was still daylight, but there was no way the teachers were going to let their students wander too far from the herd). The streets of New York City were busy, noisy and slightly unnatural for a group of students whose idea of a traffic jam consisted of a tractor driving down the street at 5 mph, leading along the line of rush hour motorists. Several ear plugs were pulled out, smartly purchased at the duty free shop at Port Columbus International Airport.
As the journey progressed, Andrew became more and more aware of things that were not to such an extreme back home. Looking down an alley, he saw an elderly gentleman attempting to cook a can of already discarded soup over a match flame. After every five steps he or some member of the group was approached by someone asking for money. One of these was a small child, around the age of eight at most, moving in and out of the ranks of people directly by a stoop where her mother and baby brother were sitting. Andrew watched as she was brushed aside by every person she approached, though all she was doing was cupping her hands together, resembling the All Stage logo. At one point the poor girl was even shoved to the ground by an elderly gentleman, wearing the dressing of a surgeon, who was so consumed by the business tidings of the Wall Street Journal to pay any mind to the three foot tall human being standing in front of her. She hit the concrete hard, but didn’t cry. She seemed accustomed to it. So did her mother, who didn’t move as she saw her daughter fall to the Earth in one fluid motion.
Andrew, who apparently possessed a heart in a sea of damnéd human beings, pushed his way up through his own group, and bent down in front of her. Now getting a closer look, he saw that one of her eyes was dark, black and blue due to several repeated falls to the solid, natural concrete earth of New York City. Her clothes were worn, yet they were luxurious compared to others who shared her same state. Her eyes were blue, but they were emotional, dry, grey and foggy.
Gently easing her arm, Andrew helped the girl to her feet and led her back to the stoop where the mother sat, cradling the sickly looking boy sitting next to her. Andrew carefully helped the girl to find a seat next to her mother.
“Come on Drew, don’t hold up the group,” Mr. Himilton said. The whole group had stopped, apparently waiting for Andrew to rejoin them, rejecting the temptation to acknowledge the existence of someone who pissed in a gutter every night.
“Yah, come on, Jesus,” Brian said, yawning. “I want to hit the pool before we have to go to bed.”
Andrew ignored him, looking now at the mother, seeing the swollen glands on her throat, the marks on her arm. He stared at her, politely, questioningly, only for a few seconds, and then pulled out his wallet. Retrieving two twenty dollar bills his parents had given him for the trip, he unfolded them, and showed them to the mother. Then he put them directly in the hands of the daughter, and closed her small hands around the valuable paper. The mother nodded a response, and closed her eyes, seeing that she could rest for the day. Andrew could see that she was very tired.
Returning to his group, he found that all eyes were on him. He simply stared back. Finally, Mr. Himilton turned and began his way to the hotel. The rest of the group followed, leaving Andrew to bring up the rear.
Inside his and Brian’s room, Andrew pushed his duffle bag off his bed, where he had left it when the troupe had checked into the hotel, and laid down. He heard Brian leave the room, presumably to go to the pool; he didn’t bother to say goodbye. Sitting up, he took off his shoes and headed for the bathroom to take a shower. On the dresser was a ten dollar bill, on top of which was a note.
“You gotta eat sometime -- Bri.”
After his shower, Andrew put on a sweatshirt and sweatpants, and looked out onto the city, still so alive and boisterous. He was looking for some answer, some philosophical thought that would sum up everything he was going through.
He knew, however, that this thought had already been dreamt up. It was his favorite lyric of the entire musical.
“Everything is rent.”
He then modified the lyric in his head, reformatted it modestly, and let its soft melody sound once more between his ears.
“Everything is Rent.”
Yes, that’s it.
Thank you, Jonathan Larson.