From RENT to Glee: Theater Geeks Reach the Mainstream

Rachel Syme | February 16th, 2011

The company of RENT

Being a teenager is rough, and finding a group of other teens that share your obsessions is one of the keys to survival.  I didn’t listen to the Smashing Pumpkins until it was too late to form a secret coven with the other Zero t-shirt wearers. I had no knowledge of Manchester United stats. I have yet to see a Bertolucci film. But I knew the complete Rogers and Hammerstein catalog by the time I was thirteen. I played Molly in the citywide production of Annie at nine, yelling out the Chrysler Building’s name 12 years before I moved within spitting distance of it. I set up the camcorder in my house and staged one-girl versions of Oklahoma and Porgy and Bess. My nose came in handy when they cast The Diary of Anne Frank and Fiddler on the Roof. And by time I was in high school, I could recite every single word of RENT.

A guy once told me over drinks that there were really two kinds of girls in our generation: those that belted Idina Menzel solos growing up and those who didn’t. Sure, this is annoyingly reductive, but I had to admire him a bit for finding me out. My car-mooing happened years ago, but in an ad-hoc observation, he drudged up the truth: I had been a protozoaic Gleek.

For my kind — awkwardly flamboyant suburban kids trapped in a desert town where tumbleweeds served as surrogate soccer balls — theater was the closest thing we had to rebellion (we being too pious still to escape chemically). Every little thing about RENT felt like a revelation at sixteen, a glimpse at escape. The drugs and (homo-erotic) sex chants! The AZT breaks! The idea that somewhere in the world people had once congregated together to wear cheap thrift store coats and suffer for art around smoldering trash cans! This kind of bohemia was long dead by the time any of us purchased a double-disc cast recordings and blasted them inside our cars and bedrooms, but the record became kind of an underground railroad for social defectors. Once you heard someone in the hallway humming “Santa Fe,” you knew that they knew that you both knew that there was certainly a bigger, more exciting kind of life ahead.

Fifteen years after RENT opened, the second season of Glee barrels on. And it continues to insert Broadway hits into its lineup and send them platinum: Last night, Rachel and Mercedes vocally sparred in “Take Me or Leave Me,” the token karaoke anthem for aspirant teen divas everywhere. It is safe to say that my peers’ underground railroad has now gone mainstream. These things happen, of course, as culture churns and recycles itself. But this does feel like a particularly fecund time for musicals-as-pop — it’s almost reminiscent of the Golden Age (when Sondheim and Bernstein and the gang were setting an aesthetic agenda that stretched well beyond Midtown). Stars like Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff (and Matthew Morrison, Kristen Chenoweth, and Idina Menzel) — these big, bawdy hams that were cultivated on Broadway stages — are on the covers of Cosmo and EW. A thing can happen where a young twenty-something sings Babs at the Tonys (looking like a toddler wearing a woman’s high heels, but that’s another story), and the video goes viral. Cover songs from Wicked and The Wiz chart right alongside Katy Perry.

And so what happened? A theory: The theater geeks of my generation grew up and, as geeks tend to do, started to own the world. But instead of denying their roots (“of course I have no idea who Mandy Patinkin is!”), they decided to create a utopia in which gay, glitter, and Gershwin are celebrated. It’s the happy cloud that so many of us dreamed of, as we hid out in the green room learning how to melt cake eyeliner on the mirror-bulbs for maximum effectiveness. As long as Ryan Murphy and co. are allowed to keep going (and the show improves from its currently nonsensical state, which is a big issue — and again, another story), we’ve triumphed. I imagine that more teens than ever are going out for the school musical and the talent show. American Idol made youth want to be radio stars; Glee makes them want to learn how to shimmy with jazz hands (or hopefully, be more tolerant of those who do). This is presumably a good development.

But you wouldn’t think so by speaking with theater die-hards. Not knowing how to make sense of it all myself, I turned to some friends in the industry — and found that, surprisingly, many find the Glee phenomenon to be disappointing. Yes, it has launched some Broadway stars into the pop pantheon, but that’s the problem: Some of New York’s best actors and singers, one casting director (who wanted to remain nameless) told me, are bounding over to L.A. in search of glossy autotune stardom. Another casting staffer grumbled that the dual Matthew Morrison/Lea Michele performance at last year’s Tonys knocked out time that might have otherwise been used for a showstopper from actual nominees. And one major B’way publicist e-mailed me this: “The first season of Glee felt like a godsend. People in Kansas knew about Patti Lupone! Now, they keep re-booking Gwenyth Paltrow, and the one character who remains most true to her theater-love, Rachel, is consistently battered down and seen as a campy punchline. It’s hard to know whether they love Broadway any more or are subtly mocking it. The kids still get slushied.”

He has a point, and there will always be room to complain. After yesterday, “Take Me or Leave Me” will chart on iTunes, but most of the people who buy it will not know about  Jonathan Larson’s death on opening night. They probably will not know how it felt to sing both parts of “Light My Candle” to your reflection imagining hot gel lights — not TV cameras — witnessing it. And yet, they’re still downloading it. To imagine Larson being upset at this development (as another publicist suggested) is similar to guessing that Faulker rolled over in his grave when housewives started buying The Sounds and the Fury because Oprah told them to. In our info-saturated era, it’s probably enough that these cultural figures are still getting Googled.

The divide between Broadway devotees and Gleeks may grow even wider next year when NBC debuts, Smash, a show about a Marilyn Monroe musical-within-a-musical, penned by theater vet Theresa Rebeck, with music by Tony-winning songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and produced by Hairspray’s Craig Zadan and Neil Moron. This is theater royalty taking on Hollywood, as opposed to the other way around. It is hard to say if the model will be as successful as the karaoke parade that Murphy and co. have spun into gold, but it will nevertheless be interesting. Will Smash people fight Glee people for true Broadway allegiance? Or will the new show, without Train covers and Jane Lynch, fall dead with a thud?

The real question here is, with Glee (and maybe Smash) making musical theater nerds the norm — and even celebrated — what will become the new version of sneaking out to your station wagon on lunch break with your friends to blast “Seasons of Love”? When the playing field is leveled between Broadway and Bieber, where will the rebellion come from? Making your way to New York, as a theater person anyway, is an act of will — of sheer, hot-brained tenacity that comes from perpetually imagining yourself a world away from where you grew up. I wonder if Glee is fostering these dreams or dampening them — when your passions are ratified on TV, you’re much more likely to sit and watch, but are you also more likely to go out and do? Are Gleeks auditioning for plays or just huddling around DVRs?