Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Is Rent really a better musical than Mame?

That's what our youngest critic, the Herald's Jenna Scherer, would have us believe in a review that's pissy even by her own standards of critical uremia. Now Scherer has her valid points to make against this production of Mame (it's not great - I caught it Saturday and will write about it later in the week), but I was still struck by her nastiness. To her, Mame is "dated as can be," and is even, apparently, racist: Mame's Asian major domo, Chao, in Scherer's view, is "racially stereotypical": "The audience shuddered every time Chao minced across stage and pronounced his W’s as R’s," she huffs.

Funny, though - nobody shuddered at the performance I attended. The character of Chao is, indeed, stereotyped, but utterly affectionately, and in rather obvious "air quotes;" and Mame herself is portrayed as wildly in love with "the Far East" (take that, Jenna!). The idea that this queeny show about a bohemian lesbian socialite/naturist actually fosters racism is, well, pretty ridiculous.

So I just want to say to everybody out there who is, like me, of a certain age, and who, like me, pushed and prodded for liberal causes (and against racism) back when it actually counted: don't you get tired of immature, twentysomething pisspots like Jenna Scherer imagining they are the ones battling racism? On the back of a sweet, silly, too-gay vehicle like Mame, no less?

And let's compare little Miss Generation Why's take on Mame with her recent rave for Rent, shall we? Now there is a cringe-worthy musical - and since I'm gay and had friends who died of AIDS, shouldn't I be its target demographic? But I'm afraid its all-too-obvious narcissism - which naturally sails right over Scherer's head ("it’s still the same beautiful, flawed diamond," she coos) - never ceases to irritate me. Indeed, the gay men I know who lived through the crisis all find Rent vacuous, or even slightly insulting - its fans seem to be, like Jenna, white suburban kids who thrilled to the plague vicariously, at a safe distance, during high school. So let's be honest - it's a bubblegum show in which the dying gay guy in the East Village is (dare I say it?) an affectionate stereotype.

So let's ponder for a moment what's really funny about "generation gaps" - they cut both ways. When I look at Mame, I see a gay man's cry for tolerance through a half-open closet door. When Jenna sees it, she tries to think of some way to put down Mom and Dad. When I see Rent, I see a sappy, passionately mediocre rip-off of Puccini that somehow lacks even a single memorable song (and whose relentlessly uplifting chord changes seem to have put a stake in the heart of the Broadway musical - give me Jerry Herman over Jonathan Larson any day). Scherer sees - oh, I guess a mirror for her generation, or something like that, in which their whininess looks heroic. And not, not, not racist!

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