[December 1 is World AIDS Day, an occasion to remember not just the global epidemic overall, but also and especially the individual and communal stories within it. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the commemoration and a few of those stories, leading up to a weekend post on whether and how we can learn from those stories in our own ongoing pandemic moment.]
On the popular musical that helped change our national conversations.
When it comes to a controversial or difficult social and cultural topic, one of the more interesting lenses through which we can analyze the issue is to consider when and how overtly popular representations of it developed. I’m not talking about explicitly or centrally political or statement-making representations, but rather images of the issue in entertainments intended first and foremost to be popular, to be successful, to attract and affect a broad audience. So with an issue like interracial relationships and marriages, one could point for example to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967); certainly the film has a definite and even in the final scenes a pedantic message, but on the whole it tries to be a successful drama, one that will keep its audience interested and entertained throughout. Or if Spencer Tracy’s final speech makes the film too political to fit this category, one could look just a few years down the road, at the many episodes of All in the Family (and then its spin-off The Jeffersons) that prominently featured an interracial couple (the Willises) who unsettle both Archie Bunker and George Jefferson; those episodes are, as the show always was, played first and foremost for laughs, without losing any nuance in their representations of the thorny issue itself.
If we turn to one of the most difficult and controversial issues in American society in the 1980s (and beyond), the AIDS epidemic, I’d say it’s pretty tough to pin down when that kind of popular representation really emerges. A case could definitely be made for Tony Kushner’s two-part play Angels in America (1991), which despite calling itself A Gay Fantasia on National Themes and focusing almost entirely on gay characters is in many ways a big-budget blockbuster award-winning (including the Pulitzer Prize) kind of drama, featuring scenery-destroying descending angels, hallucinations of long-dead American historical figures who exchange witty banter with the play’s characters, and some of the foulest and funniest dialogue I’ve ever read (mostly spoken by the play’s fictionalized version of Roy Cohn). Or maybe the answer would be the Academy Award-winning hit film Philadelphia (1993), which starred two of Hollywood’s most prominent actors (Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington), featured musical contributions from legendary rock stars (including a great tune by some dude named Bruce), and relied on one of the oldest thriller plot devices, the courtroom drama, for much of its very effective creation of suspense and entertainment. And certainly both of these works, along with Magic Johnson’s much-publicized 1991 announcement of his own HIV-positive status, contributed to a sea-change in public consciousness about the illness in the early 1990s.
But for my money (and it’s gotten plenty of it over the years), I think the first truly popular entertainment to grapple with AIDS is Jonathan Larsen’s rock musical Rent (1996). It’s hard to argue with any measure of the musical’s popular successes: it was when it closed in 2008 the 9th longest-running Broadway show in history, at 12 years and over 5000 performances; it spun off into dozens of national tours and foreign productions, as well as a 2005 movie version featuring almost all of the original cast members; it grossed almost $300 million and won a Tony for Best Musical; and the list goes on. But in keeping with the show’s mantra, “No Day but Today,” I’d say you don’t need any of those facts or statistics to assess the show’s popular success: all you need to do is go see it somewhere if you get the chance, or watch a video of the production, or even just listen to the soundtrack (which features virtually the whole production, since there’s very little non-sung dialogue). The play pretty much literally has it all—it’s funny and angry, hugely emotionally affecting and cynical and smart-ass, big and sentimental and intimate and realistic, has a perfectly constructed circular structure (it starts and ends on Christmas Eves one year apart and uses New Year’s to bridge the two Acts), includes almost every genre of popular music in one or another of its songs, is based in great detail on a 100 year-old opera (Puccini’s La Boheme) and yet grounded in 1990s New York City and America in every way, and just plain sings, all the way through and by any measure. And at the same time it is deeply engaged at every moment—and politically engaged in many crucial ones—with the issue of AIDS and its many different communities and identities, causes and effects.
Larsen died, unexpectedly and tragically, of a brain aneurysm on the day the play was to make its Off-Broadway premiere, and an entirely different and equally rich analysis could connect to great artists who died too young and the masterworks they left behind. But if Rent is any indication, Larsen would want his legacy to be precisely his achievement in finding that perfect combination of popular and political, successful and social, and thus contributing more (I believe) than any other single work to bringing AIDS out of the shadows and into the mainstream of American culture and consciousness. Next AIDS story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d share?