In Defense of… Benny.

“What happened to Benny What happened to his heart,
And the ideals he once pursued?”

Warbles one of the many forgettable stock characters of the inexplicably popular new-age musical “Rent.” The answer is not immediately given, but the audience is left to assume what happened to the heart of the young man. You see, in the musical, Benny was once one of the faux-neo-post-pseudo-Bohemians that occupied “Alphabet City,” a run-down section of New York City at the turn of the 1990s. However, that dastardly Benny had the avarice, the unmitigated gall, the sheer cojones to leave all of that life behind, instead following his heart and marrying a woman who happens to have a fair bit of money. In an act of philanthropy and as a way to make up for lost time, Benny offers his friends the opportunity to bring their talents (filmmaking and songwriting, respectively) to a wider audience by regentrifying the neighborhood into a modern studio, using the money he got from his marriage to rejuvenate the area, all while helping his friends in the process.

OR SO WE THINK.
In reality (or at least the reality the show creates,) Benny is the bastard son of JP Morgan and Hitler, sent to Alphabet City with the singular desire to RUIN the lives of the individualistic, artistic, charmingly anachronistic “Bohemians.” You see, his investment isn’t going to help the area, it isn’t going to forgive back rent of over a year by simply having them do the work they love and get paid, it won’t bring some kind of attention to a part of the city that was quite frankly falling apart and could use the exposure and goodwill of other kind souls in the future, no!
It was… pure evil.
Apparently, getting paid, paying bills, having food, and actually living a life with things like heat and electricity is SELLING OUT to THE MAN, which is something the dweebs in Alphabet City just cannot stand! Who cares that the loving parents of one of the jerkoffs (probably well-meaning, middle-class folk who “just don’t understand him”) are constantly calling and offering to help, who cares that a news show is offering you money to work when you can’t even buy a cup of tea, who cares that you and almost everyone else you know is dying of a horrible, ghastly debilitating disease that is only worsened by their unfortunate (and chosen, mostly) lives and state of affairs…NEVER….NEVER…give into…THE MAN.
Pardon my French, but what a crock of shit. Did Johnathan Larson actually believe this gobshite? Did he honestly think that it’s okay to be dying of AIDS, dirt poor, and living akin to a Dickensian street urchin was better than just taking a real, paying job? Did he honestly think that the creative process and someone’s “art” cannot survive if they spend a couple of nights slinging hash or bussing tables? Did he honestly make a statement that a horrible, horrible death at age twenty is better than trying to improve your life? Well, I guess we’ll never know, because sadly Mr. Larson was killed the night before the off-Broadway premiere, almost cementing him a Tony and a Pulitzer. Too sad. I’d love to rip him a new one.
Let’s look at this rationally. Yes, I’m aware it’s a musical, and I enjoy several musicals that have absolutely no basis in rationality or logic…
“Let’s dance while we fight, Bernardo!”
“Si, white oppressor, fear my jeté!”
…but remember that “Rent” was supposed to be gritty, real, realistic. It had real issues (like AIDS) and a real, modern setting (dirty, dirty New York…why does anyone want to live there, is it really that bad?) and as such it was supposed to reflect a lot of modern theatre in that it stripped away all of the silly pretense of beloved classics like “Oklahoma!” or “South Pacific.” So, by that standard, and by the standard of other, better modern musicals (“Blood Brothers,” for example) let’s take a look at exactly why Benny is no villain, no antagonist, and should actually be slapped on the back and called a bloody hero.
Imagine you’re a guy. Might be tough for some of those ladies out there, but roll with me. Imagine you’re a guy, living in an absolute slum in the nastiest part of New York (and that’s saying something). You don’t have money for food, bills, furniture, anything… you’re basically homeless, squatting in some old tenements that you hope won’t fall around your ears one of these days. You’re an artist, and you’re devoted to your craft, which is great (look who’s talking) but you’re not getting anywhere, and the whole poverty thing, despite all your singing, dancing, and love of the “Bohemian lifestyle,” still kinda sucks. You just wish there was some way to get your name out there, get your friends’ names out there, because you’re all doing some really good work and you think people will actually like it…but how?
Suddenly, you meet a girl. She’s wonderful. She’s everything. You’re not afraid to say it…you love her. Sure, her family’s got cash, but that doesn’t matter. You’re a bohemian, deep down, and bohemians believe in love, and you love this woman. So you marry her, and in so doing you marry into a fair amount of money. On top of all of this wonderful fortune, her father, the rich man behind it all, actually likes your idea of getting your friends’ names into an arena where they can, you know, actually afford to EAT, and he’s willing to give the cash for backing and help you and all your friends’ dreams come true. You rush down to meet them, and what do they do?
They throw it in your face.
Take back your gilded pen, they say, we don’t want any of that dirty Jew money. We’re just fine dying of AIDS and starving or freezing to death… or both! They’re artists, man, and you can’t judge them, or call them bloody idiots, because you just don’t get them, man! What’s more, you’re actually a sell-out for falling in love and trying to help your friends. They not only berate you for actually making something of their life (while they would rather sit around and whine about how they don’t have jobs instead of, I don’t know, FINDING THEM?!) but they berate your father-in-law and his business associates, almost guaranteeing that they will die cold, lonely, and riddled with disease, but with their precious stupid integrity intact. Sorry folks, but integrity’s got a price, and that price is usually somewhere north of death.
I was homeless once. It wasn’t fun. It was only a few days, but it still meant living out of my car and bumming places to sleep off my friends. I went hungry a lot, too, just over this past winter, before my lovely and wonderful girlfriend offered to share food with me. I ask you, then, am I a sell out? Probably, but I’m a sellout who is happy as a clam. I’ve got the woman I love, I work for two different state governments, but I still have time to devote to my art, and I don’t spend time complaining about how “the man” is keeping me down, because I know at twenty-three that that is a juvenile complaint and at some point everyone needs to grow a pair and swallow some pride. Fucking artists. Benny never lost his heart, or his ideals, he just found a way to realize them. You, meanwhile, sit and whine and never manage to get anything accomplished, which basically turns you bitter against “the man” for your own pig-headed stupidity. I guess what Benny should ask, as he offers a chance at a wonderful life, a real life to his friends is “what happened to your hearts?”
Oh, and as a pitiful, pathetic postscript to this ridiculous masquerade, remember that this show was not written for the average homeless person (who, by the way, is nowhere near as cutey-cute as the Renties) to pool their pandhandling money and go see. Far from it. This show was written for the elite, the rich, the people like, well, Benny’s benefactors to see what life is like for the other half. In essence, the entire show is paradoxical in the way it preaches not selling out while selling out, but unrealistic in the way that hardly anyone would let their new son-in-law pour millions of dollars into a community that quite obviously doesn’t care about them. I don’t believe in Social Darwinism but MAN, this show makes it hard to discredit.
Benny should be loved. Benny should be adored. Benny is who we should all try to be. Benny stayed true to himself and found a happy life, a mature life, while his friends wallowing in misery and petulance. He was able to sip wine, while they did nothing but whine. Benny is the hero of this show, and I will say that all the way until my dying day because he is what an American life is supposed to be. “Rent” is supposed to be about real Americans living real lives. Benny is the only real one of them all. The concept of “Rent” is a sham and a pretty distraction for rich people, but that doesn’t stop countless people (mostly well-to-do, middle-class Midwestern college kids) from championing it as some kind of revelation. Perhaps, in 1996 when it premiered, it was a bit of a barn burner, but that barn has long since burned to the ground while other, more realistic projects have carried on in its wake. It’s time for “Rent” to join “South Pacific” on the list of musicals that “just don’t work anymore” and it’s especially time for Benny to have his due. The character is an inspiration, not a villain, so loosen up your $90 “Bohemian” scarf, take your head out of your own smug posteriors, and take a big, fresh whiff of real life. Take those $500 “vintage” Ray-Bans off your eyes and look around at the real world, and see who really are the heroes, and who are the villains.
Oh, you’ll see…boy, you’ll see.
Until tomorrow, I tenderly remain,
Eric.

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