IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How do you measure, measure a song?

One ‘Rent’ fan’s top five tunes from the musical-turned-movie. By Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
/ Source:

The American musical has risen from the dead more times than zombies in a George Romero movie. Shows like "Phantom of the Opera," "Sunset Boulevard," "Hairspray," and of course, "Rent," have all thrown the spark of life into a genre that many people wrote off about the time Rogers and Hammerstein retired.

The legend of "Rent" is especially well-known. Creator Jonathan Larson died on the night of his show's final dress rehearsal, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama posthumously. It's hard not to mingle his own story with the tales of his characters, who struggle against time as they deal with AIDS and drug addiction in New York's East Village.

"Rent" was such a monster hit that it was even parodied in 2004's "Team America: World Police," which featured an instantly recognizable musical called "Lease" and a song with the lyrics "AIDS, AIDS, AIDS, everybody's got AIDS."

As "Rent" tries to vault to the big screen with a long-awaited movie version, Larson's songs and story will be reaching a much wider audience. And they'll leave with Larson's rousing, stirring, and often sad tunes ringing through their heads.

"Rent"-heads can (and do) argue for hours about which of the musical's songs are the best. There's plenty of arguing fodder, as the songs produce marvelous lines even where least expected: In the talky "Life Support," set at an AIDS support-group meeting, a character we've just met breaks your heart as he sings, with Roger: "reason says I should have died three years ago." In the infectious "What You Own," the characters sing of "living in America, at the end of the millennium, leave your conscience at the tone." And in the somber "Will I?", characters with AIDS face a bleak future with "will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?"

Everyone's list of favorites is different, and as I struggled to rate them, every song in the show made it on and off the list at various times. But at this moment in time, here are my five top songs from "Rent."

1. Light My CandleIt's the ultimate meet-cute tune, with about a million twists. Former junkie Roger meets current junkie and exotic dancer Mimi when she shows up at his door, asking for a light for her candle. (Not a euphemism — well, not yet.) Over the course of the song, the two cover such topics as Roger's dead girlfriend, Mimi's father issues, her S&M dancing, and even Spike Lee. As they flirt, he realizes her symptoms seem all-too familiar. ("I used to shiver like that ... I used to sweat ... I used to be a junkie.")  He finds her dropped stash and hides it from her, already deciding that he wants to know this bad girl, who proudly brags "they say that I have the best ass below 14th Street." Half-spoken, half-sung, the song employs the neat trick of letting its principals tell stories seemingly veering off on different tracks, yet in the end, they all twist together. The song brims with the rich possibilities of love, and lust, at first sight, and flares up brighter than even Spike Lee shooting down the street.

2. Seasons of LoveOtherwise known as the song that taught us that 525,600 minutes equals a year. (And it does come out even, if you don't mess with daylight savings or Leap Years: Do the math.) It starts with a tinkling, gentle intro that sounds like Schroeder is trying out his new toy piano, and then the company comes crashing in, ringing out like a gospel choir, demanding to know "how do you measure, measure a year?" They try out various answers (in diapers! report cards! in midnights, in cups of coffee!), but the answer was always obvious: Love. There's a reason this one was picked for the movie commercials: None of the other songs in "Rent" uses the entire company as well.

3. Tango: MaureenThe setting is a dater's nightmare: You're alone with your lover's ex-boyfriend. ("This is weird," Mark and Joanne stammer, "fuckin' weird.") And then it gets creepier, as you realize he knows only too well every little thing that bugs you about her, as well as every little sweet thing that keeps you hanging on. ("Has she ever pouted her lips and called you 'Pookie'?")  As the two dump out all their Maureen-related gripes via song and dance, the result is cleansing for Maureen's ex, Mark, but nausea-inducing for new love Joanne, who's just beginning to realize what she's signed up for. And who knew the tango, that sultry Argentinean dance of lovers, could be executed so well between antagonists?

4. I'll Cover You"Rent" has more than its share of love songs, but the tender duet between Collins and drag queen Angel, both HIV-positive, earns a special place of honor. The two men can't promise each other years, they may not have them, but "sweet kisses I've got to spare." Larson even deftly works the musical's title in, though you might not notice it here after hearing it over and over again in the song "Rent" itself. ("I think they meant it, when they said you can't buy love, now I know you can rent it, a new lease you are, my love.") It's funny to imagine how shocking this song would have been in Broadway's old days — a love song between two men? One who dresses as a woman? Yet the achingly simple song would not be out of place at the world's most traditional heterosexual wedding — lyrics like "when you're worn out and tired," and "you've got one nickel only" are just a new version of those vaunted vows, "for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness or in health."

5. La Vie BohemeIn the old melodramas, there was always a mustache-twirling bossman demanding the rent. In "Rent," that bossman is Mark and Roger's former roomie, now landlord Benny, who's sold out their artistic ideals (and their friendship) for his new wife's money. When he scornfully tells them Bohemia is dead ("Rent" was inspired by Puccini's opera, "La Boheme"), it's as if he tossed a match on gasoline. The artistes of "Rent" start toasting to all the reasons they love their crazy life, leading to such lyrics as "To sodomy, it's between God and me," and "To huevos rancheros and Maya Angelou." Billy Joel thought he covered a lot of ground with "We Didn't Start the Fire"? "La Vie Boheme" wraps in everything from "Carmina Burana" to Pee Wee Herman to "hand-crafted beers made in local breweries." It's enough to make every TV-raised kid in Iowa sell the cow and move immediately to the East Village, and maybe that's the whole point.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is's Television Editor.