I have an extra special place in my heart for Jonathan Larson and RENT-- to the point where when the tattoo artist I asked to stencil a certain lyric from the titular number on my back told me the line was nice and asked if I wrote it, I considered switching artists for someone with a bit more actual culture but instead just proceeded to use the half-hour his work took to explain to him the beauty that is that show. Needless to say, I went into this season of NBC's Smash extra-sensitive at all of the comparisons the network and other media wanted to draw between RENT and "Hit List," Larson and Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan)-- especially the latter. Larson was passionate, gifted, an artist who lived and breathed his work and tweaked things until he found them perfect. Jimmy was a sullen brat whose lyrics were sophomoric at best and who preferred to live the starving artist lifestyle without doing too much work. But then things turned around at the very end of "The Producers" episode in which suddenly, instantly, blindingly the show decided Kyle (Andy Mientus) was the Jonathan Larson after all. And that meant he must befall Larson's same tragic fate.
Okay, to be fair, Larson died unexpectedly heart issues, most probably due to undiagnosed Marfan Syndome, while Kyle got hit by a car while doing the second sing-walk of his short Smash career. Poor Mientus only had two real numbers, and he had to perform both of them in identical, lackluster fashion, strolling down the streets of New York. Maybe you could say they book ended each other in a poetic way, but that would be a reach. Just as you could say that the signs that Kyle was the Larson were really there all along, but that would be an outright lie-- or the show wouldn't have needed all of the explaina-flashbacks in "The Phenomenon."
Don't get me wrong, I'd much rather Kyle be compared to Larson than Jimmy, even if the reasons why he was a genius despite having literally just said "I'm good at this now" only a few episodes ago came as after thoughts when the writers realized they had to prove he was worthy of such a title. Still, what I found particularly offensive was the way Smash ripped off RENT's tragedy. There have been arguments made over the years that without the "story" to go along with its opening night, RENT would never have gotten as much initial ink or maybe not even have headed to Broadway as quickly as it did. The out-of-nowhere talent that was Larson not living to see the success he so deeply dreamed of was the kind of thing over which a black-hearted publicist would salivate. But it was real. It was terrible, but it was organic. It actually happened. Smash, on the other hand, took everything that was original and unique to RENT's story and appropriated it for their own with "Hit List." You can't make up that kind of oracle-esque fortelling of events-- for the sadly dearly departed or those who are asked to go on around them, yet Smash forced it. Maybe they were able to legally sneak it through as an "homage," but I'm calling shenanigans on that one. You also can't call it a tribute if you don't actually acknowledge that which came before yours and yotimately paved the way for you to have yours at all. The show is such an overall mess, if I were a remaining member of the Larson family, I would be offended. And suing mad.
When Derek (Jack Davenport) and the cast of "Hit List" decided to go on after all, to pay tribute to Kyle by letting his words live on so all could hear what he had to say and what ultimately would become his legacy, they planned to just do a concert. Everyone would stand, in street clothes, at music stands on stage and deliver their dialogue and sing their songs in a line. The full performance would not happen. Maybe this is common practice when someone dies on Broadway; I don't know; I never worked there. But what came next certainly was ripped right from RENT's pages.
With RENT, it was the cast of the show that couldn't sit still on stage. The energy was buzzing around them, their creator's words echoing in their ears, and by the time "La Vie Boheme" came up, they had to get up and move around and deliver the show as Larson imagined. It was a true tribute. For Smash, it was Jimmy who strolled in and forced the somber stage to transform so he could get his moment in the spotlight (even though, I must add, he had been fired the week before). Once again, it wasn't anything that came naturally-- for him or for this show. It was forced, probably not to draw a direct comparison but to still inspire the same strong emotional response by the sheer power of the number he would perform-- a number, by the way, which just happened to perfectly fit the real life situation.
Now, the eeriness of how much art imitated life with Larson's lyrics was once again something that could not have been expected and was that much more powerful when you realized what happened. But with Smash, we had never heard this "The Love I Meant To Say" song before. So put aside how much you may want to punch Jimmy (trust me, I know it's hard) and forget about how he managed to make a young man's death all about him. Focus instead on the fact that the music of "Hit List" was apparently supposed to mirror what was going on in those characters' lives the way season one used moments in Marilyn's story to mirror what was going on with Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Karen (Katharine McPhee), even at one point a ridiculous pill-popping sequence. Yet before "The Phenomenon" that had never been addressed, not in the subtext, and certainly not in all of the overt exposition this show has been doing, afraid the audience isn't smart enough to see the comparisons for themselves. So it seems like it was decided kind of last minute as a manipulation to get audiences to think there's something much deeper going on here. I can perfectly see the writers' room discovery that this song needed to be directed at both a "Hit List" character and Kyle: some hotshot wired on too much coffee and not nearly enough tact probably thought he or she was a genius for coming up with such a thing. But it felt tacked on, contrived, and exploitational. And what's worse, when it was all over, it turned out that Jerry (Michael Cristofer) was in the audience and loved the show so much he was going to move it to Broadway this season after all.
I get that I'm a little extra connected to RENT than your average Smash viewer or even Broadway in general fan. And I'll admit there was something interesting in watching Jesse L. Martin work the other side of such a tragedy as the theater "suit" who had to keep the show going, even though its cast was grieving. But the implication that it was only the "swept up in the emotions of a real life tragedy" aspect "Hit List" would make it was kind of tongue-in-cheek and fitting for all of the problems within Smash, but the fact that after everything else they had ripped off, this, too, seemed to be direct commentary on the RENT experience just boiled my blood farther. "Hit List" had previously proven it couldn't stand on its own as an original (even the lyrics to the song "Original" prove the writers don't truly know the definition of the word), but capitalizing on another's tragedy is even more terrible.
Smash was supposed to be about celebrating the theater and all of those who paved the way for a show like this to be embraced by the mainstream and a major network to boot, but tonight I feel like it sh*t all over one of the greats. RENT deserved better; Larson deserved better; Mientus deserved better. It's a good thing no one else is still watching so the damage should at least be minimal.