|In Stagestruck noted novelist and outspoken critic Sarah Schulman offers an account of her growing awareness of the startling similarities between her novel People in Trouble and the smash Broadway hit Rent. Written with a powerful and personal voice, Schulman’s book is part gossipy narrative, part behind-the-scenes glimpse into the New York theater culture, and part polemic on how mainstream artists co-opt the work of “marginal” artists to give an air of diversity and authenticity to their own work. Rising above the details of her own case, Schulman boldly uses her suspicions of copyright infringement as an opportunity to initiate a larger conversation on how AIDS and gay experience are being represented in American art and commerce.
Closely recounting her discovery of the ways in which Rent took materials from her own novel, Schulman takes us on her riveting and infuriating journey through the power structures of New York theater and media, a journey she pursued to seek legal restitution and make her voice heard. Then, to provide a cultural context for the emergence of Rent—which Schulman experienced first-hand as a weekly theater critic for the New York Press at the time of Rent’s premiere—she reveals in rich detail the off- and off-off-Broadway theater scene of the time. She argues that these often neglected works and performances provide more nuanced and accurate depictions of the lives of gay men, Latinos, blacks, lesbians and people with AIDS than popular works seen in full houses on Broadway stages. Schulman brings her discussion full circle with an incisive look at how gay and lesbian culture has become rapidly commodified, not only by mainstream theater productions such as Rent but also by its reduction into a mere demographic made palatable for niche marketing. Ultimately, Schulman argues, American art and culture has made acceptable a representation of “the homosexual” that undermines, if not completely erases, the actual experiences of people who continue to suffer from discrimination or disease. Stagestruck’s message is sure to incite discussion and raise the level of debate about cultural politics in America today.