Rent, the groundbreaking musical that debuted on Broadway in 1996, is considered a quintessential queer musical — but that’s not a title it deserves over two decades later.
Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, Jonathan Larson’s musical tells the story of struggling artists in New York City’s East Village.
Over the years, Rent garnered praise for its diverse cast, depiction of queer relationships and characters, and broaching topics like the AIDS crisis. It also won four Tony Awards.
Nostalgic haze, however, has clouded the truth of this musical: it’s full of some unfortunate characters, harmful stereotypes, and it says absolutely nothing.
The thesis of Rent
What was Jonathan Larson trying to say with his 90s musical set in the late 80s?
There was no day to live ‘but today’ and AIDS is bad. Okay, well, Dead Poets Society taught me the former lesson seven years earlier, and I only needed to look at history to know the latter.
That, precisely, is the problem.
Rent essentially became a lesson about the AIDS crisis for 90s youth and beyond – except that it has nothing of weight to say about the crisis, and inauthentically depicts it as a romanticized revolution.
As Lindsay Ellis explains in her video essay about Rent, musicals like this ‘have romantic ideas in the guise of revolution, but none of them challenge existing power structures in ways that might alienate the wealthy audience’.
The closest Rent gets to this is Maureen’s individual performance of Over the Moon, but having an already poorly written white bisexual woman given this responsibility is… not the best choice.
‘In other words, they frame themselves as revolutionary but continue to push the voice, worldview, and values of the status quo,’ Ellis states.
Larson had the perfect way to authentically depict the messy and energized movement that emerged from the AIDS crisis – he only needed to draw from reality.
When depicting the AIDS crisis…
The United States government failed its people when it came to the AIDS crisis. By largely acting in a reactionary manner, rather than a preventative one, millions of people died.
In the late 1980s, when Rent takes place, activists weren’t simply crying ‘fuck the system’, they were working tirelessly to appeal to the government and demand change.
The Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) held the first ever AIDS walk in New York City in 1986. Over 4,500 people attended and raised over $710,000 for the cause.
In 1987, the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP, referenced briefly in Rent, formed. They organized numerous demonstrations, including a march on Wall Street, shutting down the FDA for a day, and garnering media attention for the Silence=Death Project. This project consisted of posters with a right side up pink triangle (the inverse of the upside-down pink triangle seen during the Holocaust) and the words ‘SILENCE=DEATH’.
Two years later, the price of AZT, the first ever approved drug to fight HIV and also referenced in the musical, is reduced thanks to public protests.
This was the reality of Alphabet City, where Rent takes place, and the rest of the East Village during the AIDS crisis.
Sure, Larson made a good choice by making Roger, one of two straight, white male characters in the show be HIV positive. It shows the disease can affect anyone. Given the scale of the AIDS crisis, however, this choice hardly makes an impact when it’s contrasted with his and other characters’ attitudes of self-importance and lackluster activism.
Alphabet City’s residents had something of importance and urgency to say, as they watched their friends and loved ones die at the hands of a government which didn’t care about them. The same cannot be said for the characters of Rent.
This is also why Larson’s less-known musical, tick, tick… BOOM!, is also his superior musical. It’s auto-biographical and depicts a character who’s HIV positive, someone Larson really knew. In this musical, Larson speaks from the heart and has something to say about getting older and the fears of uncertainty. It’s a better tribute to those who lived with the disease than Rent could ever be.
Here’s hoping Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie adaptation of it makes it better known.
Musicals are created to evolve
One of the best things about musicals, and the space they occupy, is that they’re created to evolve.
The best revivals of musicals take something known and update it for a more modern time, saying something new without sacrificing what made the musical special in the first place.
Take the recent revival of My Fair Lady, which bowed last year. It features the iconic and beloved songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, but finally gives Eliza Doolittle the agency she deserves – by allowing her to leave Henry Higgins at the end.
Rent has never been given that same opportunity.
There’s a chance Larson would have continued working on and changing his own musical based on feedback and criticism, but he tragically died the day of Rent’s first preview performance Off Broadway.
But should his death be a reason to treat the musical as some piece of untouchable text? Every major revival of the musical, including its triumphant return for its 20th anniversary three years ago, has remained rooted to its 1996 debut. This is a disservice to Larson’s good intentions and talents, Rents fans, and the LGBTI community at large.
Picture Angel played by a transgender woman or a non-binary actor, like Valentina in Fox’s recent TV production. Imagine Maureen not written with harmful stereotypes of bisexual women, or the unfortunate implications of Benny, a black man, leading gentrification and met with resistance from straight white men whining about paying their rent. Consider a new dialogue about the AIDS crisis.
Instead, Rent remains stuck in the past. In its lifespan of more than 20 years, it has repelled growing or learning from how far the LGBTI community’s come.
It may have been groundbreaking at the time (although it existed alongside shows such as The Normal Heart and Angels in America, so that’s a debatable argument), but times have changed and unless we’re ready and willing to see Rent join Eliza Doolittle for a makeover, it’s time to leave it in the past.