No Day But Today: Rent Twenty-One Years Later

No Day But Today: Rent Twenty-One Years Later

      “Give in to love, or live in fear”

  ― Jonathan Larson

The exquisite golden walls of the Stanley Theatre reverberated with chatter from the audience who anticipated watching the musical Rent. I was stuck in the nosebleed section of the theatre, my legs tightly pressed against the seat in front of me. I could hear the band that was snugly tucked under one of the props. The show had not started yet and light gleamed off the metal bars which served as the “apartment” for the characters. Finally, a few characters rush to the stage. One of the characters named Mark sets the scene and gives the audience the background story. Another character, Roger, works on a new song. Suddenly a loud “BEEP” sounds off. It’s Mark’s nosey mother, leaving a voicemail. She tells her son to move on from his ex-girlfriend Maureen and to “let her be a lesbian”. The lights fade and then light up again as the show begins.

More than twenty years ago, Jonathan Larson, the writer and composer of Rent, walked a path similar to his characters [1]. He worked as a waiter in SoHo and wasn’t even able to afford Cable TV, and would throw his keys out of his window so his friends could get into his apartment. Similar to the character Mark, one of Larson’s girlfriend left him for a woman. Just ten days before the first preview performance of the musical that changed contemporary theatre, Larson had to sell a few of his books in order to afford one movie ticket. Although Larson was never able to afford certain luxuries, he had music. Due to his rich education in music and theater,  he was able to write the international phenomenon Rent, which told the story of seven starving artists trying to survive while fight AIDS, poverty, drug abuse, and gentrification. The opera La bohème by Giacomo Puccini was a major source of inspiration for Larson, and it is the piece which Rent is heavily based on [2]. Larson saw the similarities between struggling artists in Paris during the 1800’s as well as ones living in New York City during the 1990’s. Unlike many of the similarities between the two works, there are two key differences. The first key difference was the Tuberculosis that was widespread in Europe during the 1800’s was swapped for AIDS which was a major epidemic from the 1980’s to the early 1990’s. The second key difference is that Mimi dies in La bohème, but lives in Rent. In the last scene, Mimi is given a second chance at life and provides the audience with hope. La bohème celebrates death whereas Rent celebrates life and the many gifts it brings.

In writing Rent, Jonathan Larson succeeded in changing the face of Broadway. Broadway was no longer for the rich and stuffy. His goal was to bring the MTV generation to Broadway and help them gain an appreciation for theatre and the performing arts. The music in it is primarily rock and roll, but also blends tango, gospel, and many other music genres. Rent also pushed a lot of boundaries because it featured AIDS, homosexuality, homelessness, and drug abuse. Four out of the seven characters were living with AIDS. Larson did not choose to write about AIDS simply because it was a disease frequently being discussed in the news. One of Larson’s best friends was HIV-positive so Larson went to meetings with him despite the fact that he was not living with the disease[3]. He had also lost three other friends to AIDS which is possibly what inspired to character Angel. Rent was not only a great success for Larson, but also was somewhat a depiction of his own life. It was his baby. He put all of his time and effort into creating the iconic musical. Unfortunately, Larson would not live to see the birth of his masterpiece.

In the days leading up Rent’s first performance, Larson was sick, but many believed he only had the flu [4]. Those people found out later that it was more than the flu. After a night of drinking, Larson’s roommate Brian Carmody discovered his dead body sprawled across his floor with police officers hovering over it. It was the night before the show’s debut. Carmody immediately called Larson’s sister Julie, who called his parents. They caught a flight to New York City after hearing the tragic news. The cast of Rent was devastated. Despite the sad news, one thing was agreed upon: the show must go on.

Rent is a unique musical in many different ways. The music and dancing featured in it was excellent. I had the song “Tango: Maureen” stuck in my head for days after the show. During the scene where the character Mimi was singing the song “Out Tonight” and dancing on the thing bars, I was both mesmerized and anxious. However, the music was not all that made the musical unique. The characters were imperfect, loveable, and most of all relatable. Teenagers are fed the image of the perfect life in pop culture. Many of the people displayed in televisions shows are rich, straight, and white. We don’t get to see the truth, which is that not everyone “makes it”. Like the characters, not all people are white, straight, or rich. People live in poverty, and abuse drugs, and have a life that is far from perfect, but that does not make their lives any less worth living. We are only given one life. One particular scene in the musical struck a chord with me. It was the part where Roger, a musician living with AIDS, is playing the guitar, trying to come up with at least one hit song before the disease finally takes his life. He knows that he is going to die eventually and he is afraid. However, it is not death that he fears. He fears dying in obscurity. That he will have led a mediocre life, living in a bohemian loft in the East Village, poor. Writing the one song gives him a purpose and something to look forward to. Isn’t that what everyone wants? To leave a mark on the world, even if it’s just a slight imprint.