Twenty years ago, the Broadway musical RENT brought musical theatre to the MTV generation. Two decades later, the rock musical has gone on to influence others like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Passing Strange. Through the Broadway show, its original cast recording, and its 2005 movie adaptation, RENT continues to attract new generations of youth. Last fall, RENT returned to the New York stage to commemorate the 20th anniversary.
The original Broadway cast starred Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Daphne-Rubin Vega, Anthony Rapp, Fredi Walker, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, and Jesse L. Martin. The musical was created by the late Jonathan Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm the night before the musical premiered off-Broadway.
On the surface, the musical is about a diverse group of artsy bohemians living in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. However, woven within the sentimental and campy musical numbers is a story about connecting to others, living life to the fullest, and being aware of your own mortality. The untimely death of the musical’s creator, as well as the socio-political environment of the late ’90s, fueled the musical’s success.
While RENT was originally inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, much of it was also inspired by Jonathan Larson’s life as a starving artist in Lower Manhattan and a witness to gentrification and the AIDS epidemic. According to the documentary, No Day, But Today: The Story of RENT, Larson lived in a run-down loft and worked as a waiter at the Moondance Diner to support himself as a composer and playwright.
In the area where Larson lived, people were buying up property to make art studios. If you couldn’t pay your rent, you were at risk for eviction. As a result, you had to hide from landlords (like Larson did at times) or become a squatter and risk being targeted by the police.
Besides gentrification, Larson dealt with the experience of having friends who were either HIV- positive or dying of AIDS. The deaths of friends Allison Gertz, Gordon Rodgers, and Pam Shaw and the influence of the AIDS non-profit organization Friends In Need inspired a fictional AIDS support group in RENT called Life Support, as well as the musical number “Will I?” Larson’s experiences not only brought RENT’s story to life, but also made memorable characters. All the characters have different ethnicities and sexual orientations. Also, half of the characters are HIV-positive. In addition, the storyline for the characters comes from two meanings of the word rent.
In the dictionary, rent can mean the money you owe to a landlord, or to be torn apart. In the case of RENT’s characters, they are struggling to pay their rent and risk being torn apart by their personal struggles. While these elements make the characters stand out and help move the plot forward, it is their free spirits and bonds of friendship and love that resonate with so many fans.
Today’s generation of youth lives in a society that is both different and similar to the one depicted in RENT. Thanks to advances in medicine, HIV/AIDS isn’t the grim death sentence it was once. At the same time, everyday tragedies still make it possible to be aware of your own mortality and yearn to leave something memorable behind.
Meanwhile, unemployment rates are high for college graduates, and some are drowning in student loans. Some try to encourage young people to get any job in a paying field, especially if they would rather do something artistic. In RENT, you’re either an artist or a sellout. As naïve as this way of thinking may be, there is something to be said for wanting to preserve a sense of integrity in terms of what you want to do with your life.
For 20 years, RENT has taken people who are torn apart and made them whole, giving them a place to belong and to make sense of who they are. RENT shows that in 525,600 minutes of a year, you can learn to live life to the fullest by finding yourself and connecting to others.