Why RENT is still relevant 25 years later
April 8, 2021 | Rachel Erwin
Growing up, my dad always played the same three musicals in the car. I would hop in, buckle my seatbelt, and wait for the first notes of either Chicago, Wicked, or RENT. Now I know what you’re thinking. RENT is not exactly a kid-friendly creation. But for five-year-old Rachel, that didn’t matter. I was too young to understand the suggestive lyrics, but I would tell everyone I saw that there were 525,600 minutes in a year.
Now, I have the words “no day but today,” – the most famous lyrics from the show – tattooed on my hip. I’ve seen the show and the movie a million times, and I listen to the songs weekly. RENT has always had a grip on my soul. This year, during its 25th anniversary, I am reminded of the impact it has had on the theatre industry as whole.
RENT, which is loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème, is a story about poor artists struggling to survive and thrive in New York City. Instead of the characters having tuberculosis, like in the opera, many of RENT’s leads have HIV/AIDS, reflecting the time period shift from the 1800s to the late 1980s and early 1990s. It premiered on Broadway in 1996, where it ran for 12 years and won four Tony awards, including Best Musical. In 2005, it became a movie.
The question is, why was it so groundbreaking?
Photos by Amy Boyle, Carol Rosegg, and Redux
RENT is a raw look at what life is like for the impoverished in Lower Manhattan’s East Village. It does not shy away from the harsh realities, including the death of a main character. It talks about AZT –the drug used to treat AIDS – in plain terms. It features relationship conflicts, LGBTQ+ characters, and an unforgiving landlord. Most importantly, however, it is a celebration of life in the face of death.
Characters like Collins and Angel, who have AIDS, are depicted as hopeful and joyous rather than hung up on the idea of death. Collins sings about moving to Santa Fe and opening his own restaurant, and the two fall in love despite their knowledge that they may have little time left together.
The song “La Vie Bohème” is another great example of this. Its lyrics are a toast “to people living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease.” Emphasizing the arts in a world that tries to claim they are unimportant, the song is a call to live life to its fullest.
It also opened the door for a greater focus on LGBTQ+ characters in the theatre. Angel, Collins, Maureen, and Joanne all fall somewhere in its spectrum, yet their sexual orientation or gender identity is not the sole focus of their trajectory in the show. Some may argue that it is a classic example of the overused “LGBTQ+ character has a tragic ending” trope, and that is entirely fair. However, I see it more as an honest look at and a wake-up call to how widespread and horrific the HIV/AIDS pandemic was, especially for LGBTQ+ folks.
I had the pleasure of seeing the 25th anniversary tour prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in Fall of 2019. This was the first time I had experienced the stage production in-person, and I recall crying multiple times, which is something I don’t typically do. The whole time, all I could think was that Jonathan Larson, RENT’s composer, would have been so proud to see that his vision lived on. Larson passed away the morning of the 1996 Off-Broadway premiere due to an aortic dissection. I like to think that every performance of RENT is still a nod to his memory and legacy.
In March, the New York Theatre Workshop Gala featured performances from the original cast of RENT, including Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and more. Cast members from other productions and revivals came together as well, celebrating a night full of Larson’s work and the long-lasting impact RENT has had on the world.
Will RENT always be relevant? I say yes. Though many shows have followed in its footsteps and improved upon the precedent it set, I don’t think the spirit of the show can be replicated.
Whenever I hear those opening notes to “Seasons of Love,” a sense of calming familiarity washes over me. I’m transported back to those long drives with my dad, and I remember why theatre is so beautiful.