Rent is one of the biggest musical hits of the 1990’s and it is coming to the Sydney Opera House at the end of this year. Due to the success and age of Rent, there are already a lot of opinions on the musical out there. In this deep dive I’ll be giving you an overview of the story and debates surrounding the musical so that you can be up to date on everything Rent by the time it opens this December 27th.
Rent is a rock musical about a group of friends living in the East Village in New York. When creating this musical, writer and composer Jonathan Larson took Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème and adapted it to reflect New York life during the 1990’s. This involved changing the disease prevalent in La Bohème from tuberculosis to HIV/AIDS, as well as updating the careers of all the characters. Inspired by his own experiences, as well as the experiences of his friends, Johnathan wrote Rent to depict issues surrounding drug addiction, HIV/AIDS, capitalism vs art, homelessness, and gentrification.
Tragically, on the morning of Rent’s first preview Off-Broadway on the 25th of January 1996, Jonathan Larson died of an aortic dissection. The show, however, continued on in his name and became one of the biggest shows of the decade. Although Jonathan was sadly not able to see Rent become the incredible success it is, his parents and sister honoured his memory by accepting the theatre awards he won on his behalf, as well as by creating a ‘Jonathan Larson Grant’ which continues to donate money to emerging writers. Jonathan’s autobiographical musical Tick, Tick… Boom! also made its Off-Broadway debut after his death in 2001, and is currently being adapted into a film directed by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Additionally, in 2005 Rent was adapted into a movie directed by Chris Columbus. All of the original Broadway cast revived their roles with the exception of Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played Mimi, and Fredi Walker, who played Joanne. These roles were instead played by Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms respectively, with Tracie Thoms having previously played Joanne on Broadway as a replacement. This movie is a good introduction to Rent, however since the movie is missing a considerable amount of the music, it is a lacking comparison to the stage production.
Although Rent is a well-known hit that has won numerous Tony awards, the Pulitzer Prize award, and has received many productions and revivals across the globe, there has still been quite a few criticisms surrounding the story and message of the show. The biggest criticism about the show surrounds the fact that the main characters are all entitled artists who refuse to pay rent or get paying jobs because they believe it is “selling out”. The characters truly believe that the capitalistic society in which they live is deeply flawed and doesn’t have their best interests at heart and this results in the character of Benny being portrayed as the villain of the story purely because he conforms to that way of living. With twenty-four years of perspective, it is clear to see that the way the main characters treat Benny is extremely selfish and unfair. Additionally we also know that there is nothing inherently wrong with working for a large company or corporation. However, I believe it is important when watching the show to remember the context in which it was made. During the 1980’s and 1990’s a lot of rich and powerful people who were thriving within the capitalist society were also the ones who were ignoring the millions of deaths caused by the AIDS epidemic. It was also significantly harder for people who were openly a part of the LGBTQ+ community during that time to succeed in society due to the insane amount of prejudice and discrimination they faced. When watching the show with this context in mind, the open distrust and hate that the main characters feel towards those with money and power begins to make more sense.
Rent isn’t a perfect show and like many older musicals it has aged somewhat with time, however it remains incredibly entertaining and definitely worth a watch. The fact that this show gives a voice to various LGBTQ+ minorities is extremely important and Jonathan Larson’s music remains to be brilliant. There’s only now, there’s only here, forget regret or Rent is yours to miss.