I have a complicated love affair with the musical Rent. It’s one part a wonderful romp through complex social and political issues with fantastic uses of music, rhyme, rhythm and harmony. On the other hand, it’s also a shallow and socially insensitive stage show using outdated terms and phrasing to illustrate the complicated AIDS crisis with the minimal amount of effort and using horribly unrelatable characters to float such a powerful message by. As an LGBT-affiliated creative and mostly just musical angsty teenage: Rent was perfect for me during my rebellious teen years. It brought together artists, creatives, people who were on the fringes of society and made their lives and struggles not just relatable but also glorified them. Never in more recent memory has a woman addicted to crack been so deified as a saintly woman under the thumb of vile cruel addiction. The musical was a little before my time, but the movie, oh the movie; that was part of my consciousness as a teen and I loved it. My friends loved it. We did line readings and performances in school and we had nearly the entire discography memorized from Seasons of Love to La Vie Boheme. Now, the movie has problems, but so does the musical and I’m not here to defend either one. What I am here to do is talk about why even though the musical is divisive I choose to still love Rent.
Amber and I recently saw Rent live at the Majestic: a 20th anniversary show bringing together as many of the original cast members as possible. It was the closest we’d ever come to seeing the show on opening night. I came into the performance with mixed feelings. A few videos online brought up some serious issues with the musical and movie and their valid points began to shade some of the nostalgia I had for the musical. One commented on how little the characters in the musical/movie actually do to help any of their respective conditions or situations and the other takes serious issue with the editing, framing and how writing and camera work make some characters look like saints while others sinners despite what the script and logic dictate. They made points I couldn’t argue against and seeing the show live actually only deepened some of those feelings of indignation from the standpoint of the audience. I’ve lost family members to the AIDS crisis and being creative, LGBT leaning and of color only made my blood pressure rise when it came to the serious failings in the telling of actual compelling stories in place of pop culture references that were dated even for opening night 20 years ago and characters with motivations are paper thin as a play bill.
The musical makes even more of the storytelling issues in Rent forward. Mimi has almost no agency and it at the hands of an evil and shadowy omnipresent drug dealer. Roger’s emotional and moody and seems to have no validation for his feelings and no one seems to realize that he has very valid feelings and is often the most right in situations. Angel is the purest martyr form of the word. And Mark, oh sweet Mark, has almost no issues of his own but continues to revel in misery and commiseration with all of those around him with real and actual problems. Maureen continues to perpetuate stereotypes about bisexuality that still haunt the LGBT community and Mimi is less a young lady with addiction problems as she is a saintly woman who no agency and is just a product of her difficult life and circumstances. No one tries to better themselves. No one tries to get out of their situations. And the ones that do are vilified for not living in the moment.
And while we’re on the topic of “not living in the moment”: let’s talk about No Day But Today. This is an example cited in both videos as an utter failure of visual storytelling and it’s no different in the musical. Roger, who does not want to go out with Mimi, is framed via lighting and refrain as the dark one in the scene. He’s the miserly bad guy who is trying to put out Mimi’s damn candle. Mimi is a known drug user and stripper who engages in risky behavior to say the least. This risky behavior took the life of Roger’s girlfriend ,April, and is the reason that he is now living with AIDS. But Mimi; she’s framed as fun, light and bright. She just wants him to live for today. She wants him to do drugs with her in an alley and engage in risky behaviors that I won’t list because I think my family still reads this humble little blog. And to her side come the rest of the cast and try to coax Roger from his ivory tower of self-isolation. When did he become the bad guy? When did wanting to stay inside and stay sober and not sleep with a stripper become criteria for villainy? Because if that’s the case, then I might as well be a Dick Dasterdly-level bad guy.
By now, you may be asking where the defending part’s gonna come in. We’re getting there and I haven’t even covered the wax philosophic of the social “commentary” on the nature of the struggling artist and capitalizing on poverty while simultaneously capitalizing on poverty.
Now, despite all the issues that I listed and could probably go on about for more: I do still love the musical and movie Rent.
I still believe in the idea of what Rent is trying to say. That a year can be so much time and yet so little in the grand scheme of things. That friends can form into families and be more supportive than the guardians or parents we were sometimes born into. I believe in the idea that being an artist and creative is one of the best ways to help ease the pain of a difficult life. I still believe in the message that life itself is hard: everything is rent. I still admire the things Rent was trying to do. To try to bring to light how serious the AIDS crisis was and in places still is. That it tried to further the ties that bind: community, art, love and life.
And that’s the legacy of Rent. Community. I was able to see this musical with a friend and leave singing and dancing to the songs long after they had finished. My friends have read this piece forwards and backwards and if you started us off on Today 4 U, we’d certainly finish it. Will I became my rosary, my meditation and those serious questions about legacy, mortality and what people will think of my life and my choices helped me cope with the complicated emotions I had as a teen. Community brought us together and it was the power of community helped overcome some of the obstacles that perpetuated the AIDS crisis in America.
So while Rent has its problems, I can’t help but love the musical and the movie. The movie does give Mimi back some of her agency as opposed to the nearly magical drug dealer that seems to stalk her and it makes Angel an even more sympathetic and tragic character. Collins is great in any version (except for the part about stealing in some strange cyber-Robin Hood bit). Benny’s a more one-sided bad guy in the musical and in the movie he’s actually just sort of…right (he’s just a businessman who rather likes having a roof over his head and likes expensive food: there’s nothing wrong with that) so that makes him more relatable in the movie vs. the musical.
So if you’ve never seen Rent, I can’t force it on you. It’s an acquired taste. It’s the musical theater fan’s musical. If you have seen it and think it’s the best depiction of anything ever then there’s lots of blog posts I have to point in your direction. If you think Rent like most things has a complicated legacy and did its best with what it had during the time since it first ran and is really when you think about it just a musical? Then you’re on the right track.