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background and analysis by Scott Miller
"In these dangerous times, where it seems the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can all learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day and [we] should reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life at the end of the millennium."
Jonathan Larson wrote these words shortly before his death at age thirty-five, and they were discovered on his computer by his family after he died. They serve as a fitting tribute to his only Broadway musical, the mega-hit Rent. Larson, a hard-working, long suffering, not yet recognized composer-lyricist-bookwriter had been working for seven years on the cheerfully transgressive Rent, a 1990s rock/pop riff on Puccini’s beloved opera La Bohème, this time set in New York City’s East Village.
Rent is so many things to so many people. It was the first musical in decades that younger audiences really identified with, that speaks in their voice, that voices their concerns, that tackles their issues. It breathed new commercial life into the Broadway musical, possibly signaling the beginning of the end of the great divide between pop music and theatre music, which has existed since the advent of rock and roll in the 1950s. Even the title means different things to different people. It represents the financial burden young people feel as they graduate college full of knowledge but absent any marketable job skills, thrown into a real world where high ideals don’t pay the rent. But the title also highlights the temporary nature of these characters’ lives, the month-to-month living without permanence or promises. The characters Collins and Angel sing to each other in the song "I’ll Cover You" that though love can’t be bought, at least it can be rented. In other words, their happiness won’t be forever – both of them have AIDS – but it’s theirs for a while.
And the word rent also means torn, Larson’s favorite meaning of the title, and certainly the characters in this show are torn between conflicting desires – between comfort and idealism, between love and dignity, between anger and pain, between the fear of intimacy and the fear of getting hurt. The word rent means shredded in grief or rage. It means split apart when it describes communities, families, or other relationships. And it also means torn open by painful feelings, something nearly every character in the show feels at some point. And all the complexity of that simple, four-letter word parallels the construction of this fascinating musical.
Larson’s lifelong goal was to combine the Broadway tradition with contemporary pop music, a very difficult task at which many before him had failed. After seven years of workshops and re-writes, the show was scheduled to open in previews off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop, on January 25, 1996. But Larson had been feeling ill. He’d been to two hospitals; one diagnosed him with food poisoning, the other with the flu. The night before the first preview, after a great final dress rehearsal, Larson went home, put a pot of water on the stove for tea, collapsed, and died of an aortic aneurysm.
In June 1993, New York Theatre Workshop did a reading of Rent. The show was a mess but showed real promise. Another reading was done in 1994, this time with director Michael Greif on board. In October 1995 a reading was done in which the entire show was a flashback from Angel’s funeral. In December 1995 Larson finished another revision that returned to the earlier structure and he wrote a one-sentence summary of the show: "Rent is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century." This statement of purpose helped later on. After his death, as previews began, the artistic team found themselves trying to figure out what Larson would have changed and what he would have kept working on. They went through his notes to see what he still had been unhappy with, and did their best to make decisions they thought he would have made. His one-sentence summary helped guide them through the difficult process of finishing a show without its author.
After two weeks of previews in early 1996, the show opened to rave reviews and standing ovations. Four months later it moved to Broadway and became the biggest thing to hit the Great White Way since Phantom of the Opera. Larson received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his work. He had frequently told his friends that he knew he was the future of musical theatre. And he just might have been if he’d had a chance.
The show moved to Broadway and opened at the Nederlander Theatre on April 29, 1996, to both mixed and rave reviews. The New York Times called it an "exhilarating, landmark rock opera," and said it "shimmers with hope for the future of the American musical." Time magazine called it "the most exuberant and original American musical to come along this decade." The Wall Street Journal called it "the best new musical since the 1950s." On opening night, the performance began with Anthony Rapp, who played Mark, dedicating the show to the memory of Jonathan Larson.
Rent was nominated for a staggering ten Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book. It won six Drama Desk Awards, three Obie Awards, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, an Outer Critics Circle Award, and a Drama League Award.
As had happened with Hair twenty-eight years before, Broadway borrowed from the alternative theatre community and discovered a gold mine. In 1992, Larson had written of his show, "Rent also exalts Otherness, glorifying artists and counterculture as necessary to a healthy civilization." Larson and later, many commentators, called the show a Hair for the 90s and indeed it shares much with the 1968 landmark rock musical. Daphne Rubin-Vega, who originated the role of Mimi, said, "We didn’t want to go to Broadway to become Broadway stars; we went to kick the motherfuckin’ doors of Broadway open, because it’s old-school and stodgy. We were invited there and that was cool."
The show became a cultural phenomenon. The cast soon found themselves in The New York Times, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and Harper’s Bazaar. They appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Charlie Rose Show, and The Tonight Show, and sang "Seasons of Love" at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. Both Hard Copy and Prime Time Live did stories on the show.
Frank Rich, New York Times political columnist and former senior theatre critic, wrote in a Times op-ed piece, "At so divisive a time in our country’s culture, Rent shows signs of revealing a large, untapped appetite for something better." Both the classical music reviewer and the pop music reviewer for the Times weighed in on Rent, neither raving but both finding much to admire.
Because the producers were as new to Broadway as the cast was, they did things very differently. They set aside the first two rows at each performance as $20 seats so that the people the show was about could afford to see it. These special tickets would go on sale at 6:00 p.m. each night and the line usually formed by noon on weekdays and often twenty-four hours in advance on weekends. Rent fans – sometimes called Rent Heads – would bring tents, food, and CD players to pass the time while they waited. Some had seen the show dozens of times. But in July 1997 the line was replaced with a lottery system. Still, the actors love having the $20 seats in front – they say the first two rows are always the most lively, the most passionate, and the most appreciative.
But after the opening, great controversy circled around the mega-hit. Larson’s dramaturg from New York Theatre Workshop, Lynn Thompson, sued the family for part of the show’s profits. She lost. Sarah Schulman, a playwright and novelist, sued the estate because she claimed Larson stole some of his plot and characters from her novel People in Trouble. She also lost. In fact, there is nothing in Rent that even comes close to the plot and characters of Schulman’s book.
Angel is the wise wizard in this collective hero myth story. She's almost other-worldly in her Zen-like understanding of the world around her, her wisdom, her compassion. She's there to teach the others (and us) a valuable lesson, to see the world in terms of what we can give instead of what we can get. As Collins says to Roger in Act II, "Angel helped us believe in love. I can't believe you disagree."
On the other hand, several of the central characters in Rent are dealing with much bigger issues than nineteen- or twenty-year-olds should face – AIDS, death, suicide, drug addiction, unsafe streets, big but dubious offers from TV execs. How many college-age kids ever grapple with anything like that? To call Roger, Collins, or Angel "whiny" misses the entire point of the story.
Perhaps the people who hate Rent see their younger selves in these characters and they don't like that. After all, most of us are whiny and selfish when you're young (and we artsies can be the worst); we still have growing up left to do. Though to be honest, a lot of people in their forties still have growing up to do. It’s not hard to see a parallel to American politics today. At the beginning of our story, these kids are the Republican Party: I want what I want, and if the other guy also gets what he wants, that's fine, but don't ask me for any. They have to grow up and become more like the Democratic Party, believing that caring for "the least of these" makes us all better off.
Angel teaches her friends – and us? – to be more Christ-like.
After all, Rent is about "the least of these," the poor, the outcasts, the sick, the rejected, the kind of people Jesus hung out with. For much of the twentieth century, Alphabet City has been where mainstream society's rejects form their own community, their own support system, to some extent even their own economy. It's the place where Mark can toast, "To being an us for once, instead of a them." It's a place where Mark can ask, "Is anyone in the mainstream?" because he knows the answer is no. Not here.
Maybe the most potent part of the magic of Rent – and make no mistake, Rent is genuinely, inexplicably mystical in the same way that Hair is – is that its production requires the same kind of community the show depicts. Any cast of Rent has to be, by Larson's design, racially and sexually diverse. And that's why performing and watching Rent can be so powerful – the sense of community and the intense emotions aren't just realistic; they're real. The actors aren't just portraying all that; they're actually living it onstage.
The Birth of Rent
Originally the idea for Rent was Billy Aronson’s, a young playwright who saw the similarities between La Bohème’s artists at the turn of the last century in Paris, and the young artists at the turn of this century in America. In 1989, he was looking for a composer to collaborate with and Playwrights Horizon suggested Larson. When the two met, Aronson said to Larson, "It’s time for a new Hair."
Though they stuck to the basic plot of La Bohème, they exchanged tuberculosis for AIDS, and Paris for New York’s East Village. In 1991, after only minimal progress, Larson asked Aronson’s permission to go ahead on his own with Rent and Aronson bowed out. Larson decided to stray from Puccini’s opera, to consult the novel on which the opera was based, Scenes de la Vie de Bohème, and to go his own way. The opera’s poet Rodolfo became Roger the songwriter. Marcello the painter became Mark the filmmaker. Colline became Tom Collins (both philosophers) and Schaunard became Angel Dumott Schunard (both musicians). Musetta became Maureen the performance artist. Benoit the landlord became Benny the roommate turned landlord. And in Larson’s greatest departure, Mimi the embroideress became Mimi the S&M dancer.
When Rent opened, everybody made a big deal out of its connection to La Bohème. But Rent is not an updating of La Bohème or an adaptation; it’s a response to it. The characters are similar but that’s where the comparison ends. While La Bohème romanticizes death (which was very trendy in 1896 when it premiered), Rent celebrates life with all its might, as evidenced by all the references to life in the show (the Life Café, the Angel’s group Life Support, and others). While Bohème is tragic, Rent is joyous. While Bohème’s bohemian world is romantic and poetic, the world of Rent is tough, gritty, angry, and real. While Bohème has "Musetta’s Waltz," Rent has the cynical "Tango Maureen." While Bohème observes the bohemians from a distance, Rent is written by a bohemian, someone who had trouble paying the rent, whose friends were dying of AIDS; and it fully inhabits that world.
Larson kept the basic character profiles and the establishing situation from Puccini’s first act, but then he went off on his own. Like Rent, Bohème opens on Christmas Eve, while two artist roommates try to keep warm in their apartment. Rodolfo burns his manuscript for heat. Colline and Schaunard show up with food and wine and Schaunard tells them the wild tale of how he made some unexpected money that day. In Bohème, he’s hired to play piano until he drives a parrot to death; in Rent, he’s hired to play drums until he drives a dog to suicide. Schaunard announces he’s taking them all out to eat. Benoit shows up asking for rent. All but Rodolfo leave for their favorite café, and once they’re gone, Mimi appears, asking for a light for her candle, whereupon Rodolfo and Mimi fall in love. All that is also in Rent.
There’s a very funny insider’s joke in this scene in Rent, in the song "Will You Light My Candle," a joke exclusively for fans of La Bohème. In Bohème, Mimi comes back the second time because she lost her key on Rodolfo’s floor when she fainted. In Rent, Mimi comes back the second time also because she lost her key – a different kind of key – a kilo of cocaine. (Key is drug users’ slang for kilo.) So Larson has both remained true to Bohème – Mimi came back for her key – and simultaneously updated it drastically. The other insider’s joke in the show is that Rent’s Roger is trying to write his one great song and keeps coming up with something that sounds like Musetta’s waltz from La Bohème.
Up to this point, the two stories are basically the same. But then Rent and La Bohème part company, as Larson’s characters pursue more 90s storylines. After the set-up, only Rent’s flea market, the café, and Mimi’s (near) death have counterparts in the opera. Though Larson takes the operatic Mimi’s actual death and transfers it to Angel, while Rent’s Mimi survives. Larson wrote detailed biographies of all his characters and this gave him the freedom to leave the details of Bohème behind and create his own world. In the biographies he wrote, as described in the Rent coffee table book, Mark and Benny were roommates at Brown University; Roger’s band was called the Well Hungarians; Mimi left home when she was fifteen; and Maureen dreamed of being a famous performance artist like Patti Smith or Laurie Anderson.
Rent is Larson’s more positive view of the world, with details and people from his own life mixed in to give the story resonance. In real life, Larson himself actually had to throw his keys down to the street for people to get into his apartment, and he had to run orange extension cords all over his apartment to make up for the lack of outlets. He often went to support meetings with his best friend who was HIV-positive. He had once lost a girlfriend to another woman. All of this found its way into Rent, along with the names of three of his friends who had died of AIDS, in the support group scene.
Though Larson strayed greatly from the opera, he used many details from the novel upon which the opera is based, Scenes de la vie de Bohème by Henri Murger. The book is unlike the opera in many ways, particularly in its wonderful, raunchy sense of humor. The book is funny, first and foremost, and the four friends are much more like the four friends in Rent than they are like the characters in the opera. The book is chock full of rampant casual sex and other delightful decadences, a remarkable thing for a book written in the 1840s. Also in the book, Mimi’s great tragic death of tuberculosis really belongs to a one-chapter character named Francine, who was in love with a man named Jacques, who died of grief a few days after Francine. Lots of details in Rent come from the book: the importance of Collins’ coat, their regular restaurant where they often order nothing and don’t always pay the bill, the constant burning of manuscripts and letters for heat, Marcel/Mark’s decision to sell out his art, and the structural significance of Christmas Eve. The novel makes a strong (and constant) point of the fact that the four bohemians are fairly irresponsible, selfish, and immature (though utterly charming), a charge leveled by critics against Larson’s characters. Also, in the book Rudolf is able to write his one great poem only after Mimi has left him, paralleling Roger’s song "Your Eyes." And just as the song revives Mimi in the musical, Mimi in the novel sees Rudolf’s poem in a magazine and it’s (indirectly) what brings them together again. Also, the novel is organized into dozens of short, seemingly randomly ordered and unconnected incidents. When critics complained about Rent’s structure, they probably didn’t realize it mirrored the original novel.
There are differences too. In the novel, Rudolf actually marries Mimi, but they separate after eight months because Mimi has champagne tastes and cheats on him repeatedly with rich men (mirroring Mimi and Benny in Rent). Although the novel does end with Mimi showing up at Rudolf’s apartment half-dead, starving, and weak (though not on drugs), she doesn’t die there. They call the doctor and put her in the hospital, from which a false report of her death is delivered to Rudolf. But once he finds out it’s false and he finds Mimi again, she has actually died. (And people thought Rent could get confusing!)
Why It Shouldn’t Have Worked
There are so many reasons why Rent should not have worked, why it should not have been a success off-Broadway, much less on Broadway, much less an international phenomenon. First, rock and roll does not work in the theatre. Admittedly, that’s a pretty board statement but it’s almost always true. Certainly Hair worked, but to this day no one really knows why. Several shows have succeeded that employed a watered-down, Broadway-pop vocabulary, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, Jekyll & Hyde, but those scores are not real rock. And Tommy doesn’t really count because it was a hugely successful rock album and movie decades before it ever hit Broadway; it’s impossible to know if it would have succeeded without its reputation. And it too was pretty watered down and sanitized on Broadway. Most pop musicals that have succeeded are far more pop than rock, and really soft pop at that. With the obvious exceptions of Hair and Tommy, when Broadway tries to speak in the voice of genuine rock and roll, the show is almost always a flop.
The reason is that in rock music the most important element is the beat. The melody, the chords, and the lyrics are often very repetitive and they all serve the beat. Generally, it’s the emotion and energy that matter, not the intellectual content. But in theatre music, the lyrics are the most important element. The lyrics not only have to be heard and understood (not always a priority in rock) but they also have to tell the story, to advance plot and character. To do that, they have to convey clearly a lot of information in very few words; repetition is a luxury modern theatre composers and lyricists can’t afford.
So it follows that Rent shouldn’t have worked because its music is genuine rock and roll (though more 70s than 90s). But theatre audiences loved it and so did the pop music audience, though hard-core rockers denounced it as imitation. Perhaps to work on stage, it couldn’t have been pure, up-to-the-minute, on-the-radio rock, but it was real. Larson was as tuned in to rock as he was to traditional Broadway musicals, and he did the near impossible by successfully blending the two without emasculating either, creating a kind of Broadway fusion rock that satisfied both audiences. The CD quickly became the best selling cast album of the decade.
But the question remains: why did it work? Were Broadway audiences ready for Rent because the blander Broadway pop of Andrew Lloyd Webber had prepared them to accept a more legitimate rock sound? Did Tommy help pave the way? Or was the success of Rent an audience rebellion against the abundance of elevator pop on Broadway? And if not for Rent, would later pop musicals like Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel have been so popular? It’s impossible to know for sure.
The second reason Rent shouldn’t have worked is that it was a big mess. Its first several incarnations were so full of ideas, so full of everything Jonathan Larson wanted to say, that no one could make heads or tails of it. There were so many themes he wanted to explore, so much of his wide-eyed optimism and naiveté that he wanted to inject into his story, so many plot lines. And the specter of La Bohème was always getting in the way. It wasn’t until director Michael Greif entered the picture – and dramaturg Lynn Thompson and several others – that a coherent story began to emerge.
And there were other issues. Many of the people involved thought his early depiction of homeless people was naïve and borderline offensive. Many people thought too many of his characters were one-dimensional. And Larson could be very defensive, very closed to outside feedback. But luckily, as he began to trust Greif and others, he opened up and listened to what they had to say. He began to trust their criticisms and makes changes. But he never finished his show. For many musicals, the preview period is when the most important work gets done, and Larson died before previews began. Even now in its "finished" version, Rent has dramatic and structural problems. Is it better for its roughness and imperfection, more accessible, more loveable for its flaws? Quite possibly.
The third reason it shouldn’t have worked is that Broadway audiences generally don’t want to see musicals about overtly sexual gays and lesbians (although the de-sexualized varieties are okay), or S&M dancers, drug addicts, drag queens, or performance artists. And they certainly don’t want to see these people have simulated sex onstage. Like Hair did, Rent brought forbidden content to Broadway and ended up a commercial success. This is even more surprising in an era when Disney is becoming the king of Broadway with its sanitized, family-friendly, substance-free musicals selling out and winning Tony Awards. Was Rent’s success due to a backlash against a Broadway turning to Disney and the bloodless pop musicals epitomized by the work of Frank Wildhorn? Were Broadway audiences hungry for more adult fare? Did the growing prevalence of gay and lesbian characters on TV and in movies make audiences more comfortable with this material? Did Larson’s innocence and generosity of spirit come through these characters so warmly that audiences couldn’t help but care about them? Again, it’s impossible to know.
Some critics complained that there was no irony in the material, no cynicism, none of "Sondheim’s frosty intellectualism," as one critic put it, that everything in Rent was laid bare, right there on the surface. Perhaps that’s another reason why audiences embraced it.
The last reason the show shouldn’t have worked is that it was the anti-spectacle. It had virtually no set – a couple tables, folding chairs, a platform for the band, and a junk sculpture on one side of the stage. It’s costumes came from the actors’ own closets and from thrift stores. The show looked sparser and more low-budget than anything in years. This low-rent show (pun intended) opened at a time when the other hits on Broadway were Sunset Boulevard, Show Boat, Beauty and the Beast, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and a tastelessly overproduced Grease, expensive spectacles one and all. Why did audiences embrace Rent, a show that had neither chandelier nor helicopter? Then again, though Les Misérables had the turntable and barricade, many of its scenes were played on a bare stage. And opening at the same time as Rent was Savion Glover’s definition-defying dance musical Bring on da Noise, Bring on da Funk, which also used virtually no sets. Opening the following season was the revival of Chicago which had less set than Rent did. Maybe the time was just right. Maybe audiences were just ready. Maybe they were sick of empty calories.
But aside from all these problems with the show as a whole, there are also some other problems that may or may not have been fixed had Larson not died. Despite its much touted diversity – blacks, Latinos, gays and lesbians, cross-dressers, junkies – the two main characters (including the story’s narrator) are both straight white guys from suburbia, just like Larson was. Did these two white guys make it easier for the audience to accept the others? Were the others just tokens? People argued both sides of the issue.
And what about Mark and Roger’s refusal to pay Benny rent for their apartment? Why is that portrayed as such a gutsy gesture? Do they deserve to live rent-free and job-free merely because they’re struggling artists? And let’s not forget that they’re struggling artists by choice. They could get jobs. Larson did; he waited tables for a living. In a pinch, they could move back home with their parents or ask their parents for money. Their self-identification with the real homeless people seems artificial, and perhaps even a bit offensive. It’s safe to say that most of the homeless people living in the tent city on Benny’s lot are not there by choice, some probably suffering from mental illness, addiction, and who knows what else? Then again, this issue was raised over Hair – why were these kids panhandling on the streets when they came from middle class suburban homes, when most of them were college educated? Is it idealism, naiveté, or just arrogance when Mark and Roger declare they’re not going to pay rent this year or next even next year?
Back to the Future
Rent didn’t really break that much genuinely new ground (one might argue that Grief’s staging did more than Larson’s material), but like Oklahoma! fifty years earlier, its triumph was in bringing together what had gone before it, combining many past innovations all in one new work, and doing it with great skill, and more important, great success. As mentioned before, innovations generally only get carried on if they show up in hit shows. In fact, Larson’s great achievement and the reason for Rent’s enormous appeal to so many different kinds of people lies precisely in the heady mix of musical theatre traditionalism and innovation.
The show’s influences are many. Like the early musicals of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita) and the musicals of Schönberg and Boublil (Les Misérables, Miss Saigon), Rent is through-sung, with almost no spoken dialogue. This is certainly nothing new. Broadway’s pop operas have been around since the early 1970s and though their often over-blown spectacle has fallen out of vogue for the moment, the pop operas will no doubt continue. (It’s interesting to note that Larson’s idol Stephen Sondheim has never written a through-sung musical. Sondheim enjoys the back-and-forth between spoken dialogue and singing.) Like Lloyd Webber and Schönberg, Larson wrote self-contained songs as well as duets, group numbers (some with beautiful, carefully constructed counterpoint and harmonies), and operatic style recitative, using the structural vocabulary of classical opera with the harmonic and rhythmic language of rock. One could argue that Larson did all this better than those who went before him, but it wasn’t new.
(A pause here for some parenthetical comments about one of my greatest pet peeves. Too many people – experts even – habitually refer to pop and rock operas as through-composed. This is not correct. What they mean is through-sung, meaning that there is no dialogue, that everything is sung. Through-composed means something entirely different. It means that the music never repeats itself, that no two verses have the same music, that there are no reprises in Act II, that the composer writes different music for every moment. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a musical that is through-composed, although I’ve seen many that are through-sung. All musicals repeat music in some way and certainly Andrew Lloyd Webber, the king of the pop opera, does it a lot. Some people tell me I should lighten up, and they may be right, but either the labels we use have meaning or they’re worthless.)
Larson also wasn’t the first to adapt classical opera for the musical theatre. Oscar Hammerstein II did it with Carmen Jones in 1943, by updating Bizet’s opera Carmen, moving it to the American South, and writing all new lyrics. Jim Luigs and Scott Warrender did it in 1995 with Das Barbecü, which recast Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle as a country western musical comedy, but this was more parody than adaptation. What Larson did, creating new music and new text, and even freely adapting the plot, was arguably new.
In a very real way, Larson borrowed from the musicals of the 20s and 30s and the work of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and others, by writing in a genuine pop music style, a style that the audience hears in their everyday lives, a style that instantly makes the language of the musical accessible to the untrained ear. Surely today, no one can escape rock/pop music. It’s in the movies, in commercials, even in dentists’ offices. And like the songwriters of the 20s and 30s did, Larson tells his story in the musical language of the people, something Broadway has rarely done (or at least rarely done well) since the 1950s.
Larson followed the lead of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s early musicals (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific) by telling a story that directly addresses important social issues and problems. And as in Oklahoma!, Larson’s story is about a threat to the community; in Oklahoma! it’s Jud Fry, in Rent it’s AIDS. He used long-form musical scenes, which were first developed by Hammerstein, in Show Boat with Jerome Kern, and in Oklahoma! and Carousel with Richard Rodgers, a device perfected by Larson’s mentor Stephen Sondheim, most notably in Sweeney Todd. (And like Sondheim did in Sweeney, Larson even quoted the dies irae, a musical motif from the mass for the dead, in the song "La Vie Boheme." He also mentioned Sondheim in that song.) Larson also learned from Hammerstein’s example that the truly great writers always write what they believe. Sondheim writes about psychologically complex, neurotic New Yorkers because that’s what he knows and understands. Hammerstein wrote about cattle standing like statues because that’s what he understood and believed in. And like Hammerstein, Larson wrote with tremendous optimism, an almost embarrassing naivété, and a genuine love of life, because that’s who he was, despite living in the midst of the AIDS pandemic and watching many of his closest friends die. But like Sondheim, Larson also focused more than anything else on the way people connect (and fail to connect), one of the most important themes in Rent (as evidenced by Larson’s quote at the beginning of this chapter) and a theme Sondheim returns to in almost every one of his shows.
Larson followed in the footsteps of West Side Story in depicting the seamy, gritty side of life on the streets of New York, and in the footsteps of William Finn’s Falsettos trilogy in his matter-of-fact treatment of gay characters. Like Grand Hotel and Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Larson successfully manipulated numerous storylines, weaving them in and out of each other. He followed Cabaret and Company in their treatment of social issues and their use of commentary songs. He and Greif followed The Fantasticks and A Chorus Line by using virtually no set.
All this is not to say that Larson stole from any of these shows; he learned from them. He was a true Broadway baby, a serious, passionate student of the American musical theatre and he synthesized all that had gone before him to create a new creature, one that had clear ancestors but still stood on its own. He did in 1996 what Rodgers and Hammerstein did in 1943 with Oklahoma! – he knocked Broadway on its ass. We can only hope that, like Oklahoma!, Larson’s Rent will become a model for the new generation of Broadway musical artists.
It’s Between God and Me
What does Rent think about God and religion?
The one time religion is really invoked in Rent, early in "La Vie Bohème," it's held up for sustained mockery, including ironic quotes from the Latin mass and the Jewish prayer for the dead. Religion does not serve this community. The one time we see a representative of religion in the show, it's a nasty priest who's hassling Collins about paying for the funeral. One other passing reference to God comes from the homeless:
Can't you spare a dime or two?
Here but for the grace of God go you.
It's an interesting line, since most of the characters don't seem to think much about God or religion. But with homeless people singing these lines, it might remind us of Bill Maher's contention that it's easier for middle-class and wealthy people to be atheists; it's a luxury of sorts. Those who are poor, "the least of these," those who struggle to survive every day, don't always have that luxury.
Then, midway through "La Vie Bohème," we get this gem:
To sodomy –
It's between God and me.
While some might see the suggestions of a belief in God here, it's such a confrontational, aggressive statement that we can't take it at face value. These kids are telling us they think the rules of Leviticus and the rest of the Bible are silly and anachronistic. There's not even a hint of respect for those rules or their source here.
But aside from these few references, God and religion are mostly absent in this world. Take a look at the lyric of "Another Day":
There's only us,
There's only this.
Or life is yours to miss.
No other road,
No other way,
No day but today.
Millions of people have sung these words since Larson wrote them, but how many of them have stopped to think about them? Many people hear that lyric as just a reminder to live for the present, especially for these characters who have an uncertain future. But this lyric is saying a lot more than "Live in the present." This lyric does two jobs, both giving the community some context, in the form of the support group, and also doing some important character work between Mimi and Roger.
There's only us.
There's only this.
Could that be the show's – or Larson's – rejection of organized religion and "revealed word," rejection of a "merciful" God who brings AIDS down on his people, of various, conflicting codes of morality, of the moral cluelessness of a 2,000-year-old religion? There is no God, this lyric is telling us; there's only us. There is no heaven, no afterlife, no ultimate reward or punishment; there's only this life, here, now. Or as John Lennon put it:
Imagine there's no heaven;
It's easy if you try.
No hell below us,
Above us only sky.
Imagine all the people
Living for today...
Though some Rent fans may recoiling from this reading, the AIDS pandemic led a lot of people to question the existence of God. As Larson watched so many of his friends killed by the disease, as he saw "Christians" reject and condemn the gay community, as he heard the Religious Right claim AIDS was God's just punishment on gays, what must that have done to his ideas about God and religion? Or did he ever have any?
Or life is yours to miss.
Is that a call to reject notions of sin and divine punishment? After all, by definition, the act of repentance for sins is backward-looking. Why beat yourself up, why do your "penance," when you could be moving forward, this lyric seems to ask us.
No other road,
No other way,
No day but today.
Could this mean that the only way to truth, to happiness, to enlightenment is to live fully in the reality of today, not in the mythologies of thousands of years ago, not in the spiritual bamboozles of new mythologies, but instead in the divinity of plain old human connection, love, sex, generosity, forgiveness, kindness, joy, music? If there is spirituality in Rent, it's in the obviously named Angel. She brings out what is divine in Collins and the others. She shows us the road, this road that we're on, the one in front of us. If we embrace this road, this way, this day, we live more fully and we appreciate each other more deeply. The song goes on, and Mimi and the support group sing:
I can't control
I trust my soul.
My only goal
Is just to be.
Mimi may be a heroin addict, but she's also something of a philosopher. She has self-awareness, and perhaps that's her great tragedy. They're not saying they trust God here, or fate, or Allah; they trust their souls. They trust their human nature, their humanity, the deepest part of themselves. They don't strive to be sinless or righteous or morally upright, but "just to be," just to live life, to keep moving forward, to play out their own individual hero myth stories, each on his own individual road.
There's only now,
There's only here.
Give into love
Or live in fear.
There is no eternity, the lyric seems to argue; there's only now. There is no heaven, hell, or other plane of existence; there's only here. You can choose to live in love and joy and sunlight, or you can choose to live in fear and distrust and darkness. You can work to better the lives of your fellow humans, or you can live in fear of them and what they'll take from you.
No other path,
No other way,
No day but today.
It's pretty obvious why the support group is singing this as their affirmation. They have to find peace in living with AIDS. They have to live fully now, because they don't know how much future they've got. For Angel and Collins, that's freeing, and maybe it allows them to be themselves and accept themselves in a way they might not have otherwise. Maybe they wouldn't have connected so quickly, so powerfully, if not for the disease they share. And maybe the same is true for Roger and Mimi. They're sickness is their bond.
So why is Mimi singing this to Roger? Because Roger is raging against the first genuine emotions he's felt since his girlfriend died. He hasn't been able to "give into love" thus far, so he has "live[d] in fear." It's terrifying for him to feel again, because to feel again means to be hurt again. But Mimi has been hurt too. She really does understand what he feels. She knows that she can live in that pain or she can give into love, and she knows the same is true for Roger.
Mimi the addict-philosopher urges Roger not to think about what might happen, who might get hurt, where it all might end, and instead just focusing on being with her here, now, for as long as they've got. They don't really have a choice, other than to retreat into themselves. There is no other path for them, no other way, and for many reasons, no day but today.
More than anyone else, Rent is Roger's story. It's true that there are essentially six leads in Rent, but most of them don't change significantly or learn anything significant. Roger and Mimi do, and Mark and Maureen do also, to a lesser degree. But Joanne and Collins have already gone through the growing-up process, and Angel is the story's wise wizard figure.
Rent is Roger's hero myth. It's easy to get swept up in the joy and rowdiness of this show, the rich musical landscape, the quirky characters, and to miss the skillful, carefully wrought character arc that Larson constructed for Roger. Rent went through massive rewrites over several years, and though roughness is to some extent Rent's unique style, Larson did a lot of work on the show and put a great deal of time and thought into its construction. (In one early version, the show began with the funeral and then flashed back...) Once you look closely at Roger's arc, you can see how the whole show is built on that structure.
Roger is in enormous pain when we first meet him. He's been through a terrible tragedy – his girlfriend April gave him AIDS, then killed herself, just six months ago – and as many people do in horrific situations, he shuts down his feelings. He becomes an emotional zombie. He looks like a person on the outside, but he's dead inside. He's learned to function, and how to fake a smile. But he has cut himself off from life. He hasn't seen anyone but Mark in a really long time.
And he's just six months clean from his own heroin addiction. You don't get "cured" of heroin addiction. It's like alcoholism; it's with you for life. You just learn to control it. Maybe.
From the first moments of the show, we're introduced to Roger's "magic amulet" (like the ruby slippers and Luke's light saber), his Fender guitar. It's the only part of him not dead. It's the artist part of him that's hanging on. As long as he has the guitar, as long as his "one great song" isn't finished, he has a reason to get up tomorrow. Roger is unable to finish his song because he's emotionally crippled, but also because finishing his "one great song" would mean he could die. And deep down, that's not really what he wants.
He wants to live again. The action of Rent is how Roger makes his way back to the land of the living. It's about how Roger learns to be one of those "people living with, living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease."
Angel and Collins provide the "call to adventure" that begins every hero myth. Angel is Roger's wise wizard, his Glinda the Good Witch. And his faithful companions on his journey are his community. More than any other modern piece of musical theatre, in Rent, the community is a character – another way in which Larson followed the Rodgers & Hammerstein model. If Roger can just get out into the community, he will find again what was taken from him: real human connection.
Our reluctant hero resists that call at first, but then he gets a second call to adventure, this time a call to emotional (okay, and sexual and chemical) adventure, when Mimi barges into the loft. Roger resists again. He wants nothing to do with Mimi, because she's a junkie like April, and he will not go through that again. He must protect himself, his heart, his broken soul. Just as he protects himself from his addiction. After Mimi leaves, Roger realizes he likes her. But what does that mean to an emotional zombie? Might it mean that he's not a zombie after all?
He finally answers Angel's call to adventure, inviting Mimi along. And only then, when he risks, when he opens himself to the adventure, does something of value come back to him. Connection. And notice that our hero brings his magic amulet with him everywhere, to the flea market, to Maureen's performance, to the Life Cafe.
Roger and Mimi's duet "I Should Tell You" is the show's "obligatory moment," the moments toward which everything before it has led, and from which everything after it results. Take out that moment and the whole story collapses. Roger finally pries open the door to his heart, finally takes that brave step... and finds out Mimi also has AIDS. Just like April. Just like him. Part of him is terrified that he's finally letting himself feel again, and that it's going to be exactly like the last time. Nothing but pain. He knows it'll end the same way. He can't do that. He can't bear that kind of pain again. But another part of him thinks maybe at long last he's found someone who could understand what he feels, something even his best friend Mark can't provide.
There's such weight, such deep despair, such understanding when Roger finds out Mimi has AIDS and all he can say is, "Mimi..." He can't believe it. Once again, he falls for someone who's a junkie and who has AIDS, and once again, he knows, she'll die, leaving him alone again. And he knows he won't survive that. And yet who could better understand what he's been going through?
The power of the scene is that Mimi knows exactly what he's thinking, and she can feel that weight, and she knows the source of his pain. And she knows they could ease each other's pain. If only.
And then he chooses. ("Here goes...") The end of Act I of Rent feels a little like the end of Act II of Next to Normal – guardedly semi-optimistic. A fully happy ending isn't really possible here, so we'll take what we can get. Yes, there will be pain. As Next to Normal tells us, "It's the price we pay to feel." And as the act ends, Roger and Mimi join the others in celebrating life at the Life Cafe.
End of Act I...
Unlike most stories, a big part of Roger's hero's journey is skipped, as we race through most of the year in Act II. We're left to fill in those blanks, assume a progression (and disintegration) of Roger and Mimi's relationship, but Larson does a great job of connecting all the dots for us.
Roger's real moment of self-discovery comes in the double interior monologue he shares with Mark, "What You Own" in Act II, and in their fight leading up to it. In each hero myth, the hero has to gain some new wisdom from the trials he's been through and he must return to his village to share his new wisdom. But first he has to hit rock bottom. Everything that Roger needed is being taken away. In the song-scene "Goodbye, Love," Roger and Mark have a real fight, and in pointing out each other's flaws and frauds, they each gain some self-awareness. It takes a fight for them to finally say all this, to finally open up. They sing:
So I own not a notion.
I escape and ape content.
I don't own emotion – I rent.
What was it about that night?
Connection – in an isolating age.
For once the shadows gave way to light,
For once I didn't disengage.
Dying in America
At the end of the millennium.
We're dying in America
To come into our own.
But when you're dying in America
At the end of the millennium,
You're not alone.
I'm not alone.
Or as Sondheim would put it, "No one is alone." Mark and Roger are coming to realize that we all go through trials. We all suffer. We all grieve. And we all know we're not alone. Notice the shift from "living in America" earlier in the song, to "dying in America," and then to "dying... to come into our own." It's the hero's progression from mere existence, to challenge and danger, to finding your own place in the world.
But Roger has not finished his journey. He has not yet become a man. If he doesn't own his emotion, how can he write a love song?
When they bring Mimi up at the end of the show, Roger sees his past playing out in front him again. It's all happening exactly as before. And then he makes a different choice. Instead of giving in to the grief, as he did with April, here he fights it. He rises up to slay the dragon. Roger's song – or more accurately, the genuine love that his song expresses – is the kiss the Prince gives the Disney Princess that saves her life. He hasn't been able to write the song before now, because he wasn't yet capable of mature love. Now he is. He's growing up.
Now Roger is no longer passive. He has chosen to be active. He has chosen to act to save another. He has become heroic... in a small, urban, Alphabet-City, kind of way. He has grown up, and now he can love someone fully. But like Matt in The Fantasticks, Roger first had to get beat up by the world.
Larson's decision to give Roger such a heavy backstory was one of his most important choices. The existence of April in the story changes it, and elevates it well beyond both the maudlin, emotional pornography of the opera and the subversive but shallow comedy of the novel on which the musical and the opera are based. April gives Roger weight. In the opera, Rodolfo seeks romance; in the novel, Rudolphe seeks sex.
Roger seeks connection.
At the beginning of the show, Roger's song had to be written before he dies. It's connected with ending. At the end of the show, his new song has to be written to express real love. Now it's connected to beginning. All through the show, as a running joke, Roger keeps trying to write this song, but it always ends up sounding like "Musetta's Waltz" from La Bohème. (How meta!) Now that Roger has grown up emotionally – or at least, is growing up – now he can integrate his obstacle into his journey, and now a quote from "Musetta's Waltz" shows up as an integrated instrumental break in the middle of his love song, "Your Eyes." Instead of being stymied by it, he has conquered it. Instead of being trapped by the past, he now integrates the past into the present.
Also notice that Roger's first big song, "One Song Glory" is all about Roger. He even refers to himself in the song, in the third person. This is a shallow sentiment. He wants glory. He thinks he's capable of "truth like a blazing fire." Not yet he isn't. But by the end of the show, he's grown up and his last big song, "Your Eyes," is all about Mimi. It's about connection.
Ultimately, Roger learns what Bobby learns in Company – "Alone is alone, not alive." Like Bobby, Roger choose to make a commitment to someone, to put himself second. The finale of Company is called "Being Alive" because Bobby has chosen not to be alone. The goal isn't to find the perfect person. The goal isn't to get married. The goal is to be alive. At the end of Rent, Roger choose to be alive. He takes all that he's learned on his journey and he chooses connection. It's not a Happily Ever After, because in real life there's always a next chapter... until there isn't. But it is a resolution.
The (Second) Age of Aquarius
Jonathan Larson was born and died under the sign of Aquarius, fitting for the man who wanted to write the Hair for the 90s. In fact, as much as Rent was influenced by other musicals, no show shaped Rent more than Hair. The two shows are alike in so many ways. Both originated off-Broadway and moved to Broadway. Both intentionally cast some actors who had no stage experience at all. Both used costumes that came from thrift stores and actors’ closets to add a sense of realism. Neither show had much set. Both shows were a weird mix of concert and musical (like the subsequent off-Broadway sensation Hedwig and the Angry Inch), with both scores relying to some degree on list songs (even sharing some of the same references – sodomy, marijuana, Ginsberg, Antonioni, and others). Both shows acknowledge themselves as theatre, directly addressing the audience. In Rent, Mark actually speaks many of the stage directions. In Hair, the actors interact with the audience. Both shows are about drugs (marijuana in Hair, heroin in Rent), death (Vietnam in Hair, AIDS in Rent), and a strong sense of community as family. Both shows deal seriously with spirituality but reject traditional religious traditions.
Both shows also rejected traditional Broadway staging techniques and both borrowed techniques from the experimental theatre movement, because both directors came from the experimental theatre community. In fact, the static, presentational staging of "Seasons of Love" in Rent was considered revolutionary by some but it’s taken directly from the staging of "Let the Sun Shine In" in Hair. Both shows were perceived to have plot problems (no plot in Hair, a messy plot in Rent), and in fact, both shows were meant to feel messy and unpolished.
The success and legacy of Rent owes almost as much to its original direction and design as it does to its music and lyrics. Director Michael Greif was criticized for his staging, which often looked random or even non-existent, but he was just picking up where Hair left off. Greif was creating a new kind of musical theatre staging, a theatrical equivalent to cinéma vérité, the documentary style of filmmaking in which no directorial control is evident, in which real life is merely recorded without being manipulated. Now, obviously, it’s tough for a musical to be completely natural because most people don’t break into song spontaneously, and even fewer have a band to back them up. But Greif got as close to cinéma vérité as musical theatre can get, aiming for the impression that these actors are making it up as they go, that they’ve assembled on this nearly empty stage and are acting out their lives for us. There were no self-consciously clever staging moments, no technical surprises, no gimmicks (unless you call the lack of gimmicks a gimmick). In all these ways, it picked up the central ideas of Hair. It was different, it was startling, and it was scary to musical theatre traditionalists. Greif has said that he staged "Seasons of Love" first and the sparse, static staging of that number then determined the look of the rest of the show.
Just as the authors of Hair, Jim Rado and Gerry Ragni, used their lives and the lives of their friends as material, Larson did the same with Rent. As mentioned earlier, many small details of his life found their way into the show, as did the names of friends lost to AIDS. And Roger and Mark are clearly two sides of Larson, both the artist-observer and the artist determined to leave behind something of value. Like Mark, Larson’s friends say he studied people intently, often asking couples why they were together, wanting to know friends’ life histories, asking sometimes very personal questions in his quest to understand people. A friend says that on the last night of his short life, Larson told him that he had learned from an HIV-positive friend that it’s not how many years a person lives that counts; it’s how you fulfill the time you spend here, a philosophy Larson certainly shared with Roger. Larson also injected his hopelessly sunny disposition and impossible optimism into Angel, the heart of Rent. Though Larson died, he lives on in these characters.
Like Hair, Rent is about the things its creator thought were important. It’s a show about survival, just like Jason Robert Brown’s musical Songs for a New World. Perhaps the message of this generation is that the real heroism is in living, in just making it from one day to the next, against greater odds than a more generous universe would allow. Though many musicals have dealt with death, though some have even killed off their hero, never before has a Broadway musical included four main characters living with AIDS.
And still, the show rarely focuses on death and rarely gets depressing. It’s uplifting even as it deals frankly with tragedy. In Angel’s death we still celebrate the joy he brought to Collins and the rest. Rent deals in spiritually even though it doesn’t mention God. The church of Rent is Life itself – the Life Café, Angel’s group Life Supports, the life teeming through the streets of New York City, the life force that rages through each character as they all struggle to survive. Mark’s song "Halloween" asks why this extended family of friends was brought together and the answer is that they are each other’s church, each other’s reason for celebration and for thanks. Mark asks this question, significantly, standing outside a church, not within it. Mainstream religion does not offer this generation what it seeks. Like the generation of Hair thirty years earlier, their answers aren’t in the Bible; their answers are in the sense of family and community they all share.
And like Hair, Rent is not just about a community of characters, it’s also about the community of artists who created it. Just as each cast of Hair takes a tribal name and becomes a family in very real ways, so too does each cast of Rent form deep, lasting bonds. It’s the nature of the material.
The Legacy of Rent
Rent’s legacy is tough to estimate just a few years after its opening. Certainly, it will ruin the voices of a generation of singers. Because the producers want actors who don’t feel like actors (as Larson wanted), many of them are untrained and don’t know how to warm up their voices and bodies before a show, how to rest their voices on days off, how to prepare their bodies for a kind of abuse few people ever experience. Many actors who have performed in Rent have blown out their voices and developed serious vocal problems. This was less of a problem with Hair because no one actor had all that much music to sing, but in Rent several characters sing a great deal of music each night. In August 1997, the New York Times did an article on absenteeism in Rent and in Savion Glover’s Noise/Funk. At some performances of Rent, as many as nine out of fifteen cast members would be missing. This had also been a problem with Hair, but due more to drugs than to sore throats.
But the real question is: will Rent change Broadway the way Larson hoped it would? So far it hasn’t. Would it have been different if Larson had lived? Maybe. Who knows what his next show would have been like? Then again, maybe Larson’s other shows wouldn’t have made it to Broadway. Maybe they wouldn’t have been the near masterpiece that Rent was. The other young composers making their marks on Broadway are following more in the tradition of Sondheim’s sophisticated, complex musicals than following Larson’s populist lead. Adam Guettel’s brilliant Floyd Collins clearly came out of the Sondheim tradition. Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World was heavily pop and R&B-influenced, but Brown’s Parade was closer to Sondheim. Frank Wildhorn’s musicals, Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and others, came directly out of the Top 40 sound, but they don’t succeed as theatre, really amounting to nothing more than Star Search with a slight story, so he won’t be the heir to Larson’s legacy. Maybe the only hope resides in a new voice we haven’t heard yet, that will appear on the scene as suddenly as Larson’s did, who will finish the work of putting musical theatre and pop music back together again, without sacrificing the integrity of either, the way Larson did so brilliantly and so lovingly.
Copyright 2001. Excerpt from Scott Miller’s book Rebels with Applause. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals., Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, and From Assassins to West Side Story.