I know I am not alone on this…but I also know that I would be facing a passionate fan base that has been worshipping this show since its premiere in the mid-90s and anyone who may have discovered it in the years after during its continued 10+ year run in New York.
When I was in high school (circa 2003-2007), there were two musicals that seemed to drive those in my theatre department crazy: one was WICKED which was still pretty brand new at the time, but the other was the show I began describing, which was RENT. In fact, one of the guys referred to any time in which he wasn’t listening to RENT was having “RENT withdrawals”.
I do feel like I should tread lightly with this, because I cannot deny the importance of RENT and what it does still mean to many, many people. Its phenomenon was very close to that of the one that HAMILTON is experiencing today and that of the one A CHORUS LINE had before it.
RENT was the first true “rock & roll” musical to truly succeed in Broadway (or, at least, the first to sustain power after HAIR) and in addition to that, it dealt closely with such issues as drug addiction and AIDS at a time when it was still incredibly fresh in the minds of the New York community in particular.
I will say that a lot of my personal criticisms of RENT also stem from a matter of musical tastes, because I have always been drawn to the darker character pieces written by composers like Stephen Sondheim or certain selections by Maury Yestonor William Finn. I don’t typically end up wanting to revisit musicals with “rock” sensibilities (although some exceptions include HEDWIG or BLOODY, BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON)….but I do still like some of the songs from RENT. I think my biggest problem is strictly based on the character dynamics in that I don’t find myself particularly caring about a lot of them…and the ones I DO care about, are the ones who ended up facing extreme heartbreak or death (Collins and Angel, respectfully).
A lot of the issues for me, and I know I am not the only one who has expressed this concern so I know I am not necessarily expressing anything new or groundbreaking, stem from the character of Benny.
He is portrayed as a sell-out who betrayed his friends for the good life…and sure, while some of his dialogue/songs give him a condescending tone, I don’t exactly HATE him. In fact, you sort of see him as a person who chose to make something of his life rather than be an underachiever.
I also know that saying “underachiever” also undermines the fact that the people I am referring to here are “starving artists” which is a lifestyle I know of all too well…but the big difference is that I PAY MY RENT! Have I and do I struggle? Obviously I do, and that is even having a steady paying full time job.
Would I love the chance to just not pay my rent? Hell yes! What kind of question is that?! It would be a dream for everyone, especially in my age group, to catch a break and be able to rebuild their lives considering we’ve been drowning in student loan debt, among other things.
I get the appeal of wanting to “stick it to the man” but there is a certain entitlement to these characters who feel like they deserve to coast by for months on end not paying their rent.
In terms of other characters in the piece, I feel like there are a lot of problems with Maureen, who is built up throughout Act One and then she is introduced as a bombastic performance artist who doesn’t seem to have any real interest or feelings in those she has been involved with: Mark and then Joanne. I think Joanne is another example of a character that is portrayed as something of a straight-laced well-adjusted professional…and just like Benny; Joanne is typically played by a black performer. I actually find it interesting that this is often how they are cast; on one hand, it seems admirable that two black people are being shown as having their heads above water and making something good of their lives…however, the problem with RENT is that they are presented as the “killjoys”.
My two favorite characters in the show, Collins and Angel, are usually cast as Black and Hispanic…and their new love affair feels both equally sweet and passionately sensual….and then Angel dies from AIDS, which leads to the show’s most heartbreaking and emotional scene where Collins sings a reprise of their earlier duet “I’ll Cover You”, which also happens to be my favorite song from the musical. Sure, the death of Angel was profound and it made me cry the first time I saw RENT, but it also seemed incredibly manipulative…especially when you take into account that the two leads of the piece are STRAIGHT. WHITE. MEN.
The legend of RENT was also buoyed up by the fact that its creator, Jonathan Larson, suddenly passed away at the age of 35 on the same morning that RENT was due to premiere off-Broadway. While some people over the years have grown to think that he actually died of AIDS (which I have encountered a handful of times), he actually died of aortic dissection which is something that he actually could have had fixed but he was not properly diagnosed when he originally sought medical treatment.
His death gave the musical a significant boost in terms of press and attention and within a couple of months, its off-Broadway run turned into a sudden run on Broadway at the then-somewhat dilapidated Nederlander Theatre which is situated on W 41st St. At the time, this street was considered even seedier than that of 42nd Street and in some ways, the success of RENT along the restoration of the New Amsterdam Theatre and eventual cleanup of Times Square, helped revitalize the safety of that particular part of the city.
Before he passed, Larson had expressed that RENT was inspired by the legendary opera LA BOHEME and indeed, certain situations and characters names are connected and reworked to fit the new setting of the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the peak of the AIDS crisis.
However, there is one aspect about RENT that becomes bothersome to me and that is the fact that Larson did indeed take a lot of inspiration from Puccini’s opera but that was especially linked to the straight people of the story. It becomes more hairy if you were to read a plot description of a book that was published in 1990 and is now out of print: PEOPLE IN TROUBLE by Sarah Schulman.
In an article written for the Chicago Tribune in 1997, they began with this plot synopsis:
“Here’s the story: A self-involved East Village performance artist dumps her male lover for a lesbian social activist, leaving the guy in a funk, and creates a performance piece that targets an avaricious landlord and causes a riot. All around them, people are dying of AIDS and neglect. Their best buds, a gay male couple in which one of the guys in HIV Positive is eventually consumed by the disease. His death now adds meaning to the lives of the survivors, who are redeemed by love”.
So, as we know, Maureen is a performance artist who dumps Mark in favor of a woman. They are also challenging their landlord Benny while many around them are crumbling due to AIDS and drug abuse…and let’s not forget, Collins and Angel are the gay couple with the latter eventually dying of AIDS.
The big problem is that the plot description above was for Sarah Schulman’s book PEOPLE IN TROUBLE and not for RENT.
The whole thing becomes even stickier when it was said that Jonathan Larson actually read this book, which was only a modest success but loved by many that read it.
The same article from above, which was written by Achy Obejas, had an interview with Michael Korie, who was known as an Opera Librettist who had worked closely with Schulman on a stage treatment of her novel. He claims that Larson told him in 1994 that he read Schulman’s book while he was finishing up his first drafts of RENT.
Korie asked him if he had heard of PEOPLE IN TROUBLE which Larson, seeming somewhat surprised, apparently said “It’s funny you should mention that…I didn’t think too many people were familiar with it” and added that he took inspiration from it while writing his own piece. Korie didn’t think much of it at the time, but soon after both he and Schulman realized that he, essentially “ripped her off”.
Now, of course, Larson’s death added a whole new level of mystique to this as they now had to deal with the Larson estate rather than Larson himself. The Estate Lawyer released a statement saying:
“I’ve never heard of Sarah Schulman and I’ve never heard of Jonathan being familiar with her book. No one has a copyright over AIDS, the East Village, homosexuality, performance art, or watch alarms”.
*Watch alarms referred to the timed regiment in which AIDS victims needed to be reminded to take their medication
Schulman, a truly dynamic and fascinating woman it must be said, was one of the first to challenge RENT for the fact that, aside from the similarities to her own work, she claimed that it was problematic for the reason that it takes a lot of the focus off of the LGBTQ characters and focuses on the straight white filmmaker and another straight white musician (although, unlike Mark, he was infected with HIV via his girlfriend, who committed suicide after she learned her diagnosis).
I do think a story like Roger’s is worth being told but I feel like the significant focus and how a lot of the story is seen through Mark’s eyes is what made RENT seem even less soulful than it could have been…and it was something I never even fully realized until recently.
The Schulman controversy, which can be read about at more length in another book of hers called STAGESTRUCK: THEATRE, AIDS, AND THE MARKETING OF GAY AMERICA, is not the only controversy that RENT ended up facing.
While RENT was being prepped at the New York Theatre Workshop, they hired a dramaturg named Lynn Thomson to help Larson rework the musical. She claimed that just a couple of months before his death in January 1996 that she and Larson sat down to rewrite a significant portion of RENT in October 1995. She stated that while Larson was incredibly gifted as a composer, the musical had no real cohesive structure and that she helped give the show its core.
With that, she ended up suing the Larson Estate (something that Schulman actually didn’t do) seeking $40 million and 16% in the show’s royalties. Not much is known about the settlement that eventually occurred out of court, but during the original case, the judge ruled against her and gave full credit back to Jonathan Larson.
One has to wonder how this would’ve panned out had Larson not passed away. Could Thomson’s claim have been one of greed? I do feel she contributed something to the process of RENT but I know I don’t have any right to say what or how much that might be.
I do think Sarah Schulman has more of a case due to the fact that her novel has so many striking similarities that you can’t even deny it. When I first heard it, I really thought it WAS the synopsis of RENT.
As it stands, RENT remains one of the biggest legends and most beloved musicals to come from the NY Theatre scene…it is a juggernaut that is up there with FIDDLER, HELLO DOLLY, GREASE, A CHORUS LINE, CATS, PHANTOM, MISS SAIGON, THE PRODUCERS, THE BOOK OF MORMON, and HAMILTON in terms of its cultural staying power.
I do think a lot of RENT can be problematic…and I even thought that before I learned about the controversies from Schulman and Thomson, but I also acknowledge its importance in that it did inspire and provoke a lot of new musical theatre fans.
I acknowledge that I am often snobby when it comes to musicals. I was the closet case high schooler who was pushing the likes of musicals like THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA or GREY GARDENS over SPAMALOT or SPRING AWAKENING and felt Sondheim was God and that Andrew Lloyd Webber mostly wrote schlock material (although I STILL stand behind that statement). RENT did move in many ways, but the true heartfelt moments felt drowned out by the characters that I felt less compelled by (Mark, Mimi, Maureen…and to a lesser extent, Roger) instead of the ones I wished more time would be given to (Collins, Angel).
In terms of very personal work…not to mention a show that had a more modern musical score…I have always been more drawn to Jonathan Larson’s “tick…tick…BOOM!” which took a lot from his own personal life while he was still a waiter at the now defunct Moondance Diner in SoHo. I always recommend people to check out that musical if they’ve never listened to it, and thanks to the power of Lin Manuel Miranda, we will soon be getting a Netflix film of it…hopefully it turns out well.
One last thing about RENT:
Part of me does feel like I am too hard on it, primarily because of its importance in how it did shine a light on a certain community in a big way…but I will always feel like it suffers from the entitlement of its main characters (particularly its straight white leads) at the expense of the true heart and soul of the piece: Collins and Angel.