20 Years Later, RENT Resonates Through Timeless Themes

When RENT opened in 1996, its glum stage reflected East Village settings
mired in poverty, addiction, and disease. Twenty years later, luxury condos
replace tenements, and foodies dine where squatters sought shelter.

Suddenly, criticism suggesting gentrification rendered Rent irrelevant mirrors
main character fears about progress.

Composer, Jonathan Larson, wrote the show, in part, as a memorial to friends
who died during the first wave of the AIDS epidemic. Rent is a snapshot of
dismal Alphabet City living conditions in which drug dealers thrived on urban
blight. Gentrification and AIDS survival rates have challenged Rent’s
relevance in the 21st century, but while the show might be of an era, it is not
bound by era.

RENT has forged an indelible connection with fans through common themes
and music as diverse as its characters. Although Larson wrote a show which
reflects his experiences, his overarching messages elevate Rent from
personal to universal.

Yet as with anything popular, detractors bear their fangs. Caroline Framke of
Vox Culture writes Rent’s relevance has withered because it “embodies the
90’s.” Framke argues, “its status as an important piece of art has devolved
from musical wunderkind to frequent punchline.” She goes on to suggest the
soundtrack is too influenced by grunge music the short shelf-life of which traps
the piece in a time capsule. Considering Rent grandfathered shows such
as Next to Normal and Spring Awakening, and served as an inspiration to Lin-
Manuel Miranda (In the Heights and Hamilton), it is hard to accept Rent as
homeless within today’s pop culture landscape.

Naysayers might also cite the extent to which fewer lives than ever before are
claimed by AIDS, but Jonathan Larson wrote the show to memorialize friends
lost during the first wave of the syndrome he incorporated into his masterpiece
as a modern day Tuberculosis.

If written today, characters stricken with HIV might not face so grim a fate.
Characters who took only azidothymidine (AZT) would now take it in a
“cocktail” as HIV becomes AZT resistant over time. It is possible imminent
doom dilutes Larson’s message to appreciate each moment, a motif strewn
throughout Rent’s music.

Such perspective is short sighted when considering the extent to which Rent
is about love, loss, and community. No matter the context, those themes are
boundless. They were relevant to Rodolfo in La Bohème, Larson’s inspiration
for Rent; remained so in Rent, and will be as long as human hearts beat.

Roger, a character originated by Adam Pascal, is imprisoned by pain and
isolation caused by his HIV status and the death of his love, April. Only when
Roger accepts love from his makeshift family, and allows romance to
permeate him again does he experience a renaissance of purpose and
creativity. We relate to the dangers of isolation, and the extent to which we are
revitalized when we permit ourselves to be fostered by community. Roger is
saved when he opens himself to vulnerability created by risk of loss.
Original Broadway Cast of Rent in 1996

Fewer people may die from AIDS today, but what makes Rent timeless is the
understood impact of loss, best depicted in the show through the death of
Angel, soulmate of Tom Collins. Angel’s death is an emotional apex as each
audience member empathizes not only with grief, but with fear of dignity
stripped by the indignity of disease.

RENT also posits the value of mindfulness. Larson implores us to not look far
behind, or ahead. In mental health, focus on the past is associated with
depression while worry about the future is connected to anxiety. Perhaps Rent
best personifies the value of mindfulness through the death of Jonathan
Larson on the eve of previews. That he never savored the success of his
master work implores us to appreciate every moment.

Perhaps none of Rent’s themes resonates more than love as a minefield of
peril and bliss as tumult within romantic love flavors the narrative. It is
portrayed through Joanne and Maureen’s struggle to accept each other’s
individuality, a concept familiar to any couple or couple’s therapist. It is further
displayed through Angel and Collins, who shelter each other from the ravages
of AIDS; and through the complex romance of Roger and Mimi. When each
lets the other in, Roger is reborn, and Mimi turns away from needles.

Decades after the curtain first raised at the Nederlander Theater, the cast
remains connected. Adam Pascal tours frequently with Anthony Rapp, as they
will for a series of concerts later this year celebrating 20 Years of
Friendship. Pascal also tours on occasion with original Mimi, Daphne Rubin
Vega, where the two rekindle chemistry through songs composed for Rent.
Those tunes are always an emotional high point.

Rent will also be celebrated this year with a 20th Anniversary Tour through
several American cities, and a quick internet search reveals current
productions of the show are widespread.

Jonathan Larson composed a transcendent musical the notes of which touch
anyone who has loved and lost. Those who have seen Rent, from theater
dilettantes dragged on dates, to RENT-heads who ritualized the daily ticket
lottery, understand life is best measured by our connections to one another as
our lives lose meaning without a community to give attestation.

Revivals, tours, and community theater productions ensure Larson’s vision
remains in public consciousness. There is also a commissioned High School
edition, ensuring his work lives through student artists who embrace the
notion, “The Opposite of War Isn’t Peace. It’s Creation,” an ideal sure to live in

RENT is not a dated punchline from a long gone era. On the contrary, it is a
timeless musical whose themes of love, loss, and the value of community
bridge generational gaps, and will continue to do so while it emphasizes the
importance of individuality in a time when we continue to struggle to embrace
diversity and acceptance.

Catch The 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT at Purdue University Sunday, October 13 at Elliott Hall of Music.