RENT, the musical by Jonathan Larson, is one of my favorite musicals of all time. I’ve listened to a lot of musicals—and at this point, I can’t really name them all. But RENT makes it near the top of my favorites, because of its music, plot, and beautifully fleshed out characters.
RENT tells the story of a group of starving artists living in Lower Manhattan’s East Village, from 1989 to 1990. During this period, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was wiping out thousands of people not only in the US, but all over the world. It was a devastating epidemic, and even today, around 35 million people have passed due to HIV/AIDS since 1981. This epidemic plays a huge role in the story of RENT, as different characters—Roger, Mimi, Angel, and Collins—are living with it, and one of them eventually passes away during the musical.
The main characters include Mark, a filmmaker; Roger, his roommate and a musician; Mimi, a dancer at the local club; Angel, a drag queen and performer; Tom Collins, a professor; Maureen, a performer and actress; and Joanne, a lawyer and Maureen’s partner. All of them struggle to achieve their dreams, and this musical shows the struggle and the cost of wanting to achieve those dreams. RENT shows the discrimination and the stigma that surrounded HIV/AIDS during this time. This same stigma caused the real life deaths of so many people around the world. A disease that could’ve been stopped and prevented sooner, wasn’t, all because of discrimination. And the cost? Countless human lives.
This is what Jonathan Larson set out to do when he wrote RENT. He lived in the same village the characters lived in, and he wanted to put out something that people could relate to. He based the experiences of the characters, especially the ones living with HIV/AIDS, on some of his own friends. Although, this was very controversial and experimental at the time. He wanted to write a rock musical, and those were rare—even never done before. It took him so many years and work to complete RENT and eventually have it produced and performed. The most heartbreaking thing about it all is that he passed away the night RENT was going to be debuted. He put in all his work, and never got to reap the fruits of his labor.
But even so, RENT continues to be one of the most beloved musicals in the world, and a classic. So many productions have been performed around the world, and its been translated into so many languages. It also became a movie in 2005. The reason why RENT became so popular and beloved was because it was so real. You could feel the pain these characters were facing, you could relate to their loss, and you could relate to the joys they experienced together. The message RENT is trying to tell us is that no day is promised. No day is promised, and we need to cherish our lives with the people we love, and that is such a beautiful statement.
No day but today!Another Day, from RENT