From the day it opened on Broadway, I longed to see the musical Rent. I don’t know why, I knew absolutely nothing about it. The name certainly intrigued me, with its stark simplicity. But life got busy. Rent came and went, and I missed it—until this past year. A local theater company with a solid reputation acquired the rights to stage the musical. It was playing just blocks from my house, and on my birthday. Guess what I asked for? It was kismet: I was finally going to see Rent. But was it too late? Had the moment passed?
Although I saw it off Broadway, Rent now stands as my favorite Broadway musical ever. The characters are edgy with an in-your-face rebelliousness. The story line encapsulates a rather intense period in history, and the music is beat-driven. This is fuel injected musical theater!
Rent tells the story of a group of friends who live in a world pervaded by the A.I.D.S. epidemic. They are unconventional, struggling artists, most of whom are H.I.V. positive. In these early days of H.I.V. (1990’s) this was a death sentence. The fact that the musical is loosely based on La Boheme is almost moot: it stands entirely on its own. The challenge of these friends is how to live creative and contented lives while sick and surrounded by death and poverty. To complicate matters even more, they want to accomplish this without “selling out.”
Rent is a tonic for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, and for all of us who need to be reminded that life may be short and each moment must be savored. The most well-known song in the show is probably “Seasons of Love” (which I recently heard used on a TV commercial, much to my distress). But there are so many others. Each time I listen to the CD, another song emerges as a favorite. One can celebrate the raucous mayhem of “La Vie Boheme” or shake one’s head at the cynical but true “What You Own.” It is no wonder to me that “Rentheads” return to see the show again and again. While each character and song is unique, the show itself is the star.
I do wish that I had read a brief synopsis of the story of Rent before seeing it. Most of the story is told in song, and if you miss a lyric, you may miss a nuance of the plot. The spirit of the musical, however, cannot be missed. Despite its underlying sadness, Rent is a celebration of friendship and of life. You won’t be able to get the songs out of your head. And you’ll want to wring the stuffing out of every minute you have: this is Rent’s special gift. Still relevant? No question!