Rent opened on Broadway in 1996 to much critical acclaim, and boasts numerous awards including, but not limited to, a Pulitzer and several Tony’s. Rent first entered my own life through the far less celebrated 2007 production dubbed ‘Rent Remixed’. I was 16, a massive musical theatre geek, and slowly coming to terms with my own queerness. Understandably, I was enchanted by everything that Rent represented.
Rent is a story about the AIDS crisis and gentrification set in Manhattan’s Alphabet City. The characters make up a chosen family of sorts; they’re artists, academics and idealists pushing towards some sort of intangible bohemian ideal. Whilst their exact aims are unclear it seems a lot of their belief system boils down to living for the moment and not ‘selling out’.
Musical theatre that claims to represent some sort of uprising or revolution isn’t anything new, however the salient difference between Rent and shows like Les Miserables, or even Hamilton, is that the latter depict historical revolutions that are very unlikely to upset the values of the average theatre goer, who can afford to shell out for tickets. The issues in Rent were very much contemporary to it’s opening in 1996, which could easily mean that the very people that Rent was attempting to take to task were sitting in the grand circle. However, Rent avoids this quandary by presenting the most palatable of revolutions that ultimately disrupts nothing.
In her video essay ‘Look Pretty and Do As Little as Possible’, film critic Lindsay Ellis explains the problems with Rent:
“The stage musical is a popular format to try and capture the discontent of the something […] shows like this have romantic ideas in the guise of revolution but none of them challenge any existing power structures in a way that might alienate the wealthy audience. […] [These musicals] frame themselves as revolutionary but continue to push the voice worldview and values of the status quo in this case middle class white kids who want to pass off their home movies as a true art. […] because Broadway shows are so uniquely expensive in terms of consumable art they have to walk a fine line between being trendy and maybe even little edgy but not enough to put the people with money outside of their comfort zones.”
Rent is supposed to be a story about the AIDS crisis, but really it is primarily a story about gentrification. The strange cognitive dissonance of Rent is only amplified when you realise that it’s Mark and Maureen, the middle class white characters, who are portrayed as the victims of gentrification, being priced out of their homes and work spaces. Lindsay Ellis remarked:
“There’s something kind of disingenuous when we have a narrative about the AIDS crisis, and the Machine we’re raging against isn’t the FDA or pharmaceutical companies or an indifferent political machine, but gentrification. Namely gentrification that affects the privileged white characters, and the face of the encroaching gentrifying class is a black man who is pricing out the white boys… which is another issue altogether”
Rent isn’t the musical that the AIDS crisis deserves, but that isn’t to say the subject matter is wholly inappropriate or that it can never be done well (I for one eagerly anticipate the inevitable musical adaptation of Pride). It’s just Rent fails to capture the reality of the epidemic and instead focuses on sticking it to ‘the man’. Lindsay Ellis asserted:
“The reality of the AIDS epidemic does not work as a fuck the system musical because rejecting the system was not what eventually changed it what changed it was holding the system to account.”
Despite how aware I’ve become of Rent’s numerous failings and missteps, I still frequently find myself feeling just as enamoured with it as I initially was ten years ago. The first act of Rent takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and it’s still on the very short list of pieces of media that portrays both Christmas and queer people. Seeing Joanne, Maureen, Collins and Angel get to come together for the holidays with the family they chose is just as affirming for me to see now as it was the first time. Rent isn’t the best musical, it isn’t the best story and there are lots of issues with the palatable sort of rebellion that it present. But where Rent unquestionably succeeds is its unapologetic portrayals of queer people.
Essentially this is why, despite all my problems with the Rent, I will be sitting down to watch it yet again this Christmas.