20 years ago today, a masterpiece premiered on Broadway.
Jonathan Larson’s musical RENT was a revelation, it shook up the world in the same ways that Hamilton is taking the world by storm now. It spoke to the trials of the age in a way that the generation of the 90s’ could relate to. Set in the end of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s’ as the decade concludes, RENT follows a group of starving artists and performers as they attempt to make their way, love each other, and somehow, find a way to love themselves.
The main characters are hugely important, as are all main characters, but they are offset by a huge ensemble of talented individuals as well.
The story of RENT is just as much about the ensemble, who play a variety of roles including the homeless, and the parents of various main characters, as it is about the city itself. The set is sparse, depicting anything from Mark and Roger’s apartment, to the streets of NYC, to the performance space where Maureen hosts her protest. Any set changes are made by the cast carrying something onstage, and the band is onstage as well, hidden in the corner, rocking out through most of the show.
RENT focuses mostly on these guys:
Mark and Roger. Roger is a former band frontman and Guitarist. He’s been in withdrawal for a year preceding the events of the musical, “His girlfriend April left a note, saying ‘We’ve got AIDS’ before slitting her wrists in the bathroom..” He’s a recovered drug addict, and afraid of finding love again, in his mind, he’s just going to die anyway, so why connect? Mark is a filmmaker, having decided to just film his friends and see what comes of it, most of the story is narrated by him, an outsider, who is inside the group. The first lines of the musical are spoken by Mark (The quirky redhead on the left 🙂 )
“We begin on Christmas Eve with me, Mark, and my roommate, Roger. We
live in an industrial loft on the corner of 11th street and Avenue B, the top
floor of what was once a music publishing factory. Old rock ‘n’ roll posters
hang on the walls. They have Roger’s picture advertising gigs at CBGB’s and
the Pyramid Club. We have an illegal wood burning stove; its exhaust pipe
crawls up to a skylight. All of our electrical appliances are plugged into one
thick extension cord which snakes its way out a window. Outside, a small tent
city has sprung up in the lot next to our building. Inside, we are freezing
because we have no heat.”
This exposition is probably the largest block of spoken word in the musical. The rest of the story is told through song and a few scattered pieces of dialect. RENT is what is called a Rock Opera, and is a modern (in 1996) take on the classical opera “La Boheme”, which is a depiction of the bohemians living in Paris.
Mark and Roger are fighting with this guy:
Benny, (played in the original cast by the devilishly handsome and charming Taye Diggs) who used to be their roommate. However, he abandoned the Bohemian life to, as Maureen so eloquently puts it during her protest later in the musical, “Live as a lapdog to a wealthy daughter of the revolution.” In reality, he married Allison Grey of the “Westport Greys,” but the picture of him as a lapdog is much funnier, and certainly accurate, as he ends up agreeing to his father-in-law’s every whim. He’s trying to realize the dream of a film/music production company in the lot next door to Mark and Roger’s building, but he has to suck up to Mr. Grey to make it happen. He threatens to evict the entire building if they don’t pay their rent, after promising Mark and Roger they could stay free of charge.
Also in the building is Mimi:
Attractive, charismatic, sexy, a dancer at the Cat Scratch Club, and an addict. She lives just below Mark and Roger, she dated Benny for a while there after he and Allison got married…her moral compass isn’t always pointing in the right direction, but part of that is due to her constant searching for belonging, she’s a roamer, she longs for love, but has AIDS and is afraid like Roger to get too close to someone, at the same time, she gets far too close too quickly, resulting in disastrous remission when he has to break away. She’s a classic dual character, afraid and confidant all at the same time. She falls for Roger and spends most the musical trying hard to make him open up to her, when he finally does, she blows it, and everything spirals downhill.
Maureen and Joanne are characters with big personalities:
Maureen is Mark’s Ex-girlfriend, who broke up with him to be with Joanne, who is a lawyer and polar opposite to Maureen’s flamboyant performer personality. The two are constantly fighting, mostly about Maureen’s crazy living style and outrageous behavior. Joanne begins feeling like an outsider in the group, but eventually comes into her own and joins in their wild activities and little family.
Then there’s Collins and Angel:
Collins is a former professor at NYU, I think that Mark’s introduction does him justice better than I ever could: “Enter Tom Collins, computer genius, teacher, vagabond anarchist, who ran naked through the Parthenon…” He shows up towards the beginning of the musical, he gets mugged on his way to Mark and Roger’s flat, and is picked up by Angel.
Angel gets two pictures because of how important she is. Angel is a drag queen, one of the many flamboyant and out of this world characters floating around Alphabet City. She’s more than that though; Angel is the glue that holds the RENT family together. She is kind, and witty, and protective; she does everything in her power to keep them going, even though she has AIDS and is slowly dying. Angel is this depiction of God’s goodness on earth. Sure, she’s living a life full of sin by Biblical standards and teachings, but Jesus didn’t hang out with the “Holier Than Thou” crowd, Jesus was out there hanging with the Tax Collectors, Fishermen, and the sinners of the world. Angel does the same, this good person, kind, loving, and very real doesn’t choose to shun this small family, instead she comes in with the motto “Today for you, tomorrow for me.” Angel spends the musical putting everyone before herself…so much so, that without her, the family falls apart completely…
So, I’ve told you about the characters, and explained at least a little bit of the plot (probably too much actually) but I haven’t told you about the genius behind it. This guy:
This is Jonathan Larson, he doesn’t look like much, but the guy was a genius. He saw these people on the streets, and he looked at “La Boheme” and he saw love, and grace, and kindness, and anger, and pain, and he infused it into a story that people of all generations can relate to. I love the phrase on the poster in the picture “A work-in-progress of a rock opera by Jonathan Larson.” Larson never got to see RENT become a hit. The night before the show’s Broadway premiere, Larson died of an Aortic Aneurysm, so if you think about it, RENT which was still in it’s previews, was never a fully completed process. What you see when you watch the taped performance of the show, or see a live production, or if you were very lucky and saw it while it was still on Broadway, you are seeing Larson’s original vision; the unfinished and raw material that took a generation by storm.
On the outside RENT looks like a gritty, bitter, drug and sex filled Broadway musical about people whining about money and how they’re dying. On the inside though, it’s so much more. It’s a depiction of love, and honor, and care for each other. It shows us how to live with freedom, to “Forget Regret” and live every day as if it is the last day that we’ll ever live. There really is “no day but today” for many people out there, but as exhausting as living in this mentality is, it’s also freeing.
Forget Regret has special meaning to me.
I regret a lot, be it little things, or bigger things, I’m the kind of person who will say something and regret it late at night as it plays out in my head. I lived for a long time, in shame, anger, and guilt, whether I had reason to or not. RENT helped draw me out of that. It pulled me up by the bootstraps and immersed me in a world where I was watching people deal with the exact same problem, in different aspects of their life. Then, they were handed a Christ figure ( in the literary sense of the term, I’m in no means implying that Jesus was a cross-dresser) and through relationship with Angel (by the way, name is an obvious plot point, her name is Angel, she’s basically the groups guardian angel…but I digress) they learn to love themselves and each other.
I got this the day after I turned 18. The minute I could, I went to the tattoo parlor and got Jonathan Larson’s words permanently etched into my skin. This seems a bit drastic to some people, when I tell them it’s in reference to a musical I get some funny glances, but at the end of the day, it means something to me, and that’s all the matters. The numbers at the bottom spell “Angel” by the way, in case you were wondering. This for me is a constant reminder that your past, is your past, what you said or did yesterday, it doesn’t matter. It may effect, or shape who you are, but every encounter does. If you regret what you do, you’re regretting this wonderful, beautiful life that God gave you. So, when i look at my tattoo, on a daily basis, it reminds me, not only of a musical that I love, but of God’s unfailing forgiveness, his peace, and the joy that I have in knowing that he doesn’t regret me, so I shouldn’t regret myself.
So thank you Jonathan Larson, for 20 years of joy, tears, and music. Thank you for teaching me what it means to live fully. Thank you for writing something that inspires me to be better. Thank you, so much, you will not be forgotten, and your masterpiece will be a part of my heart forever.
Love to all, as always,