Getting Past Prejudices with the Musical Rent

The warning signs outside the theater were ominous: “Adult content not suitable for children.”  Looking around as we entered, I had to remember that the college-age students there were not children.  That’s hard to do when you have offspring older than most present, including the actors performing the show.  Carol and I were there by assignment to see the musical “Rent,” the Tony and Pulitzer award winning rock-opera drama about life in New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1980’s.  It takes place in the neighborhood known as Alphabet City, an area primarily inhabited by bohemian young people wanting to break into theater, TV or music.  Sadly, the area also had high levels of illegal drug activity, violent crime and HIV/AIDS.

Undoubtedly the themes of homosexuality, AIDS, drug addiction and homelessness prompted the warnings about the adult content.  The characters include a gay male couple in which both partners have AIDS, an on-again/off-again lesbian couple, and a straight couple in which both partners have AIDS and both have a history of intravenous drug use.  It’s not exactly “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and was written intentionally to shake things up, but also to address the concepts of love, loss and community.  Those are the themes that I would like to address in this essay.  If we can overcome bigotry and be compassionate towards people living with AIDS for a few moments then we can be uplifted by some beautiful elements of Rent.

I’ll admit I was a little put-off when I read some of the articles and reviews of the play in advance of witnessing the production.  I wanted to know more about the story before I saw it.  I like to think I’m not homophobic but from what I had read in some reviews, the lifestyle went beyond mere portrayal; it was celebrated, endorsed and flaunted in your face.  I didn’t want to see that.  I’m old-fashioned in that I believe that some things should be left private, and sexual activity is one of them.  However, the production that we saw must have been a tamed-down version because there was only occasional gay kissing and touching, nothing too disturbing.  I was more bothered by the decibels of the musicians, which sometimes drowned out the singers.

Outstanding Music

The songs in Rent are the first of the beautiful and uplifting elements that I noticed.  The entire play is a musical.  It seemed like there were very few lines spoken that were not actually sung.  Even the hilarious little phone messages peppered throughout the play were delightfully sung to us, adding much entertainment to the dramatic production.  Who hasn’t heard “Seasons of Love,” especially since it has been playing in some TV commercial lately?  Although not particularly uplifting to me, La Vie Boheme was immensely entertaining.  Other enjoyable songs included Your Eyes, Goodbye Love, Light My Candle, Tango Maureen, Out Tonight, One Song Glory, I Should Tell You, Take Me Or Leave Me, No Day But Today, and Living in America.

I can’t think of one thing with more universal appeal than the idea of love.  Who doesn’t want to be loved?  I have met people who have said no when I asked them if they wanted to be happy in life but I have never met someone who said no when asked if they wanted to be loved or at least accepted for who they are.  Of the three major themes I saw in the play, the idea of being loved came across the strongest.  Although they had a lot of emotional handicaps and baggage, these were people dealing with building relationships.  I can’t identify with being a drag queen but when Angel was dying, I found myself shedding a tear for Collins’ loss.

Living with Loss

These people lived with loss every day.  That’s why one of the recurring songs was entitled, “No Day but Today.”  How they dealt with that loss teaches a lot about the idea of community.  They came together in their grief.  They comforted one another.  They took care of one another the best they could.  Mimi was not judged for her drug addiction but was encouraged to live without it and find something better to take its place.  Since so many of their friends were dying, they adopted the motto to live for the day and to reach for their dreams one day at a time.  How hard it must be to make plans for the future when you are living with a disease like AIDS.

It was love and loss that built their community.  They only had each other.  Rejected by so many outside their world, they had to give each other strength, and they did.  Although the ending was a little hokey with Angel becoming the angel who told Mimi to go back when she was dying, the love that developed between Roger and Mimi was delightful to witness.  How can you not love a happy, feel-good ending where the main characters find happiness in each other?   Except there’s one big problem – they still have AIDS and will die someday.  But then, so will we all.  See, it really does have universal appeal.  The play mirrors life that someday will end.

After seeing the play, Carol read the script and I read dozens of reviews.  I was fascinated by the dichotomy of opinions expressed.  It seems that most reviewers either loved it or hated it.  One said she had never walked out of a play before in her life but walked out on Rent.  She must have had a family member in our audience because a couple in front of us walked out at the first encounter of affection expressed between Angel and Collins.  Were they homophobic?  In all probability, yes they were.  I mean, the music was loud and the show could be confusing if you weren’t paying close attention, but it was obvious that they didn’t like what they were seeing.

Reviews from Viewers

Here’s a quote from one of those reader reviews I found in the NY Times about the time the show was closing after a twelve-year run:  “If you want homosexuality and drug addiction rubbed in your face, then this is the play for you. I basically hated it, if you haven’t figured that out yet.”  In contrast, “Rent is a fabulous roller-coaster ride of emotion. The characters are extremely real, and so are the troubles they face. The songs are beautiful and the energy and electricity of it is so wonderful that you are a complete moron if you don’t like it. The only reason anyone wouldn’t like this show is if they are homophobic, intolerant, and weak.”

But my favorite had to be, “So let’s see… a group of drug addicted promiscuous squatters are the heroes and the one person who breaks from the group and becomes successful and buys the building (which they live in illegally) is the bad-guy because he wants rent… hhhmmmm… and let’s see, we have loud screeching that we’re supposed to call singing but it’s “cool dude” ’cause the lead is just so hot looking and has the teeny bopper girls squealing in delight.  This is a show for the MTV-Put-Upon Generation… pure junk.”  Opinions of performances are one thing but this reviewer was obviously passing judgment and commenting on the lifestyle choices.

The Composer

Part of the impact of the show is the death of the composer and writer, Jonathan Larson, who died of an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by Marfan syndrome, on the night before the play opened off Broadway.  In spite of his death, the show went on.  Glowing reviews began to appear. The six-week run sold out immediately.  In the months to come, Rent moved to Broadway, won four Tony awards, including the prize for best musical, and Jonathan Larson won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, posthumously.  The show went on to become one of the longest running productions on Broadway and is now enjoying a second life in local theater.

Social Impact

Rent has had and is still having a social impact.  While the play is now a little dated with the use of pay phones, answering machines and clunky old cell phones the size of a brick, it is still attracting younger crowds wherever it plays.  Of course, that was probably inevitable in our case, given that our venue was a local community college.  Wherever it opens, it is reviewed by the local theater critics.  The comments posted on those online reviews demonstrate that some of the same prejudices and bigotry are still alive and well in America today.  Rent is a wonderful example of American creativity that reaches to the very heart of our lives through love and loss.  I hope our community has changed and become more tolerant in the years since it first opened.

I haven’t included a lot of quotes from the musical, because frankly, they aren’t very deep.  For example, here’s one from the song, Light my Candle: “I didn’t recognize you without the handcuffs.”  And from Angel, the transvestite, “I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be and more of a woman than you’ll ever get.”  From the song Will I, about dying from AIDS: “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?”  I suppose my favorite has to be “There will always be women in rubber flirting with me…”  That last quote is from Maureen, one of the two lesbians.  Some of the stuff is really quite funny, if you can just get past the idea that these are people looking for love in unorthodox relationships.

Unorthodox Relationships

And that is the point of the play and the impact it has had on America.  How do we view the lives of those who are not in orthodox relationships?  Do we view them as sinners, in need of repentance and salvation, who will suffer in hell because of their poor lifestyle choices?  I am confident that there are millions of people who will voice that very opinion without hesitation.  Or do we love and accept them, making an effort to help them find happiness and success in life?  That is one of the toughest choices in life, especially for those who have family members living in a lifestyle that is contrary to the moral principles that they value.  Rent helps us see past the pain and sorrow of rejection and loss of those who live with AIDS and still manage to have hope.

It’s that final scene of hope that I find most uplifting and inspiring about the play.  They found hope because they loved and supported each other through their loss and sorrow.  I think Jonathan Larson would be pleased to think that his play has helped us to become more loving and supportive of each other, especially those who deal with AIDS on a daily basis.  And in the end, the millions he earned posthumously from the play helps others pursue their writing careers.

Note: Carol saw the play with me and shared an excellent review on her blog.

7 comments for “Getting Past Prejudices with the Musical Rent

  1. Proud Daughter of Eve
    November 10, 2010 at 8:02 am

    Interesting discussion. I hadn’t planned on ever seeing “Rent” but I might now if it comes my way. But you’re overusing the term “homophobic.” Because I believe sexual relations should be between a married man and woman and because I don’t want images of homosexual relations in my head doesn’t mean I get paralyzed with terror. This is part of the polarization on the whole same-sex attraction debate and lets those who support gay lifestyles paint those who don’t as gibbering, panicked and rage-fueled. Funny how those demanding tolerance and respect so often seem to have so little of either.

  2. November 10, 2010 at 11:04 am

    Hi PdoE. Thanks for visiting my blog. I was hoping someone would comment on my use of the word “homophobic.” That’s one of those words that evokes strong emotions, isn’t it? I used it on purpose to make a point, because that is exactly what I was concerned about when I went to see the production. I was afraid that we might be one of those couples that walked out. Unlike most of the young people in the audience, I was not exposed to public displays of same-sex affections growing up. I don’t think I ever met a gay person until I was off my mission, out of college and into the corporate work environment in 1981.

    I too believe that sexual relations should be only between a married man and woman. I also don’t want images of sexual expressions running throrugh my head, be they heterosexual or homosexual. As I wrote in the essay, I believe that some things should be private. Your point about getting paralyzed with terror is very apropos. I doubt that I would have seen the musical in my younger days when I saw life as very black and white. I don’t see it that way anymore, mainly because I have met so many people who don’t experience life as I do.

    I love your use of the descriptive phrase, “gibbering, panicked and rage-fueled.” I have been portrayed that way in the responses to some of my essays on the subject of same-sex attraction over the years. I like to think that I’m anything but. I would hope that my dialogs with those who support, endorse or participate in the gay lifestyle is and has been filled with respect, tolerance, kindness and Christ-like love and compassion. I guess that’s why I was surprised at my response when Angel died of AIDS in a tender emotional scene.

    Besides an appreciation for witty dialog and passionate musical numbers, I found myself deeply moved by the loving support and compassionate service Collins rendered to Angel as he was dying of AIDS. It was obvious that he loved and cared for him and went out of his way in an effort to make his dying moments comfortable and filled with dignity. And yet, a few scenes previous, they were engaged in demonstrating their affection with kissing and touching that I normally would only expect to see between a man and a woman.

    Did I feel a little uncomfortable with the kissing and touching scenes? Yes, I did. Am I homophobic? No, I don’t think so. I wasn’t afraid that seeing gay affection would cause me to want to embrace that lifestyle. I was just concerned that I would feel so very uncomfortable that I would want to walk out like that other couple did. I watched them as they went. At first I thought maybe they were parents of one of the actors, and maybe they were, but I suspect they just wanted to see why Rent was such a cultural event.

    I’m glad that we saw the show. I found it to be uplifting because I chose to focus on the good things that I found in it, and that was the point of my essay. But in order to enjoy the show, I had to check my feelings closely to make certain that I wasn’t judging it by the moral standards that I had taken upon myself in the temple. By the world’s standards, I can now see why it had such an impact. It was a powerful, emotional experience. I know I was not the only one who shed a few tears. But I had to look at it differently to enjoy it.

    Was the homosexual content of the show “in my face?” I suppose so. I think Jonathan could have toned it down a little bit, but that’s what he lived with day in and day out as he was struggling as a creative artist living in New York in the 1980’s. It took him seven years to write the show. He apparently wrote over a thousand songs of which 42 made it into the final version that we see today. Amazing, truly amazing! He lived in a different world than I did. I will never understand his completely, but seeing his show, I came a bit closer.

  3. Ray
    November 11, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Wonderful review, Tim. I love “Rent” – for the very reasons you ariticulated in this post.

    If we are to model the life of Jesus of Nazareth, I think we need to do a lot more associating with and actively loving the most rejected among us and a lot less shunning and reviling them. There is a reason why the Sermon on the Mount ends as it does.

  4. LRC
    November 11, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    So how do you think it compares to Puccini’s La Boheme?

  5. Jack
    November 12, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Rent is a piece of junk. The only reason it wins anything is because of it’s brazennes — which isn’t necessarily the same thing as brilliance, mind you. In the end Rent will only add to the relentless dumbing-down of the Broadway canon.

  6. Danny
    November 12, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    PDoE, when you see a heterosexual couple walking down the street (or at church) do images of heterosexual relations flood to your head? If not, then why would you have a problem seeing homosexual people holding hands or kissing?

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