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.
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.
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.
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.
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.