Twenty-Five Years Later, Would ‘Rent’ Make Me Laugh, Cry, or Cringe?

I didn’t see Rent onstage until—ironically, as a longtime New Yorker—1999, in London, during which I was distracted by the fact that the actors’ British accents kept peeping through their New York locutions. I’d been repeatedly invited in 1996—five years before my own HIV diagnosis—to see Rent in its very first New York Theater Workshop incarnation. Again and again, I declined. The idea of an East Village rock musical based on the opera La Bohème seemed so tacky and absurd to me. My only recollection of the 2005 film version was that it moved “Seasons of Love” to the very beginning, likely to trigger that Pavlovian waterworks reaction in viewers from the get-go.

Last week, to mark the impending 25th anniversary of Rent’s April 1996 Broadway debut, I curled up to watch the high-definition filming of its final Broadway performance, in 2008. I felt like I was sitting down to Rent with somewhat fresh eyes, ready to observe the dance between decades of political criticism and my midlife gay male Pavlovian waterworks self.

Perhaps because I went in so conflicted, I ended up often having a reaction I can only refer to as cringe-laugh-crying. Over and over again, I found myself simultaneously recoiling at Rent’s blithe pop shorthand for the unspeakable suffering and injustice of that era, crying at the truths that I knew lay beneath the pop posturing, and laughing at its efforts to package these truths in a glossy mainstream shorthand.

It was an emotionally arduous viewing experience, I can assure you.

The landmark 1996 pop-rock musical about artists, activists, and people with AIDS in New York City’s pre-protease East Village debuted rather humbly at New York Theater Workshop early in 1996. Once that successful version moved to Broadway in the spring, it exploded into the blockbuster musical of the ’90s, the Hamilton of the Alanis Morissette era. It’s since gone on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars for the estate of its primary creator, Jonathan Larson, a straight white composer who, stunningly, died of an aortic aneurysm at age 35 before the show’s first preview.

With works of art or entertainment, the starkest—and, often, the bitterest—divergence in reaction is often between the general public and the real-life group or community that’s closest to the manufactured story.

I’m thinking a little bit about Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, perhaps New York City’s last true theatrical bombshell before COVID shut down the theater industry. The (still largely white) theatergoing public, myself included, was blown away by this blisteringly funny and ruthless stage interrogation of how the legacy of slavery in the U.S. has twisted its way into modern-day interracial romances. However, many Black women who saw the play claimed that, in the play’s final scene, Harris (a gay Black man) projected his own highly charged, controversial, race-and-sex fantasy on Kaneisha, the show’s straight Black female character.

This type of criticism pops up regularly, as efforts to increase on-screen representation no doubt lead to messy growing pains. In early 2020, the TV series Self-Made, a biopic of the life of Black women’s hair products mogul Madame C.J. Walker, caught flack for its invented colorist storyline. The show angled that Walker’s relationship with her real-life hair-care counterpart, Annie Turnbo Malone, was marked by Walker’s resentment of Malone’s lighter skin and flowing, or “good,” hair.

Much like these examples, Rent and its global blockbuster success have always existed in counterpoint to how it was received by the community it portrayed—downtown Manhattan’s real-life struggling artists, activists, drug users, and people with AIDS, many of whom were queer, gender nonconforming, and/or of color. This (loosely defined) community has generally looked on the musical with a kind of scoffing contempt, crystallized in the East Village author and activist Sarah Schulman’s book, Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America.

In the book, Schulman not only recounts her gradual realization that at least one plot line of Rent bore uncanny multiple resemblances to her 1990 novel People in Trouble—a lesbian-centric tale of AIDS in the East Village that certainly did not go on to enjoy the commercial success of Rent. But Schulman also uses her own experience of alleged theft to advance an argument that certain artists, like Larson, took the painful real-life story of New York City’s AIDS epidemic—populated with poor, queer people of color—and reshuffled the players to center white and straight characters in a way that made it highly appealing to mainstream theatergoing audiences who fancied themselves liberal and queer-friendly.

“We are in a very tender moment when society is making a transition in its understanding of AIDS from lived experience to packaged image,” Schulman writes in her conclusion, “… indeed, when Rent is selected over a novel with the same characters, events and dynamics that does not lie about the power differentials between heterosexuals and homosexuals. … A fake public homosexuality has been constructed to facilitate a double marketing strategy: selling products to gay consumers that address their emotional need to be accepted, while selling a palatable image of homosexuality to heterosexual consumers that meets their need to have their dominance obscured.”

Wow. That’s a witheringly cynical take on Rent—and one that my witheringly cynical side more or less agrees with. But I’ve also long known that I often surrender to the machinations of storytelling for the duration of a piece’s runtime and let them work their magic on me, my political feelings about a work notwithstanding. As old-fashioned as it may sound, I still believe that art and politics don’t completely overlap. Hence, I still thrill to The Sound of Music, mostly because I think the score is beyond perfect, even though I know it’s an absurd effacement of the actual anti-Semitic horrors of Nazi Germany. And I’ll readily admit that the first five chords of “Seasons of Love,” Rent’s signature song, are enough to spark my Pavlovian waterworks. Never even mind the rest of the song, with its gospel-like invocation of the power of love and friendship in the face of an uncertain future.

And it’s not just “Seasons”; Rent’s score is a slam-dunk, numbers strung artfully together by a sleek and supple sung-through libretto (that apparently was heavily the work of dramaturg Lynn Thomson, who sued the Larson estate for being cut out of profits, eventually settling.) I have no shame in saying that I’ll go to my grave still tearing up over “I’ll Cover You”—perhaps the first love song I ever saw sung between two men (or perhaps one cisgender man and one transgender person?) of color. “Take Me or Leave Me” is a thrilling, saucy exercise in two women duking out the power dynamics of their friction-filled love affair. Mimi’s “Out Tonight” is an expression of pure, unapologetic hedonism and reckless escapism in the face of pain. And the sheer cringe-iness of seeing an AIDS support group depicted in a Broadway musical, of seeing perfectly healthy young actors portray frail and shuffling patients, still cannot undo the power of “Will I?” with its naked vocalization of the fear of facing death at an early age.

As for “La Vie Boheme,” which inspired mad euphoria in the hearts of so many bored suburban teens of the ’90s and aughts, it’s perhaps cringe-ier than Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in its encyclopedic, goofily rhymed recitation of zeitgeist markers. But it’s still exactly what you want in an Act One closer—a wild, joyous, all-cast spectacular, a statement of identity and purpose, a chorus-wide raison d’être.

I could go on. Rent’s score, utilizing the pop, rock, and even house-music DNA of its era, is towering, masterful, diverse, and—libretto notwithstanding—apparently entirely of Larson’s making, insulating it from charges of plagiarism. And, by and large, scores—not books—make or break musicals. There’s a reason why people keep reviving Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, despite its hopelessly failed book. It’s because the score is just too good to put away in mothballs. I had the same thought seeing the recent Ivo van Hove Broadway interpretation of West Side Story. All of van Hove’s arty postmodern tweaks, as interesting as they were, could not transcend the show’s racially retrograde book. But the score itself is still transcendent, untouchable, speaking volumes of beauty and meaning beyond the book’s period limitations.

Yet beyond Rent’s score, which I admit I happily gave in to, I also must admit that my Schulmanian side could no longer overlook certain aspects of the story. Rent’s book is framed in a way that beautifully, elegantly cradles its music—it unspools in exactly one year, evocatively framed by the holiday seasons, pristine snow gently falling on the workaday grit and grime of the East Village like a kind of divine benediction upon wretched, messy lives. Its depiction of disparate people forming a catch-as-catch-can chosen family amid death and grief is highly seductive, and not without real-life resonance, especially in the downtown New York of that era.

But it’s also absurd to create a world where Mark, Maureen, and Joanne—all from comfortable, well-educated suburban backgrounds—appear trapped in equal circumstances with characters like Angel and Mimi, truly poor, desperate children of the city. And it’s also absurd to think that we might engage emotionally with Mark’s central dilemma—should he, as a videographer, sell out to a sleazy, race-baiting TMZ-like tabloid network, or remain true to his art?—when his friends around him are dying in a context of racist and homophobic neglect. Honestly, Mark, who cares?

This sell-out dilemma exists, we assume, because the story was created by Larson, who said in effect that Rent was his valentine to beloved friends, including his high-school bestie, who were living with (not dying from!) AIDS. He needed to place himself in his story, and this is how he did it. And he is self-aware enough to have Mark occasionally question himself, to wonder if he’s playing a somewhat vulture-like role in documenting the lives of his far less privileged friends who are facing their likely ends.

I don’t ascribe cynicism or venality to Larson’s creation of Rent. I give his generous intentions the benefit of the doubt. As with A Chorus Line and Hamilton—the latter of which definitely feels, in many ways beyond its insane success, like Rent’s spiritual heir—the development of Rent at the time, at an Off-Broadway theater, must have felt like a wild leap of faith. If Rent had quietly gone the way of other musical masterpieces that enjoyed New York–centric critical success but no lucrative legacy—such as Grey Gardens or Passing Strange—feelings around who got rich versus who was swindled by Rent, who benefited versus who was used and sidelined, likely would not be so intense.

But that’s not what happened. In a truly unforeseeable twist of fate, Larson’s estate—not Larson himself—reaped the benefits of its enormous success, of its canny positioning of characters in a way that connected with heavily white and straight audiences. Now, like so many cultural artifacts of a quarter-century ago, it’s become one of those things that felt boldly progressive to the general public at the time but, in a new era where social media has enabled long-marginalized perspectives to be not only aired but quickly disseminated, has since come in for scrutiny around the politics and privilege of who is telling the story. Who are the heroes and who are the secondaries? Who gets to live and who must be sacrificed to the story’s messages?

Personally, I love the cultural failures that accrete to works of art and entertainment over time. I think they’re interesting and say so much about who we were, what we valued, and what we either failed or chose not to see at that time. I recently rewatched the 1959 version of the race soap opera Imitation of Life, a film whose self-congratulatory, benevolent view of race coexists alongside its absolute oblivion to how systemic racism drives self-hatred.

I feel a bit the same way about Rent. It’s already a fascinating time-capsule of what passed, in the mainstream world, as edgy, as boundary-pushing, at the height of the pre-woke Clinton era, on the eve of the lifesaving protease revolution. (Burning question: Did Mimi and Roger LIVE?) Today, a Rent-like story, with a straight, white, HIV-negative man unnecessarily at its center, likely would not get made. And that’s a good thing.

But in the era Rent depicts, many people with AIDS did fear deeply that, in their final days, they would lose their dignity, that they would be uncared for, that they might not live another day.

Larson gave voice to that fear in music in a way that made it legible to many people, including young people, who likely had never before given it a thought. As a gay man living with HIV, I’m not above saying I’m grateful he did that, and believe it came from the right place in him. I realize we live in an age where we have to be very careful about storytellers deviating from their so-called lanes. But I still believe in the power of art and entertainment to criss-cross those lanes and make us feel, think, and even act more compassionately.

Even if it makes me laugh and cringe a bit at the same time.

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