Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes
Twenty years after its premiere, Rent remains a tour de force. We examine its groundbreaking impact on the theater world and its continued influence on thespians, New Yorkers and its loyal legions of fans.
By Michael Zalta
No show in the history of musical theater revolutionized the culture of popular theater like Rent did. Jonathan Larson’s work, a seminal one, breathtaking, emotionally poignant, subverted conventional theater practice and ushered in overwhelming volumes of new audiences. Rent was a trailblazer, the cutting edge work of theater that appealed to the masses and illuminated the stories of regular people coping with poverty, AIDS, and heartache. Twenty years after its premiere, Rent remains a cultural phenomenon.
On January 26th, 1996, following the shocking death of playwright and composer Jonathan Larson, the rock opera Rent, inspired by the story of Puccini’s La Bohème and set in New York’s East Village around the time of the AIDS epidemic, played its first off-Broadway performance. “It took seven years of arguments, workshops and worry, but that show, Rent, finally opened last month at New York Theater Workshop to some of the most glowing reviews of the last decade,” wrote the New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini. It was an unparalleled success. A bidding war broke out amongst producers for the right to produce a reinvigorated $2 million production at the Nederlander Theater starting April 29th; soon after its opening, Rent was headed for the Great White Way. The show garnered four Tony Awards and received the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It played 5,123 performances on Broadway. It was made into two different major motion pictures. It was performed in over twenty five languages in countries worldwide. It was making history.
Larson’s heart-wrenching, titillating score redefined what music in theater could be; it was an unabashed rock-opera, alternating easily between lovelorn ballads and uptempo sing-a-longs. It wove the stories of real people and characters into a tapestry of song with a chorus of unlikely friends and HIV support group members. Songs like “I’ll Cover You,” “Seasons of Love,” “Take Me or Leave Me,” “La Vie Boheme” and “One Song Glory” became anthems. Larson’s characters, played by theater legends like Idina Menzel and Adam Pascal, sang about love, life, AIDS, politics and, of course, paying their rent.
Rent was not the first show to portray the AIDS epidemic, but it was the first to give the issue such widespread visibility. AIDS had been on stage since the early 1980s. In 1983, Jeff Hagedorn wrote One, a one-man show exploring its lead character’s fight with the disease, One paved the way for the theatricalization of AIDS on stage. What followed was a barrage of works that explored more intimately the issue and the gay community, oftentimes indicting governmental negligence and the ignorance of public discourse. Larry Kramer’s fiery The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America emerged as paragons for the genre. Angels in particular: Kushner’s seven-hour tour de force explored intersectionality, politics and religion in a way few shows had managed before. Rent, which came shortly after, was a supercharged, outlandish work, exploring similar themes and adding to them the music of the theater. “Larson is certainly not the first composer to take aim at that elusive target,” wrote the critic John Lahr in The New Yorker, “But he may be the first to have hit it.” Rent is, first and foremost, a story about love, but it’s also about fear, pain, disease and the complexity of these matters when enmeshed in the rough milieu of turn-of-the-century Manhattan. Anthony Rapp, who played Mark Cohen in both the stage and movie versions, explains: “Rent is not about AIDS, it’s not about homosexuality, it’s not about homelessness — it’s about family.” Rent is a beacon of hope that proves that everyone can be a part of a family of their own; in fact, the show itself gave people a sense of family. After twenty years, Rent has not become outdated, for its themes are eternal. Rapp continues: “To me, part of what the story is saying is that in the face of these circumstances, you can still live your life as fully as possible.”
Not only do the themes of Larson’s piece still resonate today, the impact and legacy that Rent left in the theater world is embedded in today’s theater culture. Tommasini wrote, “The time had come to reclaim Broadway from stagnation and empty spectacle...To bring musical theater to the MTV generation.” This is precisely what Rent did. It transcended the confines of the theater, brought in new audiences, incited conversations both political and sociological and added to these conversations a soundtrack of larger-than-life songs. “This show celebrated the lives of the very people audiences stepped over outside as they made their way into the venues.”
Rent now celebrates twenty years and countless “Seasons of Love.” It is firmly embedded in the theater canon, and though Larson tragically never got to witness the phenomenon of his own making, his legacy, as does his show, lives on.
Originally published 12/09/15