When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with Rent. So when the show’s 20th anniversary tour came to my city in the UK, I bought tickets immediately. And then I worried, for several weeks, that I would end up hating it.
Even as a teen, I knew that Rent was a little rough around the edges. It always had some clunky lines – “I hate the fall”?? – and an anticlimactic ending. But now, I was ten years older, with rent of my own to pay, and an awareness of the fact that it might all just seem pretentious now. It’s a musical about New York City artists who refuse to pay rent because that would mean getting Real Jobs. I’d watch it, and I’d side with Benny, and roll my eyes at these supposed bohemian artists.
I was right in one sense. Rent was a very different experience than when I was it as a teenager. But in some ways, it was actually better.
When I was a teen, Rent was an explosion of rebellion and individuality. It was people fighting convention and living the life that they chose. They triumphed over circumstance with the cry of “No Day but Today.”
Now I know that Rent isn’t about triumph, but defiance. The world is bleak, and the characters cannot change their circumstances, no matter how hard they fight. They make terrible choices. Roger is a recovering drug addict who ends up in a relationship with a current drug addict. Mimi declares in Happy New Year that she’s going to have a fresh start, but the song ends on the bleak note that, actually, she can’t leave it behind after all. Almost everyone is dying, and they can’t do anything to stop it.
Partly, this shift is just me having a deeper understand of what Rent is actually supposed to be about. I’m a rural British girl who was 8 years old when Rent came out. I first discovered it in 2005. I can’t say for sure, but it’s highly possible that this musical was the thing that taught me what AIDS even was. And even then, I didn’t really know what the AIDS crisis was, or the implications of it. So coming back to the musical as an older individual made me see more clearly what Rent is about at its heart, and why it was so insanely popular and important when it came out.
My understanding of the musical did shift with my older, more cynical perspective, but again, not in a bad way. When I was a teen, Joanne was boring, and Maureen was vibrant. As an adult, Joanne is the person to emulate, and Maureen is insufferable… but she’s meant to be. The musical isn’t uncritical of its La Vie Boheme, an attitude embodied by the homeless woman who yells at Mark for filming her and pointedly asks if he has a dollar, which, of course, he doesn’t. As a teen, I thought it was possible that the line meant, “You’re not all that much better than me. You don’t HAVE a dollar to spare.” Of course, now I see that the line is, “You’re not that much better than them.” He has a dollar, but he’s not going to give it to her. He wants to feel self-righteous and caring, but is he, really?
And outside that old gung-ho teenage perspective, Rent does feel like a more nuanced show. Benny is still completely unsympathetic, but he also isn’t entirely wrong. The New York City seen in the musical is incredibly dangerous. Twenty years later, and I’ve walked around SoHo at 1am and felt completely safe. That safety is part of what Benny’s arguing for. But, as the musical makes clear, some people were crushed during that transformation. There are multiple sides to the issue. Benny has every right to ask Mark and Roger to pay rent. But is he a decent person, asking them for the past year’s rent that he said they wouldn’t have to pay, while one of his former close friends is so depressed that he hasn’t left the house in seven months?
Sure, Joanne should probably ditch the whole lot of them, or else become besties with Collins, the only other person with maturity and a steady sense of responsibility. But if you see Rent not as a story of how great these characters are in their artistic, non-rent-paying world, but of how lost they all are, in a world that’s cold to their suffering, it remains an emotionally powerful story. Almost every character in the musical needs serious help in some way, but they have to get by with just one another.