Why Rent Still Matters
Rent's 20th Anniversary at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre

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The 20th anniversary production of Rent kicked off its national tour at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco on Tuesday, February 7th, just three days after the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, would have celebrated his 57th birthday. It remains  a morbidly apt and cruel irony that Larson, who passed away the morning after the show’s final dress rehearsal before its 1996 off-Broadway debut, never lived to see his legacy: Rent went on to win four Tony awards, including the award for Best Musical, several Drama Desk awards, and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Death and a fascination with time factor significantly within the production and provide a framework onto which the unyielding, untimely narrative advances: erotic dancer Mimi Marquez (Skyler Volpe) sings urgently “there’s only yes, only tonight” while attempting to convince singer-songwriter Roger Davis (Kaleb Wells) to give their love a chance in “Another Day.” Roger, confronted with the harsh reality of living with HIV, grapples with trying to leave behind a legacy before his numbered days are up in “One Song Glory”. The emphasis of time’s thematic underpinning is also demonstrated in how it bookends the production. The first line of the show’s opening number, from struggling filmmaker Mark Cohen (Danny Harris Kornfield), grounds the world of Rent in a fixed, solid date: “December 24th, 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.” The final verse of the entire show in “Finale B” consists of two interweaving lines which mix the immediacy of the present moment with the hyperbolic (though in the world of Rent, very real), fatalistic language of love, “no day but today” and “I die without you,” before the two parts finally converge into harmony for the show’s last line: “no day but today.” This fascination with time (whether stabilizing it, accruing it, or making the most of it) is significant because of how it exemplifies a larger, complex relationship between queer narratives and time.

What Rent shows, time and time again, is that time works differently for queer people. The end of the twentieth century, which saw the proliferation of the AIDS epidemic and which sets the scene for Rent, bore witness to the annihilation of queer bodies, relationships, and communities. This is particularly evident in writing from queer authors during this time. American poet Mark Doty, in his memoir which chronicles his partner’s harrowing journey living and dying with HIV/AIDS, writes: “All my life I’ve lived with a future which constantly diminishes, but never vanishes.”[1] The rise of HIV/AIDS during the 80’s and 90’s fundamentally changed how queer people position themselves within space and time. My use of queer here is intentional and important. While today we understand that anyone can contract HIV regardless of gender or sexual orientation, Rent’s narrative is entrenched within a world that conflated gender and sexual minorities with HIV. This ignorance was even encoded in the virus’ first appellation: GRID, gay-related immunodeficiency. While the name changed, the violence, fear, and hatred lodged at queer people did not.

And although modern medicine has made living a long and full life with HIV a reality, the scars from these cultural traumas are something we queer people still carry with us. I can remember with such clarity the moment I came out to myself at thirteen, a moment which bisected my life into life before I was living my authentic self, and after. The future feels strange and unfamiliar sometimes, as the normative family timeline (finding a partner –  getting married – having real, biological children) cannot so easily provide a roadmap for my adult life. And last summer, after an intimate encounter gone awry left me wondering whether that I might have contracted HIV, I was compelled to think more seriously about my body, my own longevity, and what possible futures were available to me.

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These anxieties, available to me only in the theoretical but so materially present to Rent’s characters, were extremely resonant in this 20th anniversary production and were part of what made this iteration of the show so brilliantly moving. Rent can be a difficult show to put on, particularly because of how dated it can feel: the show never confronts the unease of gentrification in large cities, caused in part by (primarily white and wealthy) struggling artists types like Mark and Roger; the use of New York’s homeless population for backup harmonies felt especially troubling in light of San Francisco’s own current struggle to alleviate homelessness; HIV, if properly treated, is no longer the death sentence it once was. Moreover, because of Rent’s cult following, there is, I imagine, some pressure to maintain a level of fidelity to the original show with regard to costume design, choreography, and set design. While this production did demonstrably honor Rent’s legacy in these specific domains (e.g. Angel’s iconic christmas outfit, the choreography in “La Vie Bohème,” and the multi-story, industrial-style set modeled after the original production), it also effectively transformed Rent into a production relevant to a contemporary audience. This relevance was, to my mind, due in large part to the youthfulness of this touring cast, whose median age couldn’t have been higher than twenty-three. Nowadays Broadway demands so much suspension of disbelief from its viewers that audiences are supposed to be unsurprised at seeing actors in their forties play young bachelors and ingénues (cf. the entire cast of Columbus’ 2005 film version of this production). Yet, part of what makes Rent’s story feel so immediate and so tragic is watching young people grapple with the real issues like addiction, disease, and death. This emotional crux is what the 20th anniversary tour understood well about Larson’s original production and it’s what they managed to capture perfectly.

Despite these traumas and despite the shadow of death that looms over the show and its characters, Rent is a show staunchly committed to celebrating life. As one of the show’s most popular numbers “La Vie Bohème” so proudly exclaims, Rent is a show dedicated to lives on the fringes of society’s mainstream and especially “to people living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease.” For queer people, Rent means understanding the bleakness and uncertainty of the future, and finding reasons to feel joy in the present moment regardless. What Larson had captured in his original production, and what the 20th anniversary production has done quite successfully, is remind us of the spirit, life, and hope that exist (that, indeed, are possible) in queer bodies and communities and, most importantly, of the enduring nature of queer resilience.

Images courtesy of Broadway World

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