Rent is very much a product of its time. It shows the HIV/AIDs epidemic when it was at its peak and is set before cell phones became popular, featuring an answering machine used for screening calls. And yet, its music has a very modern feel and it was always a very popular show with my students, many of whom were born the year the show came out.
From a musical perspective, Jonathan Larson, the composer and lyricist of Rent, was trying to modernize the American musical, and in many ways he succeeded, although it took many years for other composers to successfully build on his innovations. While the “rock opera” had been quite popular in the 1980s, as showcased by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and Schonberg and Boublil’s Les Miserables, among others, Larson was going for a different sound, more influenced by modern rock and rap. Combined with his genius for clever lyrics, Larson wrote a score that popped with originality and vitality. The sheer energy that crackles from a live production of Rent can be spellbinding.
The story of Rent is a modern adaptation of Pucchini’s opera La Boheme, set in New York and featuring several starving (and in many cases HIV-positive) artists. For me, the first act has always been the stronger of the two, focusing on the action of one night, whereas the second act is more diffuse and covers many months. Our protagonists struggle with poverty, sacrificing and striving for their art, living with terminal illness, death, violence, homelessness, mainstream disapproval, and heartbreak/lack of trust/relationship drama. I heard this musical and realized, more deeply than I had before, that musical theater can have just as much depth and as much to say as other art forms.
The show is not without weaknesses. As previously stated, I feel it loses some of its focus in the second act, and some of the sung dialogue passes by so quickly it can be missed by newcomers to the show. What always drives me nuts, however, is that the musician Roger’s song “One Song Glory” in the first act, in which he sings about trying to write the perfect song, is infinitely stronger and more moving than his song in the second act “In Your Eyes”, which is supposed to be the one perfect song but is, in my opinion, much more clichéd and not as musically or vocally interesting. And the end feels rushed and doesn’t quite match with the rest of the piece.
For me, Rent is inextricably tied to the time in my life when it was introduced to me. It deals with artists struggling to make a mark on the world, while I was a music student struggling to improve my singing. It shows main characters with terminal illness, and delves into the realities of living with illness and with death. At this same time, my mother had a terminal illness and later died from it. This musical spoke to the nineteen-year-old me in a way for which I’ll always be grateful.
Here are a few, out of many, of my favorite songs from the show:
– Seasons of Love: possibly the most well-known song from the show. It raises the question of how to measure a life: what is it in life that we value most?