On a perfectly ordinary January morning in 1996, New York was recovering from a crippling snow storm, and the original cast of Rent were preparing for the first downtown preview of a newly born show.
On this morning, its writer and composer, Jonathan Larson, would suffer an aortic aneurism. The show would lose its patriarch. Larson would never see critics’ rave reviews, celebrity photographs with the cast, or the legacy he left behind. He would never read pieces scattered across the internet, even years after the show left the stage.
In Larson’s honour, producers would offer $20 tickets to the front rows of the audience, making the show an accessible, human experience for the struggling artists it is so careful to protect. Larson’s spirit was never left behind, even after his death.
The show transformed the careers of Broadway heavyweights Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs and Anthony Rapp, and would later become a major film produced by Robert DeNiro in 2005. It spent 12 years on Broadway, with 5,124 performances and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in its trophy case. It would inspire the ideologies and ambitions of emerging talent, including Lin-Manuel Miranda of Broadway’s new great love, Hamilton.
Much of Rent’s legacy is due to its tragic and untimely back story, along with autobiographical tendencies from Larson’s own life. With sights and sounds so inherently 90s, it has become iconic, and undeniably influential to audiences over the last two decades.
Starting its story on Christmas Eve, 9pm, 1989, Rent introduces us to a vibrant vagabond life. With poverty-stricken artists, filmmakers, and wordsmiths roaming around New York’s East Village, the audience is catapulted into the midst of the Aids crisis. As the cast perform Rent, voices roar “Hungry and frozen, it’s the life we’ve chosen”, a strong defiance against the cultural hierarchy of Manhattan, all the while, underpinned by the cultural damages inflicted on LGBT communities.
Of course, pop culture has moved on. A lot can change in 20 years, especially as Rent is so deeply rooted in the culture of its time. Yet today, in an unsettled political landscape, its message of love and diversity still resonates with new and old audiences. As a cultural artefact, it showcases the attitudes of the late 1980s and 1990s, in a time where HIV, sexual identity, and gender were unfairly bound together. It is a stark contrast to today, where a life lived with the disease is possible.
An earnest and diverse musical, Rent benefits from a core thematic foundation of love. Intertwined with addiction, infatuation, and disease, the show exhibits a narrative steered by time, or the lack thereof. It follows the anxiety of relatable characters as they grapple with their own realities. While several of the characters are living with HIV, Rent searches for a life well lived, for dignity in disease, and for acceptance. It is vivacious and solemn, all at once.
Throughout the show, audiences are unable to avoid its heart. At the centre of the story is Angel, a joyful transvestite whose sweetness and love for life is infectious. Considered as one of the most progressive and influential LGBT characters in theatre, Angel’s happiness and self-acceptance makes for a warmer New York, in Larson’s energetic, colourful and occasionally grimy fantasy of Manhattan’s East Village.
As a musical embodiment of the artistic free spirit, Rent celebrates a passionate defence of living how we choose, encapsulated by exotic dancer Mimi’s aggressive solo Out Tonight, an anthem that will leave you with a thirst for life.
At its crux, it is a fascination with time, and the fragility of human life. With intoxicating characters and show stopping performances of audience favourites such as Take Me or Leave Me, La Vie Boheme, and Seasons of Love, audiences are left hopeful and eager for more time in the 1990s.
Leaving behind a message of fatal love, Rent is an exploration of all of life’s passions and triumphs, and highlights life’s half-hearted promise of tomorrows. In true carpe diem fashion, audiences are left knowing that nothing is certain except for today.
Catch Rent at the Centre April 3-8.