AIDS and the Theater: “Rent”

This is the second part in a series of blog posts examining major works of theater that handled AIDS. The previous parts looked at “Angels in America” and “Falsettos.” The final blog post will examine “The Normal Heart.”

“Rent” opened in 1996 and after the death of its writer, Jonathan Larson, it became a quickly praised work of theater.

The musical shows 1989 New York as a bizarre, almost sanitized museum piece. Look, attacks in Alphabet City! Squatters! Squeegee men! New York City is dangerous because Giuliani hasn’t done his crusade to clean up the city! It lacks the authenticity of being a window into the past you get with “Angels in America” or any of Eric Bogosian’s monologues in the ’80s.

But the biggest problem with the musical is it assembles the largest cast of despicable, self-righteous assholes in the theater. The majority of the characters we’re told to feel sorry for you find yourself as a rational adult thinking, “Good lord, they’re childish.” In fact the antagonist of this musical is one of the characters I often find myself sympathizing with because he’s one of the few characters to act maturely.

“Ah, Monica, you love ‘Falsettos’ and freely admit the main character, Marvin, is incredibly immature. How can you dislike the immaturity of the characters in ‘Rent’,” you ask. Well, the thing is that Marvin changes as a character in a very natural way as the musical progresses. The Marvin who sings “What Would I Do?” is very different from the Marvin who sings “A Tight-Knit Family” at the beginning of the musical. None of the characters in “Rent” make that journey and growth.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Larson’s musical is a modern version of “La Boheme” and tells the story of a group of friends living in the Alphabet City neighborhood of New York City in 1989. Mark and Roger live together in a loft where they don’t pay rent, much to the chagrin of their landlord and former friend, Benny, who is possibly the nicest landlord ever. Their friend Collins is a professor back in town after leaving MIT and he falls in love with Angel, a performer who helps him after the attack. Then, their neighbor, Mimi, walks in during a power outage to ask Roger to “light her candle.” At that time, Mark is off helping his ex-girlfriend’s girlfriend set up a performance his ex-girlfriend is putting on. Drama ensues, some incoherent babbling occurs at a protest and then people order food and don’t pay for it. More drama.

Seriously, the action in this musical is one massive drama bomb.

Four of the characters in this musical are HIV positive and two of them have developed AIDS. This musical occurs much later in the ’80s than any of the other work I’m looking at. AZT has been approved by the FDA and two of the characters do take the medication. Although some of the characters are aware of the graveness of their diagnosis and one of the few good musical numbers, “Will I?” does involve the fear of the disease, overwhelmingly the characters take the attitude of, “We have each other and let’s live each day to the fullest. Yay!”

But there are so many problems with this musical it’s difficult to know where to begin. How about I start with the characters all being archetypes? Angel is, well, an angel, a saintly figure with the kindest heart other than that Angel drives an animal to suicide, but it was a pet owned by Benny so it’s okay in the world of this musical. Mimi is the drug addict stripper with the heart of gold. Roger is the recovering bitter drug addict with what we’re led to believe is a heart of gold, but I’ll get to the problem with him later. Collins is the professor sticking it to the man, Mark is the noble filmmaker afraid of selling out, Maureen is the hot lesbian performance artist, Benny is the jerk landlord and Joanne is the butch lesbian serious lawyer.

There’s also the issue with how bad the musical is. There are very strong flaws, such as lyrics like “Everything is rent!”, having underdeveloped characters, someone saying they’re on hold on 911 which doesn’t even make sense and having a character die in such a way that to those who don’t read between the lines they might think Angel dies from having really awesome sex.

Another issue is the musical could be accused of committing bisexual erasure because Maureen is always referred to as being a lesbian even though the lyrics of the musical imply that Maureen has had sex with men and women and she even states she loves how men and women flirt with her. But, no, Maureen cannot be bisexual. Maureen is a lesbian because the show says this and consistently refers to her as a lesbian.

Meanwhile, “Falsettos” refers to Marvin quite a bit as being “queer” and only “My Father’s a Homo” explicitly calls Marvin gay and that song is sung by a character who is 10. (There is a lyric in act two that introduces the act as having “homosexuals,” but it is worth noting there are three characters who are gay.)

And then there’s the fact that Roger is a pretty abusive jerk. After he start dating Mimi he becomes very controlling of her, telling her she can’t spend time around Benny. As is well-established, Roger dislikes Benny but that doesn’t give him the right to tell her to not spend time around him because he gets jealous easily. As a rational adult, I would rather root for Mimi to be with Benny, even though he’s cheating on his wife with Mimi, because Benny doesn’t treat her poorly. He even remarks in “La Vie Boheme” that she is a “bright and charming girl” while Roger is basically, “You’re pretty and remind me of my ex.”

The biggest sin committed by the show is how it ends. Mimi momentarily dies at the end of the show and then Roger sings a song he wrote for her. This brings her back from the dead because Angel told her to turn around.

What could be a very touching moment in the musical, everyone sad about Mimi’s death, Roger singing his great song he spent an entire year writing. And then maybe a reflection on the importance of them being together and working on the art because fuck selling out. Perhaps there would be a reflection on how them staying together and not having so much drama would be what Angel would have wanted. That would be a great ending. But no, this emotional moment is killed because God forbid a musical end on a depressing note.

I will admit it would be awkward for them to watch Mark’s video of random happy moments after Mimi dying, but then we could maybe go without seeing his movie. Which, by the way, the musical acts like Mark’s movie is this breathtaking documentary about life in Alphabet City. Yet in the movie it certainly looks more like a montage of random moments. It feels more like a lot of Vine videos people post than a groundbreaking documentary that would cause someone to feel the need to quit their job in order to finish it.

The thing about “Rent” is that it ended up having maybe more of an impact on people than “Angels in America,” which is the second most influential work I’m writing about. “Rent” ultimately is a more accessible work because it isn’t six-to-seven hours long and it’s a musical. It also ran on Broadway for more than 10 years and has gone on to be produced by various theater companies, as well as the “school edition” being done in high schools. Also, if you’re a 14-year-old in the Midwest, you will probably think this musical is awesome. I certainly did when I was 14, but then when I was 17 I went off to The Theatre School at DePaul University and I took what I learned there to discover the musical is very flawed.

Which brings me to the next question: If a musical is really not that good, is it worth overlooking the flaws because it brings awareness to issues? Possibly, but even when the musical opened on Broadway the world of the musical felt a bit distant because of the efforts done to clean up Manhattan. There is also the issue of the situation the characters find themselves in seeming a bit romanticized. However, people in this musical still die because of AIDS-related complications and face grave illness from drug addiction, which although not incredibly gritty, it still shows how things aren’t that sunny.

But honestly, this is not a great musical.

2 thoughts on “AIDS and the Theater: “Rent”

  1. You only like plays where characters die.

  2. That’s not true. No one dies in “The Birthday Party” and “Betrayal” and those two plays are among my favorite plays.

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