I feel like there are some things that have a place in your heart, and it’s not possible to pull them out. I also feel like that’s exactly the type of thing a character in Rent would say and appreciate, so this is off to a good start. My father raised me loving musicals, and I’d seen many of them over the course of my young life. Rent was the first play that I felt, that my heart bled for, that I knew every single lyric to and would sing at any hour of the day. As I’ve grown older and wiser, I’ve grown slightly more jaded toward the play, but when I took this movie down again to watch it, I felt that same pull. The Nostalgia Chick was talking about how Reality Bites is a film version of The Lonely Island’s “Threw It On The Ground,” and I think that’s accurate. She’s also talked about her skepticism of this play too, and I get it. Now that I’m older I go c’mon guys seriously just pay your damn rent. No one owes you shit. Judge Judy would be yelling at you right now, for real. I’ll talk about my love for Judge Judy another day.

Rent is a play that is set so firmly in its time that it has trouble transitioning to modern day. Everything about that play screams late 1980s to early 1990s. Jonathan Larson got inspired by the opera La bohème, and it’s interesting to me how a century later there are a lot of similar themes running through. Mimi in La bohème died of tuberculosis, which can be contracted through sex, and the Mimi in Rent has HIV. Most of the characters are still poets and artists, although now they’re song writers and film makers. The thing is, in a lot of ways we’ve pushed away from that decade and what made sense then doesn’t make sense now. That’s a problem when you’re making a piece of art; if you want it to live as a symbol of a time, that’s fine, but it will lose some of its power once a few decades go by. That being said, I think there’s plenty about Rent that works today. It was pretty bold in putting right in people’s face not only those suffering through AIDS but gay and interracial couples. The sincerity of the play I think is one of its selling points for me. Larson wrote most of this from his own experience and from his heart. There are a lot of people who hate this play, so to them I say: That’s nice, everyone has their own opinion, but I love it and I ain’t even bothered.

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Rent became a legend at least partly because Jonathan Larson died before the play premiered.  He said he wanted to bring musical theater to the MTV generation, and personally I think he did succeed in that. This is very MTV. So what’s the play about? It’s about a group of poets and artists living in New York City approximately in the early 90s, many of them infected with HIV, either through drugs or sex or another unspecified reason. They talk and sing about their grief and also about their wish for a legacy to pass on before the end.  Roger is the lead, a guitarist who wants one song to live on after him. He was a junkie before with his girlfriend, but April committed suicide after finding out they had AIDS. His best friend is Mark, a filmmaker who wants to focus on his documentary about their lives. They are horrified to find out that former BFF Benny has married up and though he promised they could live in their apartment without rent, he’s decided they have to pay up instead. He eventually says he’ll forget about it if they convince fellow friend Maureen to stop from doing performance art to protest him turning the nearby lot into a corporate office. Kicking out all the homeless there and the rest of them free spirited artists.

Mark was Maureen’s boyfriend, but she’s moved on to a woman named Joanne. The two bond unexpectedly over how difficult and flirty Maureen can be, with Joanne being more dependable and disciplined. They also have a good friend, anarchist Collins, who meets his new boyfriend drag queen Angel while he’s drumming on the street. Roger is surprised to meet neighbor Mimi when the power goes out in the building and they flirt, but he’s nervous about the fact he has HIV and he doesn’t know about her. She does however, so they start a relationship. It all comes to a head after Maureen’s show and they flaunt their new found group power in Benny’s face. Of course this all goes to disaster with the couples breaking up and Angel tragically succumbing to his disease. Maureen and Joanne decide to give it another try, but Roger leaves town after Mimi starts hooking up with Benny and she is visibly getting weaker. He rebuffs Mark’s attempts to talk to him and goes to Sante Fe, where the group used to joke about going as an ideal heaven. He comes back in time for Mimi to nearly die in his arms, but she lives thanks to apparently a visit from Angel on the other side. It should be noted in the opera she dies.

Is it melodramatic and over the top at times? Hell yeah. Do I still tear up when Collins sings “I’ll Cover You” at Angel’s funeral? Well watch below and if you don’t, I’m going to side eye forever.

The movie came out in 2005 and of course the fan in me was so excited. I still enjoy it, although again it can’t really translate as well. A decade can change a great deal, and this is an example. The original cast was in it except for Joanne and Mimi. The actress who played Mimi was having a baby at the time, and the word is that the original Joanne felt that she was too old for the role by then. It’s hard to know how much of that was true, but I’m willing to believe it since the cast is very outspoken and supportive of each other. It was a fun time and I’m glad I own it, although it will never be able to replace the stage. I do wish someone a little more talented played Mimi. Rosario Dawson is lovely, but a true singer she is not. The cast did look their age, I mean they’re 30s instead of 20s in 2005, but it didn’t bother me that much. It was what it was and I enjoyed re-watching very much. When I saw the opening of the movie I started sniffing right away.

I love the music in Rent. I feel like that’s the strongest part of the show, which is important if you’re a musical. There are shows with decent plots but ehhhh music. I can still listen to all the tracks of the Broadway play and the movie and be into it. I can sing them too, although poorly and never in public. They’re catchy and maybe not quite as poetic and deep as they want to be, but it’s still beautiful and there is meaning to take from it. I know as a teenager there was a lot about this play I loved, and yes it appealed to that dramatic teen in me, but I personally never got the sense that I should want to be a tragically dying former junkie. Nope. No thank you. I took away the idea of respecting art and creativity, and also appreciating the love you have around you and the friendships you make. Maybe that’s why I still love this play; I took lessons and applied them reasonably to my life. I can see the criticisms of this show, believe me, and it has been way overblown by now. It was so intense everywhere at the time that it’s like that song on the radio you liked the first time and now it’s the 200th and SHUT UP. But I’ll always have fond memories. I saw the show live several times and I own the movie. And I have no regrets at all.

Now I’m just going to do a few favorites for fun.

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Favorite Character: Mark. Oh Mark. I empathize with him so much. In a weird way, this song is one of my favorites because of him. I love his ‘that’s poetic, that’s pathetic’ line because I think it’s strangely meta about some of the over the top stuff in the play. I find myself thinking a lot like he does. I am often an observer in life and I’ve had times in my past where certain moments are highlighted. I can look back with deep nostalgia (ahem like this pay) and have so much love and it feels brighter in my mind, but it’s hard to let go of at the same time. The idea that he’ll be the only one left standing is fairly accurate and painful, although I also love Roger’s ‘poor baby’ in “Goodbye Love.” Anyway, I am attached to Mark and have felt a real simpatico with him forever.

Favorite Pairing: You know this is actually hard because Collins/Angel are so cute and Maureen/Joanne are so fiery! I think  I like them both for different reasons, but maybe Collins/Angel because I like relationships that complement each other so well. If Angel didn’t die young, I do believe those two would’ve worked out for the long term. Now Maureen and Joanne will always be passionate and probably break up and get together a bunch of times, which is fascinating all on its own, but I think I would get exhausted of that after awhile. Still they are never boring.

Favorite Song: Ahhhhh this is so hard. “Cover You” would’ve been it, but I’m not a huge fan of the earlier version, although I totally understood why he made it that light. So it contrasted that hard when Angel died. I know every song in this play by heart, I’m not kidding you. And yes that includes “La Vie Boheme,” and that was a hard one to memorize. I’ll be honest, I knew every word of that one before I understood half of them. I was like thirteen okay? Anyway I’m going to have to be stereotypical and go with “Seasons of Love.” There’s a reason it’s the most well known number in the play; it’s beautiful, memorable, and makes me feel good to listen to. In the play I’d also like to give honorable mention to “Will I?”

Favorite Scene: Yes most scenes are full of songs, but I can love the music and not love the scene it’s in. So going purely by the action, this one definitely goes to “La Vie Boheme.” It is without a doubt the most energetic scene of the whole play. Them dancing around and on that table, the waiter, there’s so much going on and you can watch it multiple times and never fully catch everything being said at once. Just fantastic and it was my favorite part of the original play and in the movie too.

Best Actor: They’re all really great, but I have to give this to Jesse Martin, who played Collins in both the play and the movie. What an amazing singer. I think his character is the most stable and grounding influence in the play, but when his heart is broken it’s just laid out there vulnerable and raw for you to see. That line “when your heart has expired” passes through his lips it’s just an automatic emotive response for me. He’s a beautiful man and a great actor. Special mention of Idina Menzel because I love love love her and I’ll probably write about her more when I talk about Wicked eventually.

That’s what  I have to say about Rent. I may be older now and less taken in by the drama and tragedy of it all, but I still think it is a beautiful play. Amazing singers, funny and poignant lyrics, and memorable characters. It means something to me and I’m not ashamed of it. Measure in love, guys. No day but today.

Comments
  1. […] I’ve written about Rent before. Many times. This was a formative play for me. Now looking back on it I’m a lot less patient for the play, and I understand the criticisms about the show. On the other hand, I absolutely love it, and I will never stop. It’s a tragedy, and I wouldn’t call the ending that uplifting, since you know the majority of them are dead soon no matter what. It doesn’t shy away from addressing that grief. The play is about a group of writers and musicians living in New York City, a big portion of them HIV positive. They’re angry that a former roommate has married up and “sold out,” now insisting they pay rent although he told them they were covered before. They’re poor and trying to find love in a skeptical world. What stands out to me about the play, outside of handling fear well, is the strength of friendship. While they all fight and break up, they still remain connected to each other by mutual affection and understanding. The music for this show is addictive and wonderful, no matter how many times I listen to it. My favorite song was listed as “Seasons of Love” in the review, and I’m standing by it. People are really sick of that song now because of how popular it was, but I love that it’s the opening of the play. It sets the stage and the mood. No regrets about loving Rent. […]

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