I’ve spent this last couple of weeks thinking about Rent a lot. It’s not unusual to think about Rent. For me it’s always kind of there, in the background. It’s my musical heart and soul, it’s sort of engrained in me. But the news of Fox’s Rent: Live and writing some other words on it, immersing myself in the music again, reminded me of a lot of things. And it taught me, if I’d ever had any doubt, the live TV event is important. Above all else though, I was genuinely surprised how emotional an experience it all was.
For anyone who doesn’t know, I wrote a PhD on Rent. That’s right, I am Dr Rent. It’s not entirely about Rent, but it’s a major part. I don’t say this to preface my review as somehow more informed, or worthy. I say to tell the story of how Rent came to be intrinsically entwined with my life.
So, to backtrack some more. Way back in the mists of time I discovered Rent, as all musical theatre kids are inclined to do. At least musical theatre kids from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Eventually I made it to Broadway to see the show. I loved it, who wouldn’t. Interestingly, it wasn’t that first time that had a profound effect on me, but I think the second or third. I remember so distinctly being sat in the Mezzanine of the Nederlander Theatre and being hit by a wave of emotion stronger than anything I’d felt before, in the theatre, and rarely have since. And although I loved Rent, as musical theatre fans do, it was that moment it really became a part of me that I’d never quite shake. So why is Rent: Live so difficult for some old-school Rentheads? But why has it made me fall back in love with Rent before I’ve even seen it?
Rentheads, the originals grew up with the show. Their world WAS the world of Rent. Of both 90s grunge, the start of cell phones and internet but the hangover from the analogue age. The impact of the 80s economy had been both a bad and good thing. We weren’t quite in post 2008 economic slump but also it was already turning out to be less easy than it was for our parents. The world was changing, and Rent seemed to be a piece that spoke to that.
More than that there’s a certain power to Rent. And I argue that you must find it at exactly the right age and moment to fall in love with it. If you don’t you may learn to appreciate it but it will never be a part of your soul. Yes, that is a quote from Pretty Woman, which ironically becomes suddenly appropriate with Adam Pascal stepping into that role last week, at the Nederlander theatre…I can’t tell you how much that messes with my head….but also that speaks to how that moment in time, that world of theatre is gone. The Nederlander used to feel like a ‘sacred space’ to Rentheads. Our names were (literally) written on the walls. That space is long gone and commercial Broadway and film adaptations has replaced ‘our’ world.
For many fans it lives in this emotional milieu, that time in your teens, or your twenties when everything is heightened, everything is often difficult, and for many Rent was a cultural life raft they held onto. For those fans whose lives more or less coincided with the world of Rent, or one that looked very similar to it, seeing it in a new setting, seeing it adopted by another set of fans, is of course hard. And yes, it feels hard, as a fan, to feel like suddenly a whole host of uninvited guests are trampling on your lawn. That they’ll be criticising something you love so dearly, seeing it through 21st century eyes and maybe not understanding the 90s world it came from. But it’s a leap of faith (yes Maureen) that it’ll win them over.
That what makes Rent-Rent will shine through, and they will love it as much as you do. And that’s hard too, feeling like a new generation of fans can’t love it as much as you did. But they can, they will and that can only be a good thing. But there is a joy in that. I continue to write about Rent defend it even, because it’s so important to me. And I’m not blind to its flaws (though I will point out that it was always an unfinished work). It’s the same as when Friends went to Netflix and younger people who didn’t grow up with it, ripped it apart for not being …well of its time. Rent is of its time as well. I can recognise it’s flaws. But also would like to point out, that it’s a Broadway musical not a documentary. No, it might not be a gritty depiction of East Village life, or an information pamphlet on AIDS. But that’s like saying The Sound of Music isn’t an accurate World War Two documentary, or that Book of Mormon isn’t what joining the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints will be like.
On a personal level, I can recite chapter and verse everyone who has ever hated Rent in a public way. I was on the internet forums long before the Hamilton kids of today were on Tumblr. Hell, I even presented at a conference after Rent’s most famous ‘hater’ I’ve heard it all. I agree with some with caveats, I will fight to the death on others. And it’s all ok. Because I can be a critical academic, and still love Rent with all my bitter and twisted 30 something heart, as if I’m 19 again and hearing What you Own on a skipping CD player on the bus.
But I’m not 19 any more. Life has moved on, and Rent remains in ebbs and flows. I recently finished watching Smash for the first time (that’s another blog) but the second season particularly brought flooding back those moments of Broadway-Baby-love. Those moments that I fell in love with musical theatre and Broadway, the utter obsession with that world that brought me, eventually to where I am today. And the reason behind that was Rent. We all have our stories, our reasons for loving it. And now it’s time for another generation to find theirs. Because for me, it feels like a celebration. Of Jonathan. And everyone else. That the original cast are there, feels right. Because this feels like a moment to pass Rent onto the next generation while also sharing that moment with all of us who have been here this long. As an almost-not-quite first generation Renthead, I hope when Rent is on Fox tonight, that a whole other generation finds it, and loves it like we did. I hope that there are Trans kids, and genderqueer kids, and just Drag Loving kids who look at Angel and see something in them. I hope the awkward nerdy kid looks a Mark and sees something familiar. I hope the young Black lesbian sees Joanne taking no shit, and does the same. I hope we all fall in love with Collins a little bit. I hope the loudmouth bisexuals see it’s ok to be a loudmouth bisexual (but maybe spare us the songs about cows). Above all, I hope all the misfits and brilliant weirdos look at Rent and see that family you choose. I hope the kids struggling with where they belong see the urban family on stage and realise somewhere, there is a place for them. That there are ways to make a world you fit into, within a world you might not. And I hope everyone hears the message of love and tolerance that reverberates through it. And I hope after, they google Jonathan Larson. And they discover who he was, and what he did. And perhaps they’ll join all of us old Rentheads in sending four claps to the heavens and saying thank you Jonathan Larson.
And after that, take this thing that we’ve guarded, loved and made a part of us. And make it part of you. Count the number of seconds in a year, scream to go ‘out tonight’ sing ‘One Song Glory’ (and take a whole year to write a song), live ‘La vie Boheme’ remember ‘to measure your lives in love’ remember to Moo occasionally. And remember, that there’s ‘No Day But Today’.