December 22nd, 8pm, Eastern Standard time….wait that’s not quite right.
Nine years ago, 22nd December, 8pm (Eastern standard time) I finally saw Rent on Broadway. It’s fair to say that night changed my life, and changed me. A fairly bold statement, but after 4 years and one PhD that is (half) about Rent, I think that’s fair. It also cemented my love of theatre and musical theatre.
I don’t actually remember finding Rent, it just feels like from the moment of musical theatre obsession being born it was there. I do remember when I finally got the Original Cast Recording. I was desperate to play it on my CD walkman (remember those kids) and playing it on the bus home in Montreal (where I was living by this time) but at this point Rue Sherbrooke (yes I remember what bus I was on) was far too bumpy and ‘What You Own’ skipped and skipped the whole way home (remember skipping CD’s kids?) Once I had that recording I was obsessed. These were the days before YouTube and bootlegs were harder to come by, so all I had was the recording. The recording and internet message boards. I spent a great deal of time of Broadwayworld, taking in details of shows I hadn’t seen and talking about those I did. The internet at this time was a wonderful resource for my theatre-starved life, and it’s where I found out all about Rent.
Eventually I made it to see Rent. In my head I remember it being sooner-that winter that I was living in Montreal but my fastidious record keeping tells me in fact it was the Christmas after, when Mum and I returned to New York. I remember having to persuade her to see it, that it wasn’t something she thought she wanted to see. In the end we saw it again four days later.
(What You Own has always been my favourite moment in Rent, Roger and Mark’s friendship being as important as the love stories to me. And I love the staging too)
I actually don’t remember the first time that well. I was really jet-lagged having flown in the day before. We were sitting close by, about row C, and there was a man explaining the plot to his teenage daughter behind us. The current Mark was also infamous for not being particularly engaged with his character, which in retrospect I see was right. It was still magical, wonderful, enchanting. And on Boxing Day, having no show booked for the matinee we went back.
This is the show I remember, this is the Rent I’ll always remember no matter how many versions I see. There was a bit of a kerfuffle and an understudy Mark was put on after a delay (turns out not so engaged Mark forgot he had a show…so internet gossip mongers told me later). The show was electric. I wish I knew that understudy’s name, but it came to life in a way I never imagined. I loved it four days earlier, I didn’t quite have words for what I felt that day. There was a moment, in the song ‘Will I’ always an emotional song, I felt like I’d be struck by lightening. It’s a strange analogy, but the best one I can come up with even now. It wasn’t so much the moment on stage, more this wave of emotion unlike anything I’ve experienced in theatre before or since.
When talking about Rent in my PhD, I always compared it to my other key text ‘Angels in America’ by describing them as ‘head and heart’ Angels is my head, the philosophical political intelligence driven text. Rent is my heart, the emotional core. I’d actually argue that they need each other and work so well because the other exists in a way. But that’s another argument (or book) what that means to me is just that, Rent hits a part of my heart in a way that no other musical or play does. Original cast member Anthony Rapp told me that whenever he sees a production of Rent, if it makes him cry then they’ve done it right. That for me sums it up.
Rent has become a part of me. In part because of what it stood for. Rent is anarchic and rebellious and also political. It’s political in that it instills an idea of an alternative. All of Rent is alternative. Maybe not so much looking back now, maybe not even so much when I saw it nearly ten years after it opened. But it was different, so different to that which had gone before. With it’s mix of races (as a British person I didn’t even know the word ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ before Rent (and that isn’t racist before anyone attacks me for it, but another cultural frame of reference) To see a drag queen/transvestite who wasn’t either Eddie Izzard or a pantomime dame on stage, integrated as part of the play, to see gay couples as a natural part of the narrative. To see non-traditional love stories. To see couples who took drugs and were strippers and who lived outside what Larson called ‘the mainstream’ and see them not be punished for it. All of this was and in some respects is, revolutionary.
More than that though Rent was always about friendship and love And it was friendship and love that I could recognize. Although I had begun a love of theatre and musical theatre, the people on stage were always a million miles from my life. I was never going to be a nun running away with a naval officer, I wasn’t an opera protege, I’m not a dancing cat. The characters of Rent were people I recognized, even if they were glossed with the sheen of exotic Manhattan. They were rough around the edges, they didn’t live in, or in some cases come from the ‘good’ parts of town. The actors too, weren’t cookie cutter theatre graduates. They weren’t the pretty girls and boys who always got the leading roles, they were normal looking people, they looked like people you might know. The characters lives weren’t a fairy tale either, yes things end (relatively) happily but nobody runs away with a Prince, life is, to some degree still the same, if you think beyond the musical, the characters would still struggle in their lives. It feels real, despite the bit of artistic license. And that’s what connects people to Rent. The idea that you could know these people. As someone who grew up in the 90s particularly these looked like people I might have known if I was older. They looked like people I wanted to know despite their problems.
Rent also shaped my life in that way something you’re a fan of always does. It took me back and forth to America in fostering my love of all things Broadway. It’s taken me to concerts and different performances. It’s taken me to TV shows, it’s taken me to other Broadway shows and plays. It took me to my PhD, and hopefully beyond. It took me to meet Anthony Rapp and share with him some of this experience. Oh and it’s allowed me to be able to say to Frozen fans ‘Kids I’ve loved Elsa since before you were even born’ (I’m a delight with children really) Rent, to quote my PhD counterpart has taken me to places I never dreamed I’d go.
And I still love Rent. I love it in the fond way you love something that’s been a part of your life for so long, but I love it for what it is. I still believe it’s among the greatest musical theatre works of the 20th century. It’s not perfect, even without analyzing it beyond what is normal I know that. It’s rough around the edges, it’s an unfinished work. Who knows if Jonathan had lived what it would have been. I always feel sure things would have changed, but what he left us with is something pretty special anyway.
Ah Jonathan. For any Rent fan, Larson’s story and legacy are as significant as the musical itself. For those who may not know Jonathan Larson, composer of Rent died the night of the final dress rehearsal from an aneurysm, at 35 years old. He never saw the phenomenon his musical became. For me, and I’m sure many others, discovering Rent coincided with, and was responsible for, my love of theatre and later my decision to make some kind of life in that world. In that too Jonathan became an inspiration. Rent was his big break, he’d worked for years-working at a diner in New York to support himself, having bits of work produced here and there-none of it happened overnight. In the autobiographical musical ‘Tick Tick Boom’ which didn’t see a full production until after his death, he talks of his struggles with giving up on the art he loved for an easier life as 30 loomed. It’s an idea that’s been particularly poignant this year as I approached and passed 30 wondering what I was doing with my life, and if I should still be hanging on to dreams or growing up and being sensible. But actually, having been instilled with the bohemian rebellion of Rent, and with Jonathan’s ‘never give up’ story, I’ve kept going.
Rent taught me many things. It has brought me so much in terms of career, in terms of knowledge, life experience, friendships and a million little things that are connected to it. And as I look back, nine years later, firstly I can’t help but be thankful that I found it. Thankful that it changed my life. I also can’t help but think if Jonathan Larson knew all the thousands of stories like mine, the ways in which Rent changed lives in big ways and small, that he’d be beyond happy.
At the end of every Rent performance he was part of Anthony Rapp used to sent three claps upward to Jonathan, thanking him for what he had done. Tonight, nine years after that first night, I’ll do the same.
There’s one thing every Rent fan says at some point, and I don’t think I’ve ever said it publicly, so i will now, it’s simple really: Thank you Jonathan Larson.