Today marks 24 years since Rent opened on Broadway. Every year I try to write something. This year, in particular, seemed important to.
The refrain I keep coming back to is ‘Connection in an isolating age’. In its early 90s form Rent is concerned with the way technology and modern life are isolating us all. 24 years later we’re all striving for that connection in a suddenly isolated world.
Because firstly perhaps for those of us who grew up with it, there’s an element of connection to something familiar. A port in an ever-changing storm to cling onto. Music is so powerful and listening to those songs take us back to those moments in the theatre when we first felt it. Or all those times we listened to the recording. The friends along the way. At times of crisis, we shouldn’t discount the power of nostalgia. The power of escapism it gives us. And for a musical with such powerful emotive music, tied for many of us to our equally emotive teens and twenties, it feels like a safe space to crawl into. Our very own ‘connection in an isolating’ age.
But of course, it’s a musical of not just a generation. But of a pandemic. And I can’t help but reflect this year on the importance of what Larson’s musical takes on again today.
And I’ve struggled. It’s the same struggle I keep having as a scholar of AIDS theatre. Feeling I should have a response, pandemic to pandemic as it were, about where we are now. But the difference this time around is we don’t have theatre, as we know it at least, as the galvanizing tool for anger, mourning, and activism. We can’t collectively mourn or gather to make a response. We’re trying to navigate our way in an unknown world.
And I find myself coming back to Mark and Roger, as I so often do, and thinking ‘The filmmaker cannot see, and the songwriter cannot hear’. For me personally, while a boom of creativity seems to be happening around me, I find myself stuck, and voiceless against …all this. But instead of fighting that, perhaps instead it’s just the time to reconnect with the things that inspire us in the first place. For myself and a generation of musical theatre lovers particularly, Rent, of course, has played a huge part in that.
We look to our mentors, those who have inspired us in times of trouble. To ask them ‘what should I do to respond to this?’ Of course for Rent fans, we’ve lived our lives with an absence there. Instead of asking Jonathan Larson, instead, we just have to look to his work, as we always have done for some answers. And there’s a strange comfort in that.
It’s hard in this world to take on Mimi’s refrain of ‘No day but today’ when each day has merged into an endless sea of…blankness. When there’s no end in sight, and at times feeling like there’s nothing to fight for.
But Larson’s message was always about hope. And that’s something to cling onto right now. Mimi doesn’t die in Rent (spoiler) because Larson wanted it to be about hope. And we have argued for over two decades about the artistic integrity of that. But the point stands that it’s about hope. It’s about a fleeting moment of thinking ‘hey everything might be ok’ even in the midst of everything being not. Mimi not dying at that moment doesn’t solve everyone’s problems- they’re still ill, poor, homeless…whatever. But at that moment, there’s a reason to keep fighting. And that’s what Jonathan always wanted to give. But people, young people, friends, neighbours, were still dying. Mimi’s living doesn’t erase that- precisely the opposite, it draws those losses more sharply into focus.
And that it’s ok to feel those losses. Then and now. The song that hooked me into Rent was ‘Will I’. It seems a pertinent question to ask right now ‘will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare’. But more than that, ‘Will I’ to me asks the perfect, painful questions about illness and pain. ‘Will I lose my dignity, will someone care’ and that’s a refrain that surely cuts to the heart of all our fears right now. That fear of illness, the unknown. Of facing it alone. Larson was writing about a plague where people feared those who were dying. We’re right back to stare it in the face. To have people die alone, to isolating people, to people being lost without our even knowing. Anonymity in illness and death. And that song puts those fears into words in such simple words. We all fear that simple thing, lack of dignity, lack of care. We all have the responsibility to do our best to stop that happening for those we love. And even those we do not know. We all long to wake up from this nightmare.
As I got to this point in writing the cast recording reached ‘Without You’ and I started to cry. It’s been a long time since Rent made me cry on just listening to it. And I’m taken back to the very first time I saw it in the theatre, and Without You made me sob- actually sob- in a way that very few things ever have in a theatre. And certainly nothing had before. In a mix of real-life meeting art, it was an incredible catharsis. A song of such grief, such raw emotion gives us permission for that. And we should let it. Especially at times like these. And while we can’t congregate in our grief at the theatre, in the way work like Rent was designed for, maybe, we take solace at home in the music instead. Maybe we sit with Collins and transpose our collective grief and anger and everything else into ‘I’ll Cover You [Reprise]’ and have a really fucking good cry so we can pick ourselves up again and carry on with our day/week/year.
And maybe it’s not Rent for everyone, but for those of us who have held it as part of us for more than two decades, it now taps into something at the very heart of us, and something we also share. Because we did ‘connect in an isolating age’. We formed friendships that maybe have long forgotten Rent at the heart of them. But we built our theatre community, youthful friendships that have endured- and even those that have not. But we feel our invisible community around these words, this music. Our shared experience. And we need that connection more now than ever. Rent may have long ago moved on from the Nederlander Theatre, but maybe we need to sit today and feel our connection back through the years to there. Because we may have also long passed the ‘end of the Millennium’ but we so very much need to feel like ‘I’m not alone’ right now. We need our connection in an isolating age.
That’s precisely why Rent is important. Now more than ever for a moment at least. For that connection in an isolating age. And for the central message to ‘measure in love’.
Maybe we will be stuck in this…who knows what, for 525, 600 minutes. Maybe the next 525, 600 minutes will look nothing like what we imagined. And that’s precisely the time to remind us of the most important thing, to measure in love.
And while we can’t, the message of ‘Measure in Love’ seems the most important. Yes, it is sentimental and saccharine and all the similar insults hurled at Rent over the years. But perhaps we can set cynicism aside and embrace that for a moment. Will we look back at this year and measure in all the work from home we did, the banana bread we made…or actually measure in it in the time we spent with loved ones. Maybe, at times of devastating loss, when facing the unknown future that Larson was writing about in Rent, that’s all you can do. And maybe, while the world is on pause, while everything rages out of our control, maybe we do choose to measure in love instead?
And yes, that’s idealistic. And nobody is asking you to do that every minute of every day. But maybe, we stop for a minute and listen to the words of Seasons of Love
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles
In laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life
How about love?
I hope, when I come to write my 25th Anniversary Rent blog, that much has changed. And that much has changed for the better. Much like the world Larson created, there will be loss and pain to come. But I hope that I can also measure much of it in love too.
Jonathan could never have predicted all the 1000s of different scenarios his words and music would have provided hope and comfort for 24 years ago. He certainly couldn’t have predicted what we’re facing now. But in all that Rent gives us what it always has: hope.
Thank you, Jonathan Larson. I\’ll send my three claps up to you tonight.