The Musical For Our Moment: “Rent” In 2020

Every night at 7pm, New York City sings communal praises to the medical workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. For the past several months, New Yorkers have walked out onto their balconies and fire escapes to shout, cheer, and cry together. While this tradition has died down recently, the videos and images of this City-wide phenomenon from the early months of COVID will not be forgotten.

This phenomenon caught my attention from the very beginning because it represents the paradox between celebration and mourning. When New York City erupts with sound every night it is both a collective acknowledgement of the joy that exists——particularly the joyful reality of a shared experience——and a plea for better. 

The imagery of New Yorkers shouting on balconies, living in the tension of paradoxical joy and sorrow, is not new. In fact, I see this same iconography in Jonathan Larson’s hit musical Rent. 

At this moment, you might be skeptical, and that’s okay. After all, Rent is probably one of the most heavily debated musicals in Broadway history. People either love Rent like no other, or they absolutely despise it. Critics of the 1996 musical have called it outdated, said it is stuck in the ‘90s, and some have even called it a “relic.” Vox writer Caroline Framke even asserted that Rent had no ability to evolve over time, saying, “if you want to move generations beyond the present, you have to tap into more than current trends as a means of communicating,” criticizing Larson’s heavy reliance upon alt-rock and grunge.

But I find these arguments lackluster and surface-level. To be honest, critics who cling with passion to the commentary that Rent is stuck in its own time lack imagination and vision. Maybe that seems harsh, but I really believe that it’s true. Yes, Rent was written in response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, but that is not the only experience it can speak to. If directors, production teams, actors, and even audience members believed that period pieces could only thrive in the moment they were created, why would we produce revivals? One could argue that Oklahoma! is too “outdated” for production, and yet it won a Tony for best revival because it approached the musical in a new, innovative way.

The best musicals are those that have a capacity to engage an audience——in any given moment——on things far greater than catchy, repeated melodies. The best musicals are those that can transcend time by asking the audience timeless questions that often have very timely implications. Rent does this. I’ve watched this musical so many times, but recently it’s hit me differently. At this very moment I feel Rent speaking on a core level to the COVID-19 pandemic and the current American experience. Not only is the musical centered around New York City, but it emphasizes the importance of community in a place so potentially isolating. Perhaps most importantly, though, Rent tells the story of watching an illness unfold with no ability to stop it. This is the musical for our moment.

The original Broadway musical opened in 1996, but the movie——which features most of the original Broadway cast—— premiered in 2005. The musical begins on Christmas Eve in 1989 with a simplistic film reel shot by Mark who is played by Anthony Rapp. Mark is filming a documentary about New York City——specifically about the lives of the homeless population and those affected by HIV/AIDS. The reel shows a shot of Radio City Music Hall, moments of extreme poverty, people experiencing homelessness, etc. These shots——which you can watch below——felt all too similar to what I can picture NYC looking like right now, absent the masks. Mark sings, “How do you document real life when real life’s getting more like fiction each day. Headlines, breadlines blow my mind, and now this deadline: ‘Eviction or pay’ Rent.” I did a double take thinking about the transcendent reality of this lyric. Breadlines in America have returned, except this time people have to stay in their cars.

The shot transitions to a scene where Mark and his roommate Roger, played by Adam Pascal, are singing on their balcony. We see the image my mind was originally drawn to in comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic where all of the tenants of Avenue B on their balconies, singing “How we gonna pay last year’s rent.” While New Yorkers today aren’t lighting screenplays on fire and dropping them off the side of their building (or maybe they are, who knows??) the imagery and lyrics feel all too real, especially given the calls for Governor Cuomo to cancel rent.

There are many other moments when New York is specifically mentioned in the lyrics, like when Angel begins the song “Sante Fe.” She sings, “New York City, center of the universe. Times are shitty, but I’m pretty sure they can’t get worse. It’s a comfort to know, when you’re singing the hit the road blues that anywhere else you could possibly go after New York would be a pleasure cruise.” In that moment, Mark says “I hear that,” but if the movie were transplanted into 2020, he would’ve said the same thing. To me, though, it’s not the specificity of the lines about New York that make Rent so centered in this place. Rather, it’s the emphasis on setting in the film. If you took the film and transplanted it to another location, I don’t think it would hold the same weight because the grungy fire escapes and celebrations in city streets draw the audience to a familiarity of the iconography of NYC. Furthermore, there’s a deeper meaning to the emphasis on community and shared experiences in a city more so than there would be in a suburban small town.

The importance of community is most emphasized in the “Life Support” scenes where the characters who have AIDS meet as a support group. Some of the most beautiful moments in the film are when characters take a moment to acknowledge their illness——both Angel and Collins and Mimi and Roger share sweet sighs of relief as they recognize their shared reality.

The illness that unites this community, though, is also what ultimately shatters it (before coming back together, of course). Back in Life Support, Mimi begins to sing “Without You” as she grieves the end of her and Roger’s relationship, but we start to see the people in Life Support lose their lives and fade away. The shot fades into the Subway where Collins is holding Angel, who is dying. That image is harrowing as it once again brought my mind to the COVID era. Collins and the rest of the friends watch Angel lose her battle, unable to do anything to heal her. We see the same fate begin to unfold for Mimi, too, who takes her last breaths in the final scene of the movie. Roger holds Mimi in his arms as he sings the song he’s been writing for a year, Your Eyes, and Mimi is revived by his love. In this final moment of the movie, we feel the weight of Angel’s death and the harsh reality of life with AIDS wash over us, while simultaneously celebrating the life that we have. The cast sings “No Day But Today” as Mark plays his finished documentary in the background.

Rent doesn’t present a perfect parallel to COVID-19, I know that. But that’s the beauty of it. Rent can speak to us in its original form because the questions it asks about life transcend time. I think, now more than ever, the question of how we measure our life is incredibly important. In the middle of quarantine, maybe we did measure our life by cups of coffee… but as 2020 comes to a close, I challenge you to consider what Rent asks its audiences——new and old——what would it look like to measure your life in love?

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