The relevance of ‘Rent’ in today’s world

The history and legacy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical


By Lauren LaMagna, Collegian Staff

Being a positive, active member of society can be challenging at this moment in history. With the many social movements going on, one can find themselves discussing sensitive topic matter with fear of offending the wrong person. People are forming specific social enclaves and are only interested in the lives of the people within their group, resulting in people distancing themselves from individuals who are different from them. Instead of functioning as one collaborative community, we’re functioning in hundreds of small, specific communities.

On Jan. 27, FOX aired its fourth live musical, “Rent.” This musical depicts struggling young artists in New York City in the 1990s, following seven friends throughout one year and observing their accomplishments, tragedies, struggles and relationships – everything that a year has to offer. Having originally premiered in 1996 off Broadway (and later on Broadway that same year), one would think that “Rent” would simply be outdated since so much has changed in the last 23 years. But although a lot has changed in the last two decades, what late composer and lyricist Jonathan Larson showcased in his musical is also timeless and exactly what a 2019 audience needs.

While the main theme of “Rent” is universal, Larson also wrote a political and social piece of theater that spoke about important subject matters in the 1990s. As a struggling artist himself, Larson witnessed his friends struggle to not only pay their rent, but also to fight for their lives. Larson was living in the heart of New York City in the middle of the AIDS epidemic when thousands of Americans were dying each year, some of whom were Larson’s friends. During the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, most people who were infected were poor, especially the AIDS patients of New York City. During this time, Larson watched many of his friends, of all races, sexual preferences and genders, get sick without the privilege of obtaining medicine that could potentially save their lives. So, it was only natural to include this disease in his musical, where four out of the seven main characters are HIV positive.

HIV/AIDS is an integral part of “Rent” that Larson included in the musical to demand social change. Throughout the play, the audience learns about the characters’ struggle to stay healthy, their lack of resources to get help and how one gets the disease. Most importantly, Larson showed how the disease was not secluded within one population, which was the stereotype at the time. He did this by having the HIV positive characters be not only people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual, but also straight people. The disease was not limited to only one community, and Larson made sure his audience knew this. There are scenes that center around a support group for individuals with AIDS where they sing about their experiences. They sing about the medical side of AIDS, but they also sing about the fear of losing the person they were to the disease. In the song “Will I,” a character in the group questions if anyone will care that they are facing death with no defense or if they will lose their dignity just because they have AIDS. Soon, another character sings the exact same worries, then another, until the entire cast is on stage singing in unison even if they’re not HIV positive. This is because Larson’s words don’t just pertain to HIV-positive people. The song connects to all individuals who are struggling for being exactly who they are, whether they’re struggling for following their dream, or being true to oneself, or even moving to a different location. Everyone is afraid of losing the person they once were in order to be true to themselves. But when every character is singing the same line over and over, they realize that they are all afraid of what is to come but that they are also all together, ready to support one another. That is a message that stretches across generations, that in the face of adversity and hate, one can choose love and live in the moment.

Although “Rent” follows characters struggling to live in the city in the 1990s, it is not a story only for struggling New Yorkers. It is a show for outcasts, minorities and the LGBTQ+ community. It’s for everyone who feels alone and afraid even though they’re aware that there are millions of people who feel the exact same way. “Rent” is about young people whose community is falling apart while being surrounded by anger, fear and the unknown. Instead of living in fear or hate, they come together despite their differences. They show each other what happens when you allow yourself to fall in love with the people around you, especially if you’re afraid too.

The truth is, no one can predict the future. We live in a polarizing and dividing time in the world but, like the characters in “Rent,” we should acknowledge the hate and unfairness and then choose the alternative. That’s what Larson, who unfortunately died before he ever got the chance to see “Rent” onstage, achieved. If he were here today, I believe he would be proud that, 23 years later, the show he wrote to remember his friends is still teaching young adults to embrace the moment, to not take anyone for granted and to witness what happens when people come together and choose each other over adversity.

Lauren LaMagna can be reached at [email protected]