Raising the RENT: Reflections on Community, Sexuality and Musical Theatre

by Victoria Sollecito

[It’s] this gypsy world of people who are just so appreciative of each other’s individuality! where some people are super-gay and have girlfriends or boyfriends for twenty years, and others swing both ways—or are straight and have a wife but they’re okay with gay men giving them foot massages and don’t freak out. And you’re singing about that: no day but today, and there’s only us and there’s only this, and don’t regret… You can see young couples, old-guy couples, clutching each other, openly sobbing…And you’re singing at them, to them, sobbing too. It’s very cathartic. And it certainly put to rest my weird personal concerns, because there’s a much bigger picture.[1]

– Openly gay actor Neil Patrick Harris on his time in the cast of RENT

RENT began as a rock re-imagining of a classic opera created by a precocious up-and-coming musical theatre composer in the early days of his career. What it has become, in the sixteen years since it was first produced, is nothing less than legendary. [2] Set almost exclusively in the East Village neighborhood known as Alphabet City, Jonathan Larson’s RENT follows a group of friends through a single year, from one Christmas Eve to the next, and charts the trajectory of their lives individually and together. Art, love and mortality are at the heart of the show, and creator Jonathan Larson’s script and score explore what those themes meant for Gen X New Yorkers, treating questions of sexuality, drug use, poverty, artistic integrity, isolation, community and, most notably, life and death in the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Despite its controversial subject matter, RENT was an almost instant critical and commercial hit. The genesis of its story was in a harsh and dangerous New York; the first production of the show was mounted in 1994, the same year former U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani became mayor. The show’s development and eventual premiere on Broadway unfolded as the new mayor began cracking down, cleaning up and forever changing the landscape of New York City. In 1996, following the sudden death of its creator, the intentionally incendiary show about the struggles of living and dying in New York, became a Tony, Obie, Drama Desk and Pulitzer prize winning musical for a new generation. RENT maintained a dedicated, loyal and extremely enthusiastic fan following well into the new millennium, extending its run several times before finally closing in the fall of 2008.[3]

The story of RENT—its development, success and longevity—is a complicated one. For more than a decade the show was both a commercially successful brand and a cult-favorite among musical theatre insiders. It was both a representation of the New York that once was and a product of the New York we know today. Above all else, it was a musical with enormous cultural and personal significance for individuals across age groups and around the world. My Master’s thesis will attempt to uncover why the show was so important and what impact it has had on both its fans and the culture as a whole. I will consider how the musical was shaped by the social, political, historical, artistic moment of its creation and imagine how uses and readings of the musical have changed as the world has changed around it. Additionally I will look at what the musical itself has shaped and how it has affected the social, political, historical and artistic landscape as well as what it has meant in the lives of individuals.

Stacy Wolf’s recent work in this field, A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical (2002), has provided an important stepping stone for this kind of work on theatre.[4] Her analysis moves beyond “gay readings” of inherently straight texts to consider the queer meaning that is always already a part of these musicals and their stars. And, eschewing the foregone conclusion of a relationship between gay men and musical theatre, her analysis is broad enough to consider that anyone, gay or straight, male or female, might inhabit a position of what she calls “lesbian spectatorial practice” when watching the musical performance of the female stars she writes about. Moving a step beyond Wolf, I argue that contemporary musical theatre fandom and spectatorship is an always already queer practice and that there is room to read distinctly queer meanings and pleasures in audience, or fandom, relationships to musical theatre scripts, scores and performance.

I consider RENT, attentive to the effect that the world has on the construction of the musical and, equally important, the effect that the musical has had far beyond the footlights. Like Wolf, I imagine the moments of queer meaning making that anyone might have with a musical, its stars and its historical moment, and I attempt to understand how those moments can shape individual identity, shared notions of community and the institution of the musical itself. Additionally, I approach my analysis of RENT attentive to the question of why that musical in particular mattered so much. RENT is the story of a particular moment in the history of New York City; but the story of RENT’s meteoric rise to cult favorite and commercial success marks a point of collision and undeniable change in American art, culture, politics and social values.

Looking to the text itself, to the script and score, to audio and video recordings, to various versions of the play throughout its development and to the reflections of those involved throughout the development process, I examine the artistic history of the piece, what the peculiar moment of its creation allowed both its form and content to do differently and also the historical context in which the show was developed and produced. But I also consider, maybe most meaningfully, how the show was shaped and changed over time. Examining newspaper coverage I consider the ways in which both local politics and the national conversation around social issues fundamentally affected the meanings that were made of the show from its first downtown workshops, through its Broadway transfer, Tony Award victory and release as a major motion picture to its licensing for performance by high school students and beyond.

At the same time, I imagine the perspective of fans of RENT and the genre of musical theatre to understand just how meaningful the show has been. Analyzing coverage of the musical’s considerable fandom in the mainstream press as well as more specific niche publications, and reading fan postings on internet forums and fan reflections in print, I consider how people have identified with, formed identity through and built community around RENT. Equally significant, I consider how those uses and understandings of the show have altered over time as the historical moment and social context have shifted, as the community the show represents, the fans who love it and the world around them have changed.

Organized chronologically, the thesis is none-the-less divided along largely thematic lines. Chapter One begins by establishing the social and artistic scene into which the first workshop production of RENT emerged in 1994 and traces those lines through the re-vamped New York Theatre Workshop production that catapulted the show to fame two years later.[5] Chronicling the musical’s development process, the chapter’s primary focus is on the themes of mortality that are the heart of both the musical and its creation. The chapter explores the tragic death of the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, just days before the NYTW production opened to critical acclaim and the impact that loss had on the performers, the audience and the legacy of the show. Chapter One also deals with the tragic losses—in this case the AIDS related deaths—that drive both the spirit and the plot of the musical. I am attentive, in this chapter, to the picture Larson paints of mortality in general and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in particular, to the effect the AIDS crisis had on the community he represents and to the support group communities that he both participated in and dramatized through the shows development.

Chapter Two picks up where the previous chapter left off, chronicling the musical’s transfer to Broadway in the wake of its creator’s death. This chapter considers briefly the geographical and social politics at play as the show transferred and investigates how a show about the down-and-out downtown life helped revitalize the decidedly uptown Broadway industry. One of the key features of the Broadway-transfer of RENT was the production team’s insistence on maintaining both the shows early aesthetic and its accessibility to less affluent theatergoers.[6] This philosophy, and the potential financial gain associated with courting younger audiences through accessibility, led to the production’s ground-breaking decision to make front row seats available for $20 at every performance.[7]

With that policy in mind I analyze, in Chapter Two, how fandom grew up around the show. Considering both the circumstance of the Broadway production and the subject matter and artistic approach of the show itself, I examine, imagine and interpret the uses that fans made of the show through the late 90s and into the new millennium. I pay particular attention to the ways in which the show could be a meaningful place of exchange around ideas of identity, sexuality and community. I end the chapter by investigating briefly whether either the subject matter of the show or the ticket pricing policy of the Broadway production ultimately made the show more accessible to a broader or more diverse population than the typical musical theatre audience.

In the final chapter I examine the changing format and possibilities for performance of RENT: from the release of the major motion picture version of the show in 2005, through the closing of the Broadway production and the subsequent release of the licensing rights to the show for performance by amateur and students groups in 2008 and beyond. In addition to examining how the text of the show was literally changed in these various re-presentations— including additions in the film to the original Broadway script and major revisions and redactions in the RENT: Student Edition script—I consider how the passage of time altered the meanings and messages of the musical and the role it played in the lives of fans, theatre practioners and the nation as a whole.

“No day but today” is the driving mantra at the heart of Jonathan Larson’s RENT. In reality, though, history, progress and the passage of time are fundamentally important to what the musical has become. RENT ran for more than a decade on Broadway and its legacy and impact have continued to be significant well into the new millennium. It is impossible to understand the trajectory of the show’s development, the resonance it had and continues to have with fans and the longevity of its influence without careful attention to both the history it grew out of and the history it continues to change. How, I ask over the course of this thesis, did RENT develop and change in the historical moments that it did and why, more than any other musical in decades, has it continued to matter to so many people for so many years? ▢

Victoria Sollecito is a second year Women’s History graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College where her work focuses on representations of gender and sexuality in popular culture and the arts. She is active in theatre around the New York metropolitan area as a stage manager and director and works extensively with the new jersey arts collective.

[1] Emily Nussbaum, “High Wire Act” New York Magazine, September 13, 2009. http://nymag.com/arts/tv/profiles/59002/

[2]Barry Singer, Ever After: The Last Years of Musical Theater and Beyond (New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2004), 111.

[3] Cambell Robertson, “Nearly 12 Years Old, ‘Rent’ is to Close,” New York Times, January 16, 2008. Accessed via Lexis-Nexus

[4] Stacy Wolf, A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002)

[5] Anthony Rapp, without you: a memoir of love, loss, and the musical RENT. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

[6] Jeremy Gerard, “Uptown or onscreen, this ‘Rent’ is due,” Variety, February 19, 1996-February 25, 1996, Pg. 1. Compiled by Michael Riedel, Wayman Wong and Wire Reports, “Extra! Extra! Late-Breaking News from the World of Entertainment,” Daily News, March 5, 1996, Pg. 33.

[7] Matthew Blank, “Broadway Rush, Lottery and Standing Room Only Policies,” Playbill.com, November 2, 2010, http://www.playbill.com/celebritybuzz/article/82428-Broadway-Rush-Lottery-and-Standing-Room-Only-Policies

2 thoughts on “Raising the RENT: Reflections on Community, Sexuality and Musical Theatre

  1. As a huge fan of Rent, I’d be very interested in reading your exploration of the impact of Jonathan Larson’s death from undiagnosed Marfan Syndrome. I live with that condition and recently avoided the complication he suffered from, thankfully. Best of luck with your thesis!

  2. Dear People,
    This photo was very useful towards our school project. I appreciate your attempt to paint with black.

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