Rent was one of the first Broadway musicals to clearly feature gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender characters. It is also noted for its ethnically diverse cast, which includes many racial minorities in its ensemble and leading roles. Rent is considered revolutionary for bringing controversial topics and counterculture to a traditionally conservative medium, and is credited with increasing the popularity of musical theater in the younger generation. Many critics have also mentioned how the show speaks to Generation X the same way that the musical HAIR spoke to the flower generation, calling it "a rock opera for our time, a 'Hair' for the 90's."
The cast album from the show was the most successful recording of an American musical in almost 30 years, featuring both a double-disc "complete recording" collection with a remixed version of the song "Seasons of Love" featuring Stevie Wonder, and a single-disc "best of" highlights.
Rent was enormously successful on Broadway, enjoying both critical acclaim and word-of-mouth popularity, recently celebrating its 10th anniversary on April 24, 2006, with a special performance by its entire original cast.
In 1988, playwright Billy Aronson originated the idea of writing a modern musical based on the opera La bohème. He wanted to create "a musical based on Puccini's La bohème, in which the luscious splendor of Puccini's world would be replaced with the coarseness and noise of modern New York."citation needed In 1989 Jonathan Larson, a 29-year-old composer, began collaborating with Aronson on this project, and the two composed a few songs together. Larson made the suggestion to set the play in Greenwich Village, an artsy avant-garde neighborhood where he lived, and also came up with the show's ultimate title. In 1991, he asked Aronson if he could use Aronson's original concept and make Rent his own. Larson had ambitious expectations for Rent; his ultimate dream was to write a rock opera "to bring musical theater to the MTV generation." Aronson and Larson made an agreement that if the show went to Broadway, Aronson would share in the proceeds.
Jonathan Larson focused on composing Rent in the early 1990's, waiting tables to support himself. Over the course of seven years, Larson wrote hundreds of songs and made many drastic changes to the show, which in its final incarnation contained 42 songs. In the fall of 1992, Larson approached James Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, with a tape and copy of Rent's script. When Rent had its first staged reading at the New York Theatre Workshop in March 1993, it became evident that despite its very promising material and moving musical numbers, many structural problems needed to be addressed including its cumbersome length and overly complex plot. As of 1994, the New York Theatre Workshop version of Rent featured songs that never made it to the final version, such as "You'll Get Over It", the predecessor of "Tango: Maureen," featuring Mark and Maureen; "Female to Female A & B," featuring Maureen and Joanne; and "Real Estate", a number where Benny tries to convince Mark to become a real estate agent and drop his photography. This workshop version of Rent starred Anthony Rapp as Mark, Tony Hoylen as Roger, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Mimi, Sarah Knowlton as Maureen, Shelley Dickenson as Joanne, Mark Setlock as Angel, Pat Briggs as Collins, and Michael Potts as Benny.citation needed
Larson continued to work on Rent, gradually reworking its flaws and staging more workshop productions. In 1996, after the musical's final dress rehearsal, Larson enjoyed his first newspaper interview with theater critic Ben Brantley of The New York Times who gave Rent a glowing review, calling it an "exhilarating, landmark rock opera" with a "glittering, inventive score" that "shimmers with hope for the future of the American musical." Unfortunately, Larson would not live to see Rent's true success; he died from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm (believed to have resulted from Marfan syndrome) in the early morning of January 25, 1996, just a few hours after his first interview. The first preview of Rent was cancelled and instead, friends and family gathered at the theater where the actors performed Rent in Larson's memory. However, the show premiered as planned and quickly became the hottest ticket in town, popularity fueled by its genuinely raw material, relevant subject matter, enthusiastic reviews, and the recent tragic death of its composer. The show proved extremely successful during its off-Broadway run, selling out all its shows at the 150 seat New York Theatre Workshop. Due to such overwhelming popularity and a need for a larger theater, Rent moved to Broadway's previously derelict Nederlander Theatre on April 29, 1996.
Larson's inspirations for Rent's content came from several different sources. Many of the characters and plot elements are drawn directly from the opera La bohème, which was also about the lives of poor young artists. Consumption, the plague of La bohème, is replaced by AIDS in Rent; 1800's Paris is replaced by New York's modern day East Village. The names and identities of Rent's characters also heavily reflect Puccini's original characters: Mimi, a seamstress with consumption (Mimi); Rodolfo, a poet (Roger); Marcello, a painter (Mark); Musetta, a singer (Maureen); Schaunard, a musician (Angel Dumott Schunard); Colline, a philosopher (Tom Collins); and Benoit, a landlord (Benny). Other examples of parallels between Larson's and Puccini's work include Larson's song "Light My Candle", which is nearly identical to the first scene between Mimi and Rodolfo in La bohème, and "Musetta's Waltz", a melody taken directly from Puccini's opera.
Rent is also a somewhat autobiographical work, as Larson incorporated many elements of his life into his show. Larson lived in New York for many years as a starving artist with an uncertain future. He sacrificed a life of stability for his art, and shared many of the same hopes and fears as his characters. Like his characters he endured poor living conditions, and some of these conditions (e.g. illegal wood-burning stove, broken buzzer) made its way into the play. Like the show's narrator Mark, Larson had also lost his girlfriend to another woman. In Rent, the characters attend a support group for people living with AIDS called "Life Support," which is based on a real-life support group that Larson attended called "Friends in Deed." The people present at the Life Support meeting in the show, such as Gordon, Alli, Pam, and Sue, carry the names of Larson's friends who died of AIDS.
In her 1998 book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, author Sarah Schulman claims that plot elements from Rent were lifted from her 1990 book People In Trouble. In an interview, she said, "The gay part of Rent is basically the plot of my novel." Schulman claims that upon reading her novel, Larson stole her ideas and altered them to make them more consumer oriented and "gay friendly" in order to turn the best profit.
The musical follows the lives of eight friends in New York City over the course of a year as they struggle with relationships, loss, creativity, the purpose of living, housing, and AIDS.
Mark, a filmmaker and the narrator of the show, decides to begin shooting a scriptless documentary about his friends on Christmas Eve in his loft, turning the camera on his roommate Roger, a songwriter who is picking up his guitar for the first time in a year (Tune Up #1). Mark's mother interrupts with a call from the suburbs telling Mark that he shouldn't care that his girlfriend Maureen dumped him for another woman, and that they'll miss him at home for Christmas (Voice Mail #1). Outside, their friend Tom Collins, a former professor of philosophy, comes to visit them but is jumped by thugs and lies bleeding on the street. Meanwhile, their former pal Benny, who married wealthy Alison Grey of Westport and bought Mark and Roger's apartment building and the lot next door, calls and breaks his promise to let them live in the apartment for free and asks for the rent, which he knows they don't have (Tune Up #2). The power to Mark and Roger's apartment shuts off, and they vent their frustrations about being broke starving artists unable to pay the rent and unable to find inspiration for their art. Meanwhile, Joanne, a Harvard-educated lawyer and Maureen's new girlfriend, is working on the sound system for Maureen's performance protesting Benny's plan to develop the lot where many homeless people are currently living, when the sound system blows. Maureen calls Mark to fix the sound system for her against Joanne's wishes, and Mark agrees to help against his better judgment because he isn't over her. Frustrated, Mark and Roger decide to rebel against Benny and refuse to pay their rent (Rent).
Back on the street, Angel, a drag queen and street drummer, spots an injured Collins and comes to his aid. They are attracted to one another and quickly discover that they both have AIDS. They leave the alley together to tend to Collins's wounds (You Okay Honey?). Meanwhile, Mark asks Roger to join him in attending Maureen's protest in an effort to get him out of the house, but Roger declines. Mark reminds Roger to take his AZT, making the audience aware that Roger is HIV positive. He also reveals that Roger's girlfriend, April, committed suicide after finding out that they were both HIV-positive (Tune Up #3). After Mark leaves, Roger sings about his desperate need to write one great song to make his mark on the world before he dies of AIDS (One Song Glory). He hears a knock on his door and answers it to find Mimi, a nineteen-year-old junkie and S&M dancer at the "Cat Scratch Club." She lives in the apartment downstairs and asks Roger to light a candle for her because her electricity has also been shut off. Mutual attraction is obvious, but Roger is hesitant as this is his first romantic situation since his girlfriend April's recent death (Light My Candle). In Maureen and Joanne's loft, Joanne's parents call about law business, but she is not home to hear it (Voice Mail #2).
Collins finally makes it to Mark and Roger's apartment, bearing gifts. He introduces Angel in full drag (Angel was wearing men's clothes when he met Collins) flashing a large stack of money. When Mark questions where (s)he earned it, Angel explains that a wealthy woman paid him/her to play his/her drums outside her apartment to annoy her neighbor's yappy Akita into jumping off a window ledge (Today 4 U). Benny arrives and tells Mark and Roger that he will guarantee that they can live in the apartment rent-free if they convince Maureen to cancel her protest. Mark refuses the deal. After Benny leaves, Angel and Collins invite Mark and Roger to attend Life Support, a local HIV support group meeting (You'll See).
Mark arrives at the lot to fix Maureen's sound equipment and awkwardly meets Joanne. They agree that dating Maureen, a self-absorbed flirtatious diva, is like dancing an exasperatingly complicated tango, and the two quickly become friends (Tango: Maureen). After fixing the sound system, Mark joins Collins and Angel at the Life Support meeting, where members share their thoughts and fears about living with AIDS (Life Support). Meanwhile, Mimi returns to Roger's apartment and playfully asks him to take her out (Out Tonight). Roger is terrified of caring for her and yells at her to leave. Mimi gently urges Roger to forget past regrets, saying that there is "no day but today." However, he refuses to listen and angrily drives her out of his apartment (Another Day). Roger changes his mind and joins the others at the Life Support meeting, and everyone sings of the fear and uncertainty in their lives (Will I?).
After leaving Life Support, the friends save a homeless bag lady from being beaten by a police officer, only to be reprimanded by her for being pretentious artists (On The Street). As they walk away contemplating her response, Collins starts to fantasize about living in an idealized Santa Fe, where the climate and the people are much warmer (Santa Fe). Collins and Angel sing about their romance and officially become a couple (I'll Cover You). Joanne gets ready for the protest and her upcoming legal case (We're Okay). Roger apologizes to Mimi and invites her to the protest and the dinner party afterwards, and she accepts. Meanwhile, the riot police and Benny prepare for the protest (Christmas Bells).
All of the friends attend Maureen's performance, a thinly veiled criticism of Benny through a metaphor involving a cow (Over The Moon). The protest ends in a riot that Mark catches on camera, and a local news station purchases the footage. Afterwards, the group goes to the Life Cafe, where they spot Benny and his investor, Mr. Grey, who is also Benny's father-in-law. Benny mocks the protest and the group's Bohemian lifestyle, declaring that Bohemia is dead. Mark gets up and delivers an amusing eulogy for Bohemia, and all the bohemians in the cafe rise up and celebrate La Vie Boheme (the bohemian life), joyfully paying tribute to everything they love about life and dancing on the tables. We discover that Benny and Mimi used to be in a relationship when Benny confronts Mimi about Roger. Joanne catches Maureen making out with another female and angrily stalks off (La Vie Boheme). Mimi's beeper goes off reminding her to take her AZT, and Roger and Mimi discover that they are both HIV-positive. They talk openly for the first time and despite their uncertainties and fears, they finally take the plunge into starting a relationship (I Should Tell You). Joanne comes back to break up with Maureen, and informs everyone that the homeless are refusing to leave the lot despite police presence. This news sparks a new round of joyful revelry (La Vie Boheme B). The act closes as Mimi and Roger share "a small, lovely kiss."
The cast sings about the various ways one can measure a year, but ultimately decides to measure in love (Seasons of Love).
Mimi, Mark, and Roger's building has been padlocked as a result of Maureen's protest. On New Year's Eve, Roger, Mark and Mimi try to break into their building with the help of their friends. Mimi optimistically makes a New Year's resolution to give up her heroin addiction and go back to school. Joanne and Maureen decide to give their relationship another try, and all the couples are happy together. Mark, Maureen, and Joanne scale the fire escape and break in through a window (Happy New Year A). Alexi Darling of "Buzzline," a tabloid news show, had seen Mark's footage of the riot and has left a message on Mark's answering machine offering him a contract (Voice Mail #3). Angel blowtorches the door open, and all the friends enter the apartment celebrating the new year, but Benny shows up prematurely ending the festivities. Benny asks Mark to film him offering a rent-free contract, but the friends accuse him of just trying to get good press. Incensed, Benny maliciously implies that Mimi showed up at his place and had sex with him, while Mimi denies everything. Roger becomes extremely upset and renounces their relationship, but Angel convinces everyone to calm down and make a New Year's resolution to always remain friends. Roger and Mimi make up, but Mimi is still upset and sneaks off to buy heroin (Happy New Year B).
On Valentine's Day, Maureen and Joanne have a fight while rehearsing for a new protest, and break up again (Take Me or Leave Me). In the spring as everything deteriorates, the cast poses the question, "How do you measure a last year on earth?" (Seasons of Love B). Mimi comes home late again after secretly buying drugs, causing Roger to believe that she is cheating on him with Benny. Roger jealously storms out, and Mimi sings about life without him. All the while, Angel's health seriously deteriorates and Collins tries to nurse him/her back to health. All the couples reconcile because they realize the emptiness in living alone (Without You). Alexi keeps calling Mark to try to convince him to join Buzzline (Voice Mail #4). All of the couples perform a dance of love, and Angel dies (Contact). Collins is heartbroken, and at Angel's funeral, all the friends celebrate his/her life and mourn his/her loss (I'll Cover You (Reprise)). Mark expresses his fear of being the only one left surviving when the rest of his friends die of AIDS, and finally accepts Alexi's job offer (Halloween). Roger reveals that he is leaving New York for Santa Fe, which sparks an argument about commitment between both couples until Collins arrives and puts everyone to shame. Maureen and Joanne make up yet again, but Mimi leaves with Benny after Roger shuns her. Roger and Mark fight because Roger is leaving; Roger accuses Mark of living a fake life by hiding in his work, and Mark accuses Roger of running away because he is afraid of watching Mimi die. When Roger leaves the apartment, he is horrified to find Mimi, who had come to say goodbye, standing outside the door and realizes that she overheard everything. She is visibly shaken and bids Roger a tearful goodbye, as Roger runs away determined to find his song. Finding a very distraught Mimi, Mark suggests that she enroll at a rehabilitation clinic, which Benny offers to pay for (Goodbye Love).
In Santa Fe, Roger can't get himself to forget Mimi, and back in New York, Mark remembers Angel. They both suddenly have an artistic epiphany, as Roger finally finds his song in Mimi and Mark finds his film in Angel. Roger returns to New York just in time for Christmas and Mark quits Buzzline to work on his own film (What You Own). Everyone's parents call to try and find their children but nobody is home (Voice Mail #5). Roger is ecstatic about finding his song, but is unable to find Mimi anywhere. Mark, Roger and Collins are together again on Christmas Eve when Maureen and Joanne arrive, calling for help. They bring in Mimi who is very sick and delirious from living on the streets in the dead of winter. Roger is frantic and Collins calls 911 but is put on hold. Mimi and Roger finally clear up their misunderstandings, and Mimi tells Roger that she loves him (Finale A). Knowing that time is short, Roger asks Mimi to listen to the song that he had been working on all year that was inspired by her. As he finishes the song and they kiss, she goes limp and Roger cries over her death (Your Eyes). Suddenly Mimi comes back to life, saying that she was heading into a warm, white light and that Angel was there, telling her to turn back and listen to Roger's song. She and Roger embrace, and everyone is touched and relieved as they are reminded of the fleetingness of life and reaffirm that there is "no day but today" (Finale B).
North American tours
There have been three very successful United States national tours. The "Angel Tour" and the "Benny Tour" launched soon after the Broadway production opened. More recently, the non-Equity tour started its run. There was also a Canadian tour (often referred to as the "Collins Tour").
International productions of Rent include performances in: Australia, China, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. Rent will also open in Portugal on October 6, 2006.
10th Anniversary production
On April 24, 2006, the original Broadway cast reunited for a one-night-only performance of the musical. This performance raised over $2,000,000 for the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation, Friends In Deed, and the New York Theatre Workshop.
On May 19, 2006, Shorewood High School, Shorewood, Wisconsin performed the first-ever non-professional production of Rent in North America, which was called Rent: School Edition. This edition omits certain scenes and dialogue, including the sexually explicit number "Contact".
Rockdale Musical Society performed the Australian NSW premiere on September 16th, 2005.
Rent was nominated for, and WON the following Tony Awards in 1996:
Rent was nominated for, and WON the following awards:
Rent has gathered a huge following of obsessive fans that refer to themselves as "RENT-heads". The name originally referred to people who would camp out at the Nederlander Theater for hours in advance for the discounted $20 rush tickets to each show. These rush tickets are discounted tickets to seats in the first two rows of the theater reserved for sale by lottery two hours prior to each show. Since Rent started the trend of rush tickets, many other Broadway shows have followed Rent's example and now also offer cheaper tickets in efforts to make Broadway theater accessible to more people who would otherwise be unable to afford the ticket prices.
The song "Seasons of Love" became a somewhat successful pop song and is often performed without the rest of the musical.
References in pop culture
Original Broadway cast
The original Broadway cast of Rent is as follows:
Current Broadway cast
As of August 7, 2006, the current Broadway company of Rent is as follows:
Current tour cast
Over the years, big names and pop stars have played characters in Rent. Some of these include:
Rent was adapted into a movie, filmed on location in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Santa Fe. It was released on November 23, 2005. Chris Columbus directed, with Diggs, Heredia, Martin, Menzel, Pascal, and Rapp reprising their stage roles. Newcomer Rosario Dawson appeared in the role of Mimi and Tracie Thoms played the role of Joanne. Daphne Rubin-Vega and Fredi Walker, the original Mimi and Joanne respectively, were not cast in the film. Screenplay was written by Stephen Chbosky. The film version of Rent remained in the top 10 at the box office for 3 weeks. Although the film's take at the box office was mediocre, it has since found popularity on DVD.