In 1996, young, little-known playwright Jonathan Larson debuted his masterpiece in an off-Broadway theater. Very quickly, veteran Broadway hands recognized Rent as one of the best plays ever written; it packed theaters until 2008, when the show finally closed. Larson never saw his instant classic performed, nor was he able to personally accept the Pulitzer Prize he won. He had died the night before the debut, of an aortic aneurysm. The musical went on to score 10 Tony nominations and four awards.
Even wider-reaching was the 2005 film adaptation, which followed the musical nearly word for word, song for song. Most of the original cast was in the film, which earned nearly $30 million and still more awards. (Yes, the stage production was better than the movie, but it was nonetheless satisfying to see the film bring the same reflections to the masses.)
Rent borrowed from Puccini’s opera La Bohème, written and performed in 1896, sharing characters’ names and traits, but updated for the MTV era. While La Bohème showcased the lives of struggling artists of their time, Rent shared — with the everyman — the lives of those living in the shadow of AIDS in the late ’80s in New York’s Alphabet City, which was a series of slum apartments and tent towns in the East Village. At the center of the story are roommates Roger and Mark, a musician and filmmaker, respectively. They are broke, squatting in their own apartment after their former-roommate-turned-landlord goes back on a promise. We meet a posse of friends who are trying to save their living space: Mimi, who becomes Roger’s girlfriend, is an HIV-positive junkie working as an exotic dancer to fund her habit. Maureen is a loud, bossy vixen breaking hearts, including poor Mark’s. Angel is the lovable transgender woman squeaking by, doing odd jobs and busking percussion jams for money on the street, where she meets Tom Collins, a professor at New York University. Both suffer from AIDS and cling to each other for support and love.
Beginning July 18, Northeast Floridians can catch the show at Players by the Sea in Jacksonville Beach — directed by Alejandro Rodriguez and starring Elias Hionides as Roger.
“I think this story still resonates because this show is about overcoming obstacles and accepting life for what life is — the good and the bad,” Hionides says. “It is about learning to accept your past and understanding that we each have choices to make that determine our future.”
Rodriguez, also PBTS’s education and outreach director, points out the profound impact Larson’s work has had on his life: “I first saw Rent, the film version. I had never been introduced to musical theater, and I was completely captivated that a musical could have such depth and capture human emotion in such detail. I was impressed with how developed the characters in the show were, and as a 17-year-old, Rent made me believe that I could do anything in this world. Eventually, I would attend college and study musical theater and direct and perform professionally, and that’s all thanks to that afternoon watching the movie Rent.”
The musical answers the questions people are afraid to ask about AIDS: How do you get it? Do you die right away? Do only gay people get it? Bad people? Larson humanized the disease, brought it out from the shadows and onto stages in cities and towns across America, and opened the door to those unanswered questions.
In 1996, when Rent was first performed on Broadway, the CDC reported 581,429 people were diagnosed with AIDS by December of that year. In Florida alone, the CDC reported 6,788 AIDS cases. Last year, the CDC estimated that at least 1.1 million people are living with AIDS or HIV in the United States — with one in 6 unaware that they were infected.
If there had been a way in 1996 to predict the state of equality in 2014, one wonders if Larson would have added a scene depicting what it feels like to be discriminated against for whom you love. In our “season of love,” when support for gay rights and same-sex marriage is higher than ever, we can still relate to Rent‘s message. As Larson wrote in one of the musical numbers, “Why choose fear?” — a question answered with “I’m a New Yorker, fear’s my life.”
Any LGBT resident of Duval County can relate to the sentiment. Fear remains real when you consider the Jacksonville City Council’s vote against the Human Rights Ordinance only two years ago. (The ordinance called for fair treatment of the LGBT community in housing and employment.)
Perhaps the city’s leaders should try to follow Larson’s lead by living a year of love, all 525,600 minutes of it. As Larson wrote in a note to the New York Theatre Workshop, “In these dangerous times, where it seems the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can all learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day, and we should reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life.”