In the summer of 1992, a man named Jonathan Larson bicycled by the New York
Theatre Workshop in the East Village in NYC. He stuck his head in, liked what he saw,
and dropped off a tape of songs the next day (Kroll, 58). Larson was a man living in
Manhattan in the late 1980s and 1990s. He had friends who died of AIDS, he had gay
friends, and he put them all into his music. Thus Rent was born. Rent is a musical which
has touched millions of people in its short life. To have touched so many in such a short
time, there must be something there. Some little spark, some underlying idea, that
connects with people.
Rent is based around the lives of eight friends in New York City at the end of the
Twentieth Century. Our first character is Mark Cohen, our narrator and a filmmaker.
Next comes Roger, a guitarist and Mark's longtime friend and roommate. Roger's
girlfriend has recently committed suicide after learning she had AIDS. Tom Collins,
known as Collins to his friends, is their sometimes roommate, and an intellectual college
professor. Mimi is their downstairs neighbor, and a dancer at the Cat Scratch Club.
Maureen, Mark's ex-girlfriend, is a protest artist. Joanne, Maureen's girlfriend, is a
lawyer. Benjamin Coffin III (Benny) used to live with Roger, Collins and Mark, but has
moved out and up to own the entire building. Angel, our last character, is a street
performer born a man and living as a woman.
So much of Rent is truly revolutionary. Never before had AIDS been discussed in
musical theater. Never before had so many characters – more than half – been gay. Never
before had drugs and their effects played such a huge role. This was a pure nineties
musical. This is to be expected, because for the most part, the theme of a musical is an
indicator of cultural thought at the time it first came out. Avenue Q would never have
been picked up in 1950. Hairspray would not have been welcome in the 1960s.
Conversely, as a new musical, Flower Drum Song would be a terrible flop today, as