Jonathan Larson’s modern day musical theater version of opera’s La Boheme, Rent, debuted on Broadway in January of 1996 and has been one of the hottest tickets on the Great White Way ever since. Larson’s story and lyrically rich songs about a group of young artists living in New York’s East Village, dealing with AIDS, love, and struggling to maintain artistic integrity, while facing the trials and tribulations of being a young person at the turn of the millennium, instantly struck a chord with millions of theater-goers worldwide, and continues to entertain, inspire and educate.
I saw Rent at the Nederlander Theater in New York City on February 15, 2002. Seven years after its debut, the show remains a high-energy telling of a touching tale populated by a number of clearly drawn characters about whom it is easy to care. Mark and Roger are roommates in a very nearly abandoned warehouse/loft where they’ve been staying rent-free. Their neighbor, Mimi, is a dancer in an S&M club and also battling heroin addiction. Mark’s former girlfriend, Maureen, is a performance artist who just dumped him in favor of Joanne, her new girlfriend and manager. AIDS victims, the homeless, homosexuals, transvestites and assorted other modern Bohemian types populate their circle. Will they be evicted or will their fight for the right to live life on their own terms be triumphant?
Rent was based on the 1896 opera “La Boheme”, by Puccini, which was itself an adaptation of Henry Murger’s short stories “Scenes de la vie de Boheme”. Exactly one hundred years after Puccini’s work, Jonathan Larson re-set the story of the starving Parisian artist sub-culture, threatened by the tuberculosis epidemic, replacing it with a very traditionally structured two-act musical play as a story of the rock sub-culture in lower Manhattan threatened by the AIDS epidemic.
In many ways, Rent succeeds in bringing an old story (La Boheme) and a dying art form (the Broadway Musical) to light for an entire generation of young people, by updating it with issues that important to them and important to society as a whole. What I saw at the performance of Rent that I attended was an audience full of young people, myself included, who were genuinely moved and excited by the live performances and the story that was unfolding before them. Clearly they recognized the world in which the action takes place, and they should, they live in it. In the song, “What You Own”, the character Mark sings, “When you’re living in America at the end of the millennium, you’re not alone”.