I’m not going to lie: I love Rent. Despite that, I’m going to attempt to approach this article as neutrally as possible.
Loving Rent is apparently no longer theatre-kid-couture. A counter-culture of despising the show has sprung up, possibly in response to Lindsay Ellis’s video essay from 2016. I recently asked in a few theatre circles I frequent what exactly everyone’s damage is when it comes to the show– and I got a lot of responses. Everyone was very excited to explain why they hated Rent.
I could see where many responses were coming from. Yet, the response I simply couldn’t wrap my head around was the idea that the show is simply “too outdated” for modern audiences.
Rent came out in 1994, and is certainly a product of its time. Given that it was created in the 90s, and given the speed the world moves today, I’d be remiss to assert it isn’t outdated in some senses. One of the outdated aspects people often refer to is the treatment of the LGBT characters in the show. For instance, Maureen is a walking harmful bisexual stereotype, reflecting the idea that bisexual women are unfaithful and so overly sexual and desirable that they just can’t help being disloyal.
Judging Rent too harshly by our modern standards isn’t fair to the show, because Rent is very specifically about living as poor, queer artists and visionaries, in the village, in the 90s. This is important to remember because the show is a response to the attitudes and issues of that time, and it was in fact a radical response when it debuted. Appraising it with a modern eye with no regard for the age it represents not only dismisses the fact that it was an important, revolutionary part of theatre history– and also ignores the fact that it was revolutionary for its era. Essentially, you’d be ignoring the entire purpose of the show.
Jonathan Larson had a storied penchant for writing about his own life. That’s what Tick, Tick… BOOM is about, and it’s also what Rent is about. Larson lived in a tiny apartment without a buzzer, wherein he actually had to toss a key down to his friends from the fire escape, as explained in the coffee table tome. Listen to the track Boho Days from Tick, Tick… BOOM: It’s essentially a snapshot of Larson’s own life. According to family and friends, Larson loved life, and especially loved living the way he and his friends did. He loved being a struggling artist in a crummy, rundown apartment, and loved devoting as much time as humanly possible to his art.
Many of Larson’s works are explicitly about his favored way of living, and Rent is no exception. Rent is rather like a loveletter to Larson’s lifestyle– a romanticized autobiography in a sense.
Larson dreamed of creating “a Hair for the 90s.” There’s many ways you could slice that dream, but regardless, Larson has succeeded, whether in creating a renewed interest in the theatre, creating a show with a lasting legacy, or creating a show that reflected attitudes of the era like nothing else. On all accounts, he succeeded.
To remove the context of the 90s from Rent removes what Rent is at its heart. It simply cannot be done, and I don’t believe Larson intended for it to be done. Larson intended to capture a very specific era and attitude of history. Therefore, condemning it as “outdated” because it fails to align with modern attitudes would be akin to leaving Oklahoma! or Hair out of the modern theatrical canon simply because they do not directly correspond to modern events.
Furthermore, it would be outrageous to imply that nothing of Rent could possibly apply to modern audiences. It’s clear that it continues to resonate in some way, given its continuing popularity. That’s at least in part because, despite being distinctively about the 90s, its messages are universal and enduring. Rent‘s core theme is that love is the most important thing in a person’s life (“Seasons of Love”), and that you have to love while you can, as though any day could be your last (“Another Day,” “Finale B”). Rent is also about relentlessly pursuing work that is fulfilling rather than money-making, and the grind of trying to live for more than money. It’s also about opposing the bourgeoise, and issues such as gentrification and mistreatment of the poor and homeless. It’s also about a pandemic, and how opposing government mishandling of a pandemic can be a radical notion. Writing this article in June 2020, smack in the middle of the COVID crisis in the US, Rent feels quite possibly more up-to-date than ever before.
Though Rent‘s story is purposefully unique to the 90s, its messages transcend that era. This shouldn’t be that surprising. Besides the fact that this is generally how popular media works, many of the issues of 90s America are in fact still relevant. Gentrification, homelessness, drug addiction, disease, sexuality, and gender identity are all topics still hot discussions, despite Rent acting as something of a canary in the coal mine on many of them almost thirty years prior. Maybe we should all revisit Rent again– if we can’t figure out how it relates to modern society, we must not understand what’s actually happening in modern society.
Rent is not outdated. If anything, to call it outdated only calls attention to what woeful progress we have made on the issues Rent spotlighted thirty years ago. Though it perhaps only aspired to portray the attitudes and events of its own era, it somehow continues to be relevant– and that tells us its time is hardly over.