What is the Musical Rent?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Rent is one of the most popular stage musicals in theater history. The show is an update of the Puccini opera La Boheme, but takes place in late 20th century New York. The gritty subject material, powerful songs, and tragic death of the young creator combined to make the show a new icon of modern musical theater.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Writer and composer Jonathan Larson set out, originally with a partner, to transform the tragic opera La Boheme into a modern day New York setting, complete with rock music. He set to work in 1988, writing songs and making changes while waiting tables at a diner to support himself. The show went through many incarnations and workshop productions, before finally reaching the last dress rehearsal on 25 January 1996. After eight long years of work, and only a few short hours after giving his first interview about the show, Larson died suddenly of a previously undiagnosed aneurysm. The show opened as planned, and was an immediate sell-out success, prompting a move to Broadway on 29 April 1996.

The story of Rent follows the lives of a group of young artists in New York City’s East Village. In addition to being too poor to pay rent on their apartments, several of the members of the group are HIV positive. The play revolves around three couples, Collins and the cross-dressing Angel, the often-fighting Mimi and Roger, and the always-fighting Joanne and Maureen. The final member of the group is Mark, a filmmaker who spends more time taping the lives of his friends than he spends living his own life. All of the members of the group refuse to live a traditional lifestyle, embracing bohemian concepts and surviving as well as they can.

The play is much closer to an opera than a musical in format. Very little non-singing dialogue happens throughout the show, with even trivial pieces of information and exposition being sung. The music ranges from slow ballads to hard-rock influenced conflict songs, yet keeps in mind its operatic roots. Musetta’s Waltz, one of the themes of La Boheme, is heard repeatedly throughout the show, as musician Roger searches desperately to rediscover his ability to write music.

Critical response to the show was overwhelmingly positive. The show was seen as a groundbreaking work regarding the AIDS epidemic in America, and a huge step forward for the American musical. The production was careful to maintain its roots and message as a community show for poor artists, and would often sell front row seats for $20, far less than the usual price for a Broadway show. The successful show spawned several North American and world tours, and has been performed in at least 40 countries and adapted into over 20 languages. In 1996, the Broadway community would award Rent four Tony awards, for Best Musical, Best Book in a Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who played Angel.

In 2005, most of the original cast was reunited to create a film version of Rent, directed by Christopher Columbus. The film received mixed reviews; many critics praised the songs and actors, while taking issue with significant changes and additions to the script. Some Rent fans found the idea that Hollywood was profiting off of the anti-establishment musical infuriating. The film did not perform well at the box office, taking in only $31 million US Dollars (USD).

Rent has left a powerful legacy in the theater community, which for many decades had seemed doomed to revivals of 1950s classic musicals. Many theater critics hold the show partly responsible for the restoration of the American musical. Since Rent premiered in 1996, the call for new Broadway shows has increased tremendously, and a new generation has been brought to the theater by the message and power of the show.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


I really learned a lot about Rent. I think it is nice that the Broadway community sold front row seats for $20, as those seats tend to go for about $100 to $150 or more.

Many people don’t realize the struggles that many artists go through especially in New York City. It is nice that this musical brought awareness of that struggle as well as entertaining the general public.

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