There’s no question that when Rent opened on Broadway in April 1996—with a pair of gay love stories, a narrative that put the AIDS crisis at its heart, and one of Broadway’s first openly queer romantic duets—it was a milestone of queer representation. This Sunday, nearly a quarter-century later, the musical is receiving the live, prime-time televised revival treatment on Fox. The new incarnation is designed to affirm Rent’s place in the theatrical canon and introduce the piece to audiences beyond the “Rent-heads” who fervently congregated around its Broadway run and 2005 movie adaptation. But the broadcast will also expose it to the glare of 2019 conceptualizations of queer identity and diversity. So ahead of the big night, I’ve brought my expertise as a scholar of ’90s queer theater to bear on a tricky question: In these more sophisticated times, does Rent, as a model of queer storytelling, still hold up?
As a simple matter of numbers, show creator Jonathan Larson designed his rock musical’s principle cast with a bias in favor of queer people: Of seven principal characters, four are queer. Of these, in the original casting, three of those four are people of color (Angel, Collins, Joanne, and Mimi). Of these, two (Joanne and Mimi) are cis women, and another (Angel) could be read (in modern parlance) as either a trans woman or a genderfluid/femme-presenting gay man. The good news is, by my reckoning, these characters largely stand the test of time. Rent’s musical style and theatrical format may feel slightly dated, but its portraits of queer people often actually outstrip more recent attempts at diversity. And even when they feel somewhat dusty, they offer an important window into queer history.
Larson’s foregrounding of queer people of color remains especially vital, and his depiction of Joanne and Collins (a successful black lawyer and academic, respectively) is particularly significant. Joanne and Collins are also political activists, Joanne’s family has political connections, and Collins uses his academic connection to spread political messaging—in other words, they are the sort of complex, positive images of queer black people that remain all too rare in musicals, or really anywhere else, today. Fortunately, the Fox live broadcast has retained Larson’s original casting model, with actors Kiersey Clemmons and Brandon Victor Dixon taking on the roles.
Another key aspect of Rent’s queer representation is how unremarkable it treats queer people’s presence in the narrative. Larson doesn’t spend time explaining or justifying his queer characters—they simply exist. That two of the romantic subplots (between Angel and Collins and Joanne and Maureen) are queer—and queered, given that Larson drew on Puccini’s La Bohème as source material—is strides ahead of the more familiar “token gay friend” narrative more familiar across theater, film, and television still today.* In this, Collins is particularly significant: He is Mark and Roger’s best friend and a gay man living with HIV, but he is also much more than that: a professor of philosophy (formerly of MIT, later NYU) as well as a self-described anarchist. Angel, a performance artist and sometime clothing designer, is easily accepted by the core characters for her gender expression and sexuality. In many ways, this is more progressive than much of the contemporary work Rent might be judged against today.
That said, as with any work, Rent reflects the time in which it was written, especially in terms of language or the lack thereof. In the mid-1990s, queer itself had yet to be widely reclaimed and is heard in the musical several times as a slur. And of course, the piece is largely devoid of the labels and descriptors of queerness now common. It’s also worth noting the somewhat strange provenance of the work, given that Larson was a heterosexual, white, cisgender man (who, contra a mythology that’s sprung up around his death the night before the show’s premiere, did not die of AIDS complications but rather of an undiagnosed heart condition). While we might praise Larson for performing the allyship of straight creators writing queer people into their stories, it’s fair to have qualms about telling queer stories through a straight lens. And in this regard, Rent does occasionally have moments that feel like the perspective of an observer, rather than an inhabitant of the community, in the writing.
The queer women of Rent present the most problems of this sort, in the form of tired tropes. While masculine suits and Doc Martins were fashionable at the time, Joanne’s hard no-nonsense exterior walks a fine line. Butchness can, on one hand, be a legitimate gender expression for lesbian women, but Joanne’s could be read as tipping over into cliché. Similarly, Maureen could be seen as a progressive character, unapologetic about her sexual orientation, a woman taking ownership of her sexuality. (Bisexual characters in musical theater are still few and far between.) However, Maureen, her parodically earnest feminist performance art, and ultimately her sexuality are sometimes treated as something of a joke. Joanne and Maureen get overall less stage time and narrative focus than the queer men or the heterosexual romantic leads, and so despite Rent’s inclusion of queer women, it is somewhat lacking in genuine character development.
Impressively, Angel feels like the most developed and the most contemporary of the queer characters. She bounces onto the stage in full Santa Claus drag, immediately and unapologetically queer. The casting of Valentina, a first-generation Mexican American nonbinary drag queen, is perhaps the only update Angel needs to hold up to 21st-century analysis. Given that Angel’s gender identity remains ambiguous, this is smart casting, bringing to the role elements that fill in blanks Larson’s own understanding perhaps lacked. What’s most significant is that the characters all accept Angel, however you interpret her identity expression. A powerful instance of this is when Mark corrects himself, “He, I mean she” during the song “I’ll Cover You (Reprise).” In a moment many a contemporary writer could learn from, Larson subtly but powerfully asserts of the validity of Angel’s identity even without the full range of language and labels we now use.
In revisiting Rent, the element I suspect might be most troubling to younger and new viewers is Angel’s death. A central plot point of Act II and the reason for Collins’ chilling and heartfelt gospel lament “I’ll Cover You [reprise],” there is no doubt Angel’s death is at the emotional core of the story. While four central characters are living with AIDS—Mimi, Roger, Collins, and Angel—it is Angel who dies. Mimi comes close, but miraculously recovers, and so, Rent does at first glance seem to be falling into the “bury your gays” trope.
However, this would be a misreading of Larson’s narrative and a misunderstanding of the work in context. What Larson and audiences at the time saw was a reflection of the world they knew. In blunt terms, there is little point to a ’90s musical about AIDS if everyone lives. The harsh and tragic reality of the 1990s was that far too many people like Angel died from the plague. Pretending otherwise would be to erase queer history.
And Rent is now a part of that history. While queer experience and expression has not stood still in the last 25 years, Rent has been frozen in its cultural moment. Two hours of musical theater cannot be a definitive take on queer life, but it can document a moment, define it even, for generations to come. While, just like the ’90s rock-pop idiom that defined the show, some of Rent’s queer aspects might feel a little out of step, the show’s overarching ideas of love and tolerance makes these queer characters feel not only current, but necessary. Their gritty Alphabet City may be long lost to gentrification, but musical theater, and its fans, could still learn a lot from these characters. Our understanding of queerness might change, but Rent’s call to “measure your life in love” endures.
*Correction, Jan. 25, 2019: An earlier version of this article misspelled La Bohème.