Once upon a time, Rent was the hottest, most groundbreaking musical in town. With a slew of Tony Awards and the elusive Pulitzer Prize (rarely awarded to a musical), not to mention a legion of fans (dubbed “Rent-heads”) who camped out for the then-unusual front-row lottery seats, it was the rare Broadway show that crossed over into mainstream pop culture.
Fast forward a decade or two, and Rent is as much a punchline as a legend. What—other than an unexpectedly awful film adaptation—happened?
Rent: Live, airing on Fox on Sunday, aims to revive the musical’s now-tarnished pop cultural standing. But whether on screen or on stage, Rent can’t help being the poster child for what happens when a phenomenon ages poorly. Does the story of Rent foreshadow what’s to come for other theatrical phenoms like Dear Evan Hansen or Hamilton?
Rent’s rise was precipitous. When it opened in 1996, it was the first mainstream rock musical to hit it big on Broadway since Hair, nearly 30 years before, and it told a bittersweet story that focused on communities ravaged by the AIDS crisis, which was still at its peak. Rent’s characters were neither pure, nobly suffering innocents nor selfish hedonists who “deserved” their fate. Instead, they were messy, sometimes foolish, and sometimes sympathetic, and going through something terrible right in front of our eyes. Hearing those voices was culture-changing—even though the show was written by a creator who was, unlike much of the community he wrote about, white, heterosexual, and HIV-negative.
The second reason for the show’s rise is its creator, whose story is inextricably entwined with the legend of Rent. Jonathan Larson died in the early hours of Jan. 25, 1996, after suffering an aortic dissection in his apartment, only hours before Rent’s off-Broadway opening. When one hears a recording of Larson singing a demo of the musical’s “One Song Glory,” with lines like “One song before I go, glory, one song to leave behind,” it’s a gut punch. Larson’s death launched Rent into the headlines and gave it a myth before it even hit the Broadway stage.
Time flies, time dies, as the lyrics go, and as time went on, Rent went into decline. What was once a phenomenon, buoyed by those intense emotions, gave way to an audience more willing to be critical of what it saw on stage. Rent, read from a less charitable point of view, is about a bunch of wannabe artists who don’t lift a finger to support themselves, smugly name-drop Sontag and Neruda, and seem to believe that a day job is “selling out”—all while giving just one or two lines to acknowledge the real-life LGBT organizers who fought to draw attention to the AIDS crisis. (It certainly didn’t help that Larson was later accused of lifting major elements from a novel by lesbian author and activist Sarah Schulman.) It embodies the worst stereotypes of stories about artists—just as Dear Evan Hansen, with its media-obsessed teenagers who disdain mental health treatment as “trying to change me,” does the worst stereotypes of Generation Z.
Phenomena are all about the moment. Rent tapped into a specific cultural era, as did Hamilton with its revisionist take on American history and Dear Evan Hansen with its focus on social media and teenage mental illness. But some survive the moment that spawned them, and others perish with it. In the case of Rent, the pendulum has swung toward viewing it as a relic of its time, complete with references to “cyber cafés” and litanies of ’80s artists. In the case of Dear Evan Hansen, I believe it too will eventually become separated from the pop culture moment that also is home to works such as 13 Reasons Why. In a few years, it’s likely that we might look back at the state of media focused on teenage mental health and wonder if it actually was shining a light or just glamorizing a complicated and sensitive issue. Indeed, these critiques have already begun to appear.
Broadway is, in fact, currently home to a show that has suffered this exact fate. When The Book of Mormon opened in 2011, it rode a wave of acclaim (and a relatively weak season) to tons of awards and box-office dominance. Today? It’s regarded a steady-business tourist trap, along the lines of The Phantom of the Opera. Book of Mormon traded mostly on shock value: The sheer vulgarity of the satire, from the creators of South Park, won praise for pushing boundaries. But once you’ve heard the scatological jokes a few times, it turns out the satirical elements aren’t quite as sharp and smart as you first thought. Separated from initial reactions and that dash of novelty, a Broadway phenomenon must have something else, something deeper and more profound, if it wishes to endure.
When it comes down to it, that’s why Rent has endured as a sentimental favorite, while shows like Mormon have not and shows like Hamilton will. In a 2014 essay, writer Sandy Allen explains how the things that make Rent an easy target—its pretentiousness, its melodrama, its silliness in moments—are also the things that help it endure:
Rent is sort of right. It’s about these things—the power of love and the fact that art can make life feel better and the finality of death—things that are corny, yes, but also big and real and that no amount of posturing can outrun. Talking about them feels cheap and is embarrassing—it is totally embarrassing to write about still loving Rent.
That’s the heart of Rent’s key slogan: “No Day but Today.” While we may scoff at the bohemian characters’ self-seriousness and legitimately critique the show’s depictions (and marginalization) of its LGBT and nonwhite characters, that statement of seizing the present because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed resonates through the years. Larson emphasized that it was meant to be a story about life, not death, and that thread of hope is timeless. Hamilton might not have a catchphrase, but it raises questions that also resonate: “Who tells your story?” or “What is a legacy?” These ideas work on an intellectual level as much as an emotional level, burrowing in and enduring.
It’s that genuine, uncomplicated sense of hope that allows Rent to linger—and makes Hamilton the recent phenomenon most likely to hold up long-term. For all its flaws—and there are many—Rent is about the hope that, just once, life wins out over death, community wins out over loneliness, and passion wins out over drudgery. We can glimpse a better future, and we feel like at least some of these characters might have learned enough to help us get there.
That might be Rent: Live’s path to winning over millennial and Gen Z fans: a sincere willingness to hope. We’re distant enough now from Rent-as-Broadway-phenom that Rent: Live has the chance to be its own take on the story—one that, it must be noted, has cast a nonwhite actor as the traditionally straight-white-male narrator and Larson avatar, Mark. If it can delicately handle its own complicated historical context, that bittersweet but heartfelt idea that hope can survive even in dark times might speak once again to a struggling, exhausted generation.