Rent, a rock musical by Jonathan Larson, was first performed in 1994 off-broadway at New York Theatre Workshop and grew to demanding success by 1996. Still, 20 years later, Rent is a powerful and impactful story that touches hearts and lives despite the changes in time and culture. The show follows a group of New York City friends living in the shadow of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, and while this was a frightening moment for many in history, the musical presents a lasting message of hope, friendship, love and living life to the fullest.
In 1995, AIDS became the leading cause of death in the United States, taking an all-time high number of lives. This musical provided a message that was so cathartic at the time being and still continues to do so, even if the viewer has no personal connection to the disease. In Rent, we are exposed to a large, diverse cast of different genders, sexualities, races and interests, with people who are both diagnosed and not diagnosed with AIDS/HIV. Although the disease is a central concept throughout the show, it is not the most prevalent. We witness characters attempt to make their lives meaningful, whether it be through pursuing a career or finding love. An event that was so specifically focused on a certain group of people was given an important message with this musical: we are all still people and we all have the same desires.
This epidemic tore people apart due to multiple reasons: death, misunderstanding, etc. Rent was able to show the other side of the disease — the side that brought people together. Roger and Mimi, a couple who had multiple ups and downs in their relationship, found true meaning and understanding in their relationship the night they discovered that they were both HIV positive. Angel and Collins, two strangers who met on the street, developed a friendship and love by revealing they both had AIDS and attending support meetings together. Characters like Mark and Maureen, who did not have AIDS/HIV, remained a strong support system and were allies to the infected community. The network that this disease created built lasting friendships. The best example of the strength in these relationships is shown when Angel loses her fight against the disease and every character begins to deteriorate a little. A scene so beautifully tragic reminds us that every life was connected. Even after her death, she continued to act as a link that brought their family back together as Mark dedicates his film to her.
A time period filled with grief provided so much hope because of this musical. While we have learned of the power of AIDS/HIV, we should not neglect the strength inside those associated with the disease that allowed victims to persevere and continue to live life to the best of their ability. Rent sheds light on these people through beautiful songs, both sad and optimistic, and character development that reminds the viewers that a disease does not define who we are. We all come from different socio-economic experiences that have made an impact on our lives. The conflict in Rent is interchangeable. Because of that, we see Rent as more than just a production about AIDS. It is a production about who we are, how we cope and why that makes us such powerful human beings.