Isolating Age: Revisiting Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” In the Time of COVID-19

Though it’s been one of my favorite musicals for over a decade, I don’t think I was actually mature enough to absorb the full emotional impact and nuance of Rent until late this March, when I decided to revisit the musical for the first time in several years.

This blast-from-the-past wasn’t just a whim. Though the COVID-19 pandemic differs from the HIV/AIDS pandemic in countless ways, it is also one of the only events remotely comparable in our recent cultural memory. Other writers who have lived through both have also already made the comparison, so I’m assuming this logical leap isn’t totally out of line for someone who wasn’t there to make.

It seems after all, that there was a time when AIDS was as mysterious and frightening an illness as COVID is today, and a time when, at least for those in disproportionately affected communities, life was as disorienting and grim as it is now.

As writer Kristoffer Diaz put it in a Twitter reflection about his experience of that time and Rent’s profound impact on him during its early days:

“Think about feeling alone, even surrounded by millions of others feeling that same way. Think about watching your community in peril. Think about terror and uncertainty and fear and fear and sorrow and fear.”

Yes, well, that sounds familiar….

As I briefly mentioned in my intro post, Rent was my theatrical gateway drug. Even Rent’s somewhat imperfect movie version had me utterly entranced—during the height of my ardor, I watched it almost nightly.

Over the next few years, Rent would become not only the first show I saw on Broadway but the work of theatre that I’ve seen live the most times period; so many times, in fact, that I’ve lost the specific count! A touring production here, a chance trip to TKTS there, that one time at the Lake Worth Playhouse…

In hindsight, though, I’m not sure just what it was about Rent that inspired me to such a frenzy. That it was my first exposure to a truly modern musical? The appealing and accessible themes of living life to the fullest? The hint of rebellion I enjoyed in obsessing over a show that explored “taboo” topics like drug use and homosexuality so openly? Perhaps I just thought the songs were pretty or that Idina Menzel was hot?

Or maybe it’s just the fact that Rent is, among other things, a musical about outsiders. Between my Aspergian social difficulties (again, refer to my intro post) and my 7th grade status as a dorky ugly duckling, 12 year old me certainly wasn’t winning any popularity contests. So perhaps a show focusing on quirky underdogs and that enthusiastically toasts to “going against the grain” and to “anyone out of the mainstream” was a welcome respite from my all-too-conformist peers.

The show’s art-comes-first attitude may also have played a part in luring me towards a creative lifestyle; whatever the precise mechanisms, I can trace a direct line from Rent to my interest in acting and then to theatre more generally, and thus to one of the defining passions of my life.

But the story of how Rent became a Broadway sensation notable enough to cross my path in the first place is inextricable from the morbidly fascinating life story of its author, Jonathan Larson. After growing up in suburban White Plains, Larson spent most of his post-college life in NYC’s East Village, making a meagre living as a waiter and devoting the rest of his time to the “the most single-minded pursuit of an artistic vision” some theatre historians have ever seen.

This vision was of a new breed of American musical — Larson sought to merge traditional musical theatre sound with contemporary rock and pop, and in doing so, to inspire a new generation to give Broadway a chance. “I’m the future of musical theatre,” he would introduce himself to strangers, unironically.

You can get a better feel for the composer by checking out the Jonathan Larson Project, a collection of some of his pre-Rent work. The recording features a few exceptional stand-alone numbers as well as some songs from Larson’s unproduced Superbia, a dystopian musical about the “lack of authentic human connection and compassion in a technology-burdened generation.” Talk about ahead of his time!

When Larson failed to secure a full production of Superbia despite some encouraging feedback, he channeled his frustration into a one-man rock monologue called Tick Tick… Boom!, which was later reworked into a three person show that has played off-Broadway, on national tour, and on the West End.

And then there was Rent. Though Rent was loosely based on the 19th century opera La Bohème, it was more substantially shaped by Larson’s own East Village experiences, including losing some of his closest friends to HIV.

A full seven years into Rent’s development, the musical was at long last slated for an off-Broadway production at the New York Theatre Workshop, and Larson was finally poised for his big break. But instead of becoming a star, the 35-year-old Larson died of a freak aortic aneurysm on the very night before Rent’s first scheduled preview.

Now, while there was no way that even the visionary Larson could have foreseen his own untimely death, Rent’s weighty subject matter of HIV/AIDS had already imbued the show with a prescient focus on mortality.

For instance: early in Act One, an HIV positive ex-junkie named Roger sings One Song Glory about his burning desire to make a mark on the world before he leaves it: “one song before I go…glory…one song to leave behind…”

Then, repeated throughout the score are imperatives to seize the day and to continue to strive for love and connection even in the face of pain and tragedy, encapsulated in memorable refrains like “forget regret or life is yours to miss,” and “no day but today”—advice that seemed even more poignant coming from beyond the grave.

Press were drawn to these eerie coincidences and to Larson’s tragic tale like vultures to carrion, and audiences soon followed their lead. It’s impossible to tell whether Rent would have been such a huge sensation had Larson’s death not attracted so much attention, but the boost certainly didn’t hurt. As it is, Rent ended up becoming, more or less, the Hamilton of its day.

Rent’s off-Broadway run sold out almost immediately, and the musicalwent on to become the 11th longest running show on Broadway, playing for a full 12 years. Rent also won four Tony Awards and even became one of only nine musicals to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

And as for Larson’s fated mission to change the face of theatre and to make the art form newly appealing to his generational cohorts? Most theatre afficionados would say he succeeded.

Rent’s acclaim paved the way for future rock musical hits from Spring Awakening to Hadestown, and the show attracted scores of young devotees. These “Rentheads,” would return to see Rent as often as their wallet allowed and would even sleep on the street for a chance at discount tickets. Larson’s work is also known to have personally influenced artists ranging from Lin Manuel Miranda to… well, I guess we’re back to me.

Miscellania from my Rent phase…

Despite the charms of Rent’s movie version, I believe that Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway is a far better representation of the show as it is meant to be seen. In preserving much of the musical’s innovative theatricality and offering us intimate close ups it would be impossible to see from a theatre seat, it gives us a kind of “best of both worlds.”

Since apparently there are no rules here anymore and this essay is already over four thousand words long, I’m not going to busy myself with much discussion of the performances. Like, everyone was just fucking great.

The entirety of Rent’s Act One takes place on “one single magic night,” a Christmas Eve in the late 1980s. As the show begins, Roger (our HIV positive ex-junkie, if you recall), plays guitar while his roommate Mark films the proceedings, working on a passion-project documentary about their tumultuous lives. Then, a sudden power outage incites Rent’s title number.

Now, many people assume that Rent’s title refers solely to the most frequently used definition of the word rent, “a tenant’s regular payment to a landlord for the use of property or land.” But as Jonathan Larson reportedly emphasized, rent is also the past tense of rend, which means: “to separate into parts with force or violence; to tear apart, split, or divide.”

And though the song’s chorus repetition of “How we gonna pay last year’s rent” makes meaning one of the word rent obvious in the song “Rent,” other verses suggest that meaning two is also at play.

For example, the company wonders:

How do you leave the past behind

When it keeps finding ways to get to your heart

It reaches way down deep and tears you inside out

‘Til you’re torn apart

Rent

How can you connect in an age

Where strangers, landlords, lovers

Your own blood cells betray

What binds the fabric together

When the raging, shifting winds of change

Keep ripping away?

And so, quite likely, the song’s closing line “everything is rent” doesn’t mean that everything is “a tenant’s regular payment to a landlord for the use of property or land.” No: what it means is that everything is torn, everything’s in tatters, everything is fucked.

Yes, well, that sounds familiar….

There are, though, certain situations in which “everything is a tenant’s regular payment to a landlord for the use of property or land” would actually be a fairly reasonable thing to say. For instance… when YOU CAN’T FUCKING PAY YOUR RENT. Like, you know, tens of thousands of American citizens these days?

While Mark and Roger’s refusal to pay their rent is often taken as a sign of their immaturity, it’s also possible to interpret the characters’ impassioned declaration that “We’re not gonna pay rent because everything is rent” less as a senseless rebellion against adult responsibilities and more as an acknowledgement that nobody should have to pay rent because this whole fucking system is FUCKED. In the wake of today’s emerging wave of rent strikes, I’m tempted to say that they— and, again, Larson— were simply ahead of their time.

Rent’s plot kicks into gear when Benny, the pals’ former Boho friend turned uptight landlord, offers to forgive Mark and Roger’s debts and offer them rent-free residence from then on.

The catch is that the agreement only stands if they can convince their performance artist pal Maureen to cancel her upcoming protest, which aims to deter Benny from taking over an empty lot on which many of the area’s homeless have set up camp. On principle, Mark and Roger refuse. Way not to take advantage of your privilege, ya’ll!

Yet though Rent’s political conscience is also hinted at by mentions of activism in “La Vie Boheme,” on the whole the show is less focused on civic struggles than emotional and interpersonal ones.

For instance, Roger is “just coming back from half a year of withdrawal” and has been making every effort to shut out the world since, in Mark’s words:

“His girlfriend April

Left a note saying “We’ve got AIDS”

Before slitting her wrists in the bathroom.

Yet Roger is jolted out of his long emotional slump when sultry stripper and current junkie Mimi (who is also HIV positive, though we don’t learn this until the end of Act One) appears at his door, asking him to light her candle amidst the continuing power outage. The two begin a flirtation, and though Roger is obviously intrigued, he is not yet ready to let down his guard.

Meanwhile, anarchist philosopher Collins is rescued from a mugging by the appropriately named drag queen Angel. The two, both of whom are HIV positive, quickly strike up a passionate romance. Later in the act, they attend a group called “Life Support” to commune with others who share their diagnosis and join in a number called “Will I,” which encapsulates the terror of a terminal illness in a simple three-line refrain:

Will I lose my dignity?

Will someone care?

Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?

As much as I’ve always loved this song, listening to it has never been so gutting as it’s been lately. I suppose because I’ve never really thought about how it might feel to contract a potentially fatal virus until… I don’t know, late this March?

After Maureen’s protest, our motley crew heads to the Life Café to celebrate with the aforementioned “La Vie Boheme” a raucous ode to the Bohemian lifestyle. In the midst of the revel, Roger and Mimi reconnect in the duet “I Should Tell You” and finally share a “small lovely kiss” at the end of Act One.

But as we embark into Act Two, which moves at a much-accelerated pace and covers the entirety of the following year, things can’t stay so peaceful. Though Mimi appears to dive wholeheartedly into her relationship with Roger, she can do so only while continuing to use substances to keep everyone at an arm’s length. And Roger, all too conscious of Mimi’s fragile health and wary of getting hurt again, makes plans to leave town before anything between them gets too real.

Even bleaker, the show’s most stable and perhaps most affecting relationship, that between Collins and Angel, is permanently shattered by Angel’s death. Afterward, in the raw “Goodbye Love,” Mark confronts Roger about his disregard for Mimi. Roger fires back by suggesting that though Mark “pretends” to “create and observe” from behind his camera, he is really using his obsessive film-making to “detach from feeling alive.”

It’s not entirely clear from the script whether Mark’s primary motivation is to make art or to numb out—but as someone who employs similar coping mechanisms, my best guess would be a bit of both.

I started writing about COVID almost immediately after the crisis started, and haven’t stopped for long since. This, I think, is partially an attempt to process what may well prove unprocessable, and partially, a paradoxical escape. Ironically, I can sometimes lose myself so deeply in the mechanics of crafting a scene or essay that I can in a sense forget what I’m even writing about.

In typical perfectionist fashion, I’ve also been driving myself rather (completely) crazy regarding whether I’m producing “enough” material quickly “enough,” given all the “free” time I supposedly have.

Gradually, though, I’ve been getting it through my thick head that I may need to cut myself a little slack considering how thoroughly everything is fucked rent right now.

In 1996, Jonathan Larson asked, through Mark:

How do you document real life

When real life’s getting more

Like fiction each day?

Headlines–bread-lines

Blow my mind…

24 years later, I ask: how do you document real life when the “facts” are changing every second? How do you document real life when your leader is a clown, the officials are his flunkies, and nobody seems to know what to believe?

How do you do document real life amidst economic ruin, constant crises, rising death tolls, flaming riots, flagging hope? How do you document real life when the headlines are practically guaranteed not only to blow your mind but to frequently leave you on the verge of tears?

In 1996, Larson asked:

How can you connect in an age

Where strangers, landlords, lovers

Your own blood cells betray?

But now the question is: how do you connect in an age when it’s a risk to even leave the goddamn house?

Though I admit to having a notable tendency to “social distance” since long before it was cool, even I’m not immune to the emotional fallout of continually existing at this level of seclusion. Strangely, I feel not so much more disconnected than I was before the pandemic but like I can now see clearly how disconnected I already was.

Before, I’d created the perfect system of errands, escapism, and busywork to drown out the subtle but unmistakable chords of loneliness; now, often, the silence speaks too loud. I’ve even wondered fleetingly whether this matter of “social distancing” is some exceedingly cruel externalization of my own ~intimacy issues~ or even a broader cultural punishment for all the ways our world —and our country — were already tearing apart.

For years now, Americans on the whole have been retreating to our iPhones and our Netflix screens instead of fully and openly engaging with each other, pursuing our individual advancement at the expense of our values, resting on the laurels of our privilege, and dividing sharply along political, religious, and racial lines.

Such a shrewd landscape is aptly invoked by Larson in the Rent song What You Own. As Roger retreats to Santa Fe and Mark slaves away at an unsatisfying “sell-out” job, their voices join in a distanced duet.

Dive into work

Drive the other way

That drip of hurt

That pint of shame

Goes away

Just play the game

You’re living in America

At the end of the millennium

You’re living in America

Leave your conscience at the tone.

And when you’re living in America

At the end of the millennium

You’re what you own

Roger and Mark then think back wistfully to the show’s first act, to a night when they’d been able to find connection even in this “isolating age” — though I bet even Larson never imagined an age quite this “isolating,” where the order of the day is “six feet apart.”

Yet then, somehow: clarity. Suddenly, Roger hears it; his song. And Mark sees it; his film. The world may still be in shambles, but their creative vision is still holding strong. So, the chorus morphs:

Dying in America

At the end of the millenium

We’re dying in America

To come into our own

And when you’re dying in America

At the end of the millenium

You’re not alone

As living shifts to “dying,” the two are no longer suppressing their pain but openly admitting their vulnerability, and in doing so, find themselves finally able to plug back in. The heartening “you’re not alone,” takes the place of “what you own” as the potential for connection returns. In Rent’s stage version, Roger and Mark don’t physically unite until the next scene, but the film version memorably ends with their embrace.

It’s straight on from “What You Own” into Rent’s similarly optimistic final scene. Exactly a year from Act One, the bohemians gather for their Christmas Eve festivities and a screening of Mark’s new film. But the celebration is stopped when Maureen and her partner Joanne appear carrying Mimi, who has been “living in the park” in thrall to her drug habit and is now on the verge of death.

The group gathers at her bedside as Mimi struggles to maintain consciousness, while Roger plays her his long sought-after song: “Your Eyes.” For a moment, she appears deceased; but then, an intake of breath as she is “brought back to life” by Roger’s song.

This conclusion is another frequent sticking point with Rent critics; the moment is chastised as being too unbelievable, too saccharine. As a perennial pessimist, you’d think I’d be on their side.  Except….in the middle of a pandemic, be it caused by HIV or anything else, who wants another “realistic” story of doom and gloom when there are plenty of those in the headlines?

Besides, maybe the moment just ought to be read a little more metaphorically. While a literal resurrection-by-guitar is a pretty improbable, art of all kinds can certainly empower, revitalize, and even heal.

Art including Rent itself. As it was put in documentary No Day But Today, Rent’s optimism was one primary reason so many audience members came back to the show time and time again; so they could leave the theatre bursting with hope.

Some stories gain their power by reflecting life, but others are strongest where they differ. If Mimi’s revival can inspire and encourage at times when this hope is scant, why shouldn’t she survive the show? Now, if only a more benevolent “writer” in the clouds had been calling the shots for Larson himself…

As recounted in a memoir by Anthony Rapp, who originated the role of Mark: it was a dreary day off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop on the night of Rent’s first preview. Though Larson was gone, his parents had insisted that the show had to go on, in the form of an unstaged concert version to be performed for Larson’s family and friends.

But by the time the cast reached “La Vie Boheme,” the energy of the material was irresistible; Rapp couldn’t resist the urge to jump up on a table and dance it out. The rest of the cast followed, launching into their choreography as well. The company proceeded to perform Act Two full out despite the exceedingly painful resonances, realizing the Jonathan had essentially “written his own funeral.”

In Rapp’s words, once the show was over:

No one moved, no one spoke. They all just sat, some staring straight

ahead, others sitting with their heads in their hands, still

others sitting huddled together. Afraid to move myself, afraid

to disrupt this moment, I walked across the stage as quietly

as I could and found a group of actors from the studio pro-

duction and sat with them, looking down at my hands, feeling

the crushing, enormous silence of over one hundred fifty

people bearing down on me. I have no idea how long we all

sat together saying absolutely nothing, but it felt like forever.

Finally, a male voice from the back of the theatre called out,

“Thank you, Jonathan Larson,” and with that utterance the

spell was broken, and the group began to move and breathe

again.

– Without You, Anthony Rapp

So.

So.

So I guess now’s the time to confess: once a Renthead, always a Renthead, and thus I did not stop at one Rent viewing. I watched the entire show a full three times, and have pulled up a song or two quite a few more. Sometimes it was “for research…” and sometimes it was most decidedly not.

The deeper I’ve delved into Larson’s story, the more I’ve found myself inspired by the composer himself as well as his works: by his fervor, his earnestness, his devotion to his craft.

How terribly bittersweet it all is: how much Rent mattered, how its creator will never know; how much has changed in 24 years, and how little; how I find myself turning to a musical about a moment of disease-driven chaos in the middle of another plague entirely.

So, I’ll say, once more, and 24 years later: thank you, Jonathan Larson. For that.

Jonathan Larson, circa 1996

In Rent’s final scene, sorrow still looms as large as ever, but the show’s core group of Bohemians now stands united and reinvigorated, ready to face it head-on. Though life’s fabric may still have been torn, you’d be hard pressed to see a group tighter-knit.

After Mimi’s scare, the show finishes off with a joyful “Finale B,” a song which a group of former Rent cast members recently sang as a tribute to all the frontline workers who are confronting COVID up close on a daily basis.

And yes; I do think that this hopeful reprise is appropriate. As broken as these times may be, they are not without their small mercies, unexpected blessings, hints of light.

We can focus our attention, for instance, on the ways in which COVID-19 has fostered a weirdly enhanced sense of community. Whatever our backgrounds, viewpoints, or walks of life, we are all now sharing the experience of social distancing, of the threats to our health and to the health of our loved ones, the sheer absurdity of our drastically changed lives.

Like it or not, we’re all stuck in the mess that is 2020 together. 2020; a year, that, at least according to the pun-savvy, was supposed to be a year of improved “vision” for us all.

The implied optimism of early “2020 vision” proclamations is now, of course, viewed as ironic; but maybe not so fast. Maybe 2020 is still the year to lean into our individual visions, and maybe as much because of the pandemic as in spite of it.

Already, creatively: artists have harnessed the power of the digital to develop innovative new work, strangers have banded together to collaborate on projects, and voices separated by miles have joined in song.

And politically: while Trump is far from defeated, his reelection is becoming more and more improbable as his callousness and incompetence is further exposed. As the Black Lives Matter movement grows stronger and more radical, the potential is emerging for a real dismantling of America’s racist underpinnings. And the war of the rent (meaning 1) is just getting started.

And, of course, an artistic renaissance and a political one don’t have to be at odds; in fact, they can fuel each other quite naturally. For one last time, in Larson’s words:

Now, all that (finally) being said: provided I don’t get distracted by anything else shiny, I plan to follow the vibe of this new “isolating age” by making this the first post in a distinct COVID/quarantine inspired series. Next up is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom Of the Opera, and if you’re actually bored enough to follow along, I’ll specifically be referencing the 2004 movie version. If you’re still bored or curious what else I’ve been working on you can check out a scene I wrote towards the end of this video of a recent live reading of new work by Artserve and New City Players!

Meanwhile, pals, happy quarantining, happy creating, and lmk if anyone needs my help overthrowing the government or anything…

Published by ilanaintheatreland

One lifelong theatre lover's informed and quirky reflections on theatre across South Florida! Feel free to email me at irothman@gm.slc.edu with any

One thought on “Isolating Age: Revisiting Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” In the Time of COVID-19

  1. “How terribly bittersweet it all is: how much Rent mattered, how its creator will never know;”
    I believe our souls do not die. They merely transform into another energy dimension. I believe Mr Larson has enjoyed his success from there and is with every production of RENT. 🙂 — Your First cousin once removed Geri

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: