One morning last spring I woke up to some very sad news: RENT, the Broadway rock musical about life in the East Village in the midst of the AIDS crisis, would be ending its twelve-year run in September.
The show had its swansong last night, as the curtains closed for last time on the 1996 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winner for best musical.
Yes, I consider myself one of the “RENT-heads”—one of the many of my generation who fell in love with the story and the music way back in 1996 and have bought enough tickets through the years to probably have some sort of tangible impact on the reason why the run has become the seventh-longest in Broadway history.
And I get plenty of grief for it—even here in my office at the Pride Agenda, those who are a bit (or a lot) older than me call the show trite or a relic—something that became a historical artifact right before our very eyes. Many of them dealt personally with HIV/AIDS in a way that made the show somewhat trivial or not relevant to their own experiences.
But for me—for the awkward 16-year old from Longmont, Colorado—RENT brought up issues that I hadn’t dealt with in a serious way before. HIV/AIDS certainly wasn’t a part of my everyday life. I knew of AIDS in abstract terms—what I saw on the news and statistics that I’d hear about that impacted places far from where I was. I was also educated in one of those unfortunate, backwards-thinking school districts that taught “abstinence only” as the best way to avoid teenage pregnancy or the spread of STDs. Along with this mindset came the implication that those who did contract HIV somehow brought it on themselves: miscreants who only cared about sex or drugs.
RENT changed a lot of that for me—or at least it started to. Not only did I see young people dealing with their mortality, I also saw how communities and friends can become families and that making the choice to live—even when it’s not easy—was a powerful way for people (especially gay people) with HIV/AIDS to say “I will not be invisible.”
Most significantly for me, RENT was really the first time that I saw gay people, in a pop culture vehicle that I could connect with, as integrated and “normal” members of a community, falling in love and dealing with the loss of a loved one. When I first saw RENT in 1997 I was only beginning to realize that I didn’t get excited about girls or that looking at guys in gym class was more fun than anything that might happen on Prom night. I certainly wasn’t ready to admit to myself that I was gay, but RENT was the first time I can remember not hating myself for the possibility that I might be.
I saw RENT again at the Nederlander a few months ago with my best friend from college. Singing the songs of RENT was one of our very first bonding moments when we met as freshmen in the dorms at USC. She’s not gay or living with AIDS, but RENT meant something bigger to her, too. For those of us who came of age in the mid-late 1990s—after the worst of AIDS, in the midst of the burgeoning gay rights movement, during the revitalization of many of America’s cities, the advent of the Internet, and in a general era of prosperity—many of us felt a need to cling to an idea that people and communities still mattered and that we, unlike many before us, were going to think differently about traditional, artificial divides based on gender, race, sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. And in an increasingly cut-throat society, where we were taught to always think about what’s next and how to advance faster, RENT reminded us to pause and think about the real impact we could have on today—what we could do now.
RENT signified these things for many of us, and that’s why we’ve clung to it for so long, even if its literal story line has become outdated. So it’s with no small amount of nostalgia that I bid farewell to a work of art that no doubt played a part in developing who I have become.