How Do I Love a Problem Like ‘Rent’?

How Do I Love a Problem Like Rent

The televised Fox production of Rent Liveother than the production hiccups that led to it being majorly pre-recorded rather than actually “live,” resurrected both the problems and affection I had with the original stage musical. The lyrics still resonated with me even if I now scratch my head at the story, characters, and the handling of the historical context.

In 2007, I was a middle schooler in Texas exploring the concept of sexuality. As a middle schooler under a conservative father, I understood sexuality and love as the traditional binary, male and female, husband and wife, bride and groom, boyfriend and girlfriend. My knowledge of queerness was developing. My father told me that marriage had to be between man and woman and that men holding hands or a woman marrying a woman is unnatural. Then Rent showed me a love duet between two men.

I was growing interested in theater arts as a kid. I wandered YouTube for Broadway musicals then happened upon Rent. I became hypnotized by the footage of Anthony Rapp dancing on the table, singing “La Vie Boheme.” I stared as Angel spun and twirled in “Today 4 U.” I never seen queer people be queer people before. I never seen a girlfriend and girlfriend argue, well duet-argue, before.

A modern adaptation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Boheme by the late Jonathan Larson released in 1996, the musical follows twentysomething New Yorker youths around 1990. It centers around two men, the aspiring documentarist Mark and a HIV-infected guitarist Roger. As they live their lives, drama happens. Roger falls for Mimi, an HIV-infected junkie dancer. Tom Collins also falls for Angel and both are coping with AIDS. Love and angst happens.

At first, I familiarized with Rent through the soundtrack and then the 2005 Chris Columbus movie adaptation, which I was aware wasn’t a high-quality adaptation. As it goes with the affordability of theater, I had a hard time accessing a full stage production of Rent until a tour came to Houston with the original leads Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal. It still is my biggest regret I never met Rapp and Pascal at the stage door.

I didn’t have a comprehensive knowledge of the AIDS epidemic that affected its characters. But I was warmed by the message of the iconic “Seasons of Love.” As an impressionable girl, I was attracted to the rebellious attitude in “La Vie Boheme,” that you can go “fuck it all” to the system. “Will I”, which was shot with an incredible sweeping scope in Rent Live, always does move me in the collective depicting of suffering.

But the initial personal draw was the population of queer characters. I watched Rent before realizing I was bisexual woman in college. Hearing “I’ll Cover You” marked the first time I shipped a queer couple hard. CollinsXAngel the first time I ever shipped a queer couple (OTP, anyone). Also, I found Maureen and Joanne’s relationship to be too messy to function, but to see a relationship like that broke ground in my head. Even the selfishness of the characters was fascinating to me. They weren’t saints, they were rough around the edges.

Even when I was loving Rent, something inside of me knew it wasn’t as great as I made it out to be. Even when I was a huge fan, I willingly overlooked its faults. That fun “Today 4 U” number I found so catchy and energetic? Well, I ignored that Angel was blithely singing about killing someone’s dog. This was before I grasped the poor tropes at play. Angel is also offed for the angst of a hetero-centric narrative. Maureen’s behavior is toxic and the stereotype of an oversexualized bisexual—Joanne, you deserve better. Also, each character’s egotism and entitled attitudes doesn’t get confronted enough. Maureen is a protestor but she seems to care for attention more than bringing attention to the plight of the homeless. What I initially thought were needs of the characters turned out to be entitlements, such as Roger and Mark just expecting their living standard to be exempted from rent. (And why is “One Song Glory,” the song about Roger wanting to write his masterpiece, is the better song than Roger’s alleged masterpiece “Your Eyes”?)

Now that I’m as twentysomething as many of the characters, the age of Rent showed when I watched Live. Now that I am a post-college freelancer, Mark quitting his new job on a whim because it’s “selling out” enrages me. Also, his dismissive attitude toward his loving parents who check up on him irks me. While Live casts Jordan Fisher, a black man, as Mark, the role of Mark is traditionally a white man with most of the story revolving around him as he’s the witness and narrator of everyone’s despair. The story and overall production cannot outgrow being anchored hetereo-white centricity in a man who never ever experienced the toll of AIDS/HIV. Thus, why it is hard for me to feel Mark’s emotional heft of “Perhaps it’s because I’m the one of to survive.” You’re not the one whose dying, Mark.

Media critic Lindsay Ellis’s video “RENT: Look Pretty and Do As Little as Possible” dissected Rent’s minimization of historical context, flaunting a skewered message of “screw the system” anarchy in a time where the government was actively refusing to help those infected with HIV and AIDS. While Live adds in a quote to contextualize AZT medication for TV viewers, Live does not bother to mention the government injustice. Eh, play it safe? And even before I watched Ellis’s video, I questioned, how are those bohemians affording medication?

I grew to contend with the deep sins of Rent. Rent is something I like to poke fun at now. I lament the untimely loss of Jonathan Larson and that he never had his chance to evolve his story.

Do I still enjoy the music and lyrics of Rent? Yes, but with conditions. Do lyrics like “no day but today” inject positivity in me? It does. I’ll always appreciate the existence of Rent as my gateway into musical theatre, a humanized queer community, and realizing my own queerness. At its best, its existence has resulted in positivity for its fans.

But its sanitation of its subject matter and its less savory elements will stick with me. Nowadays, if I want to enjoy other queer representation in theater, I look to other sources, including but not limited to Fun Home or Head Over Heels. Or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, a much sharper lens about queer people living and loving with AIDS.

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