LGBT — April 29, 2016 at 8:00 am

RENT at 20: How a Broadway musical made me an activist


I remember it like it was yesterday. June 21, 1996. My mom came home from work and asked me for a favor. Her boss’s son was going to be on TV, and since neither of them knew how to use the VCR to tape something she asked me to do it. Her boss (at the time) is the mother of Gilles Chiasson, one of the members of the original Broadway cast of RENT, and the cast was going to be on The Rosie O’Donnell Show. I set up the VCR and we sat there and watched, just for kicks.

June 21, 1996 is the day my life changed forever. I was 14 at the time, and I really didn’t have a whole lot of experience with music at the time. I wouldn’t say I led a sheltered life, but the internet was just getting off the ground and I was massively unpopular at school, so the only music I’d ever been exposed to was the stuff my parents listened to. I’d never really heard any gospel, and the only Broadway I knew was the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber. As I watched this group of phenomenally talented people permanently smash the mold of what a Broadway musical could be, I was transfixed. The moment Gwen Stewart opened her mouth to sing her solo, my mind was blown. I didn’t know the human voice could do that.

Overnight I became a RENThead. I begged, pleaded…heck, I practically demanded a copy of the soundtrack and the accompanying book and libretto that was released at the time. I still have my big poster of the original cast, for which my mom found the most perfect frame ever (silvery-black to match the duct-tape-style binding on the companion book). The mid-90s was before digital music, so I literally wore out my first copy of the soundtrack listening to it. Other choir kids at my school soon discovered the show, and we had something to bond over. If you were a choir/show kid in the mid to late 1990s, chances are pretty good that you have the entire score of RENT memorized backward, forward, and inside out.

RENT was originally scheduled to open off-Broadway on January 25, 1996. The show is a modern retelling of Puccini’s La Boheme, an opera about Bohemian artists wrestling with poverty and tuberculosis in the 1840s. The show tells the tale of Mark and Roger, artists living in a building owned by the recently married (and thus gentrified) Benjamin (Benny) Coffin III, and their friends. Benny and his developer friends are attempting to turn the building into a “digital, virtual, interactive studio” called CyberArts, but the people living in the building and on the block fight back against the plan. Meanwhile, several of the main characters are living with HIV or AIDS. What unfolds is a rich, poignant tale about what it means to be living and “dying in America at the end of the millennium.”

RENT’s themes exploded into real life on the night the show was supposed to open when RENT writer/composer Jonathan Larson died suddenly from an aortic aneurysm caused by Marfan syndrome. The cast and crew saw up close what it meant to live for “no day but today”. The performance that night was cancelled, and the cast gathered for a standing sing-through of the score in Jonathan’s memory. But they pushed through their grief (as the saying goes, “the show must go on”) and RENT became more than a musical. Jonathan Larson won a Pulitzer Prize, and the show opened on Broadway on April 29, 1996, twenty years ago today. It went on to run for 5,123 performances grossing $280 million, and launched the careers of Law & Order’s Jesse L. Martin, Chicago’s Taye Diggs, and Frozen’s Idina Menzel.

Because of the generosity of my amazing grandmother, I was lucky enough to see the show myself on December 30, 1997. Neither of us had the fortitude to do the infamous $20 ticket line, so we sat in the cheap seats in the balcony. Things got a little awkward during some of the show’s racier parts, but my grandmother was a good sport.

It was a life-changing experience. Before RENT, I didn’t know what community was. I didn’t know people banded together to fight The Man. I had some vague ideas about poverty and injustice, but I didn’t know there were people out there actually doing something about it. Although I watched the news every night, it never clicked with me that people living with disease and addiction were real people with real lives. I had no experience with racism or sexism. “Gentrification” was a 14-letter-word and I had no idea what it meant. By then I knew I was gay, but I’d never seen a gay relationship depicted in any media. Seeing Maureen and Joanne on that stage was a revelation — they were lesbians, but it was almost totally irrelevant to the plot. RENT didn’t just break the mold for a Broadway musical. It blew open doors in my mind.

This video was taken on September 7, 2008, the night RENT closed on Broadway. Members of the original cast and other RENT alumni were invited to come back and join the current cast for one last round of Seasons of Love. For a few brief minutes the Nederlander Theater became part theater, part funeral home, part church — a massive group therapy session for RENTheads who grew up with this show and would miss it like a dearly departed loved one. At 5:15 in the video there’s a shot of Jonathan Larson’s sister Julie and his parents Al and Nan, and this shot wrecks me emotionally every single time. Gwen Stewart, whose spectacular pipes had pulled me into the RENT family in the summer of 1996, returned for the last few weeks of performances.

The last twenty years have been a wild ride. I’m immensely grateful that Jonathan Larson was able to share RENT with the world, and I feel so damn lucky that I’ve been able to be a part of this.