Rent: the Musical

Group 4: Aliza Chasan, Anthony Cagliano, Naaila Hassan              [Oral: A      Written: A       –JMS]



Rent, a hit Broadway musical that takes place in the East Village in Manhattan, focuses on modern-day Bohemian characters and their lives as they deal with issues such as AIDS, homophobia, poverty, and drug addiction. The story follows Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, his roommate Roger, a songwriter and former drug addict, and their friends as they face the issues of everyday life in the artistic lower class while trying to find love and happiness. The majority of the characters have HIV or AIDS and many are homosexual or bisexual. Because of this, they face discrimination and hardship in society and look to each other for help in finding happiness in life despite their situations.


The play revolves around eight main characters. One of the characters has the duel role of acting and narrating the show: Mark. He is a filmmaker working on a documentary. Big companies would like him to work for them, but he resists because he wants to remain true to his art. His roommate, Roger, is a struggling HIV positive musician who is trying to write a significant song before he dies. Roger begins to go out with Mimi, an exotic dancer who is also HIV positive. She lives in the same apartment building as Mark and Roger. While Roger has Mimi, Mark has no one because his last girlfriend, Maureen, an eccentric bisexual performance artist, left him for Joanne, a public interest lawyer. The “good guys” of the play are rounded off by Tom Collins, a gay anarchist with HIV who later becomes in a relationship with Angel, a transvestite street drummer who also has HIV. In opposition to these “good” characters is Benny. He used to be friends and a roommate of Mark and Roger, but after marrying into a wealthy family, he sold out on his Bohemian values.


Quite a bit happens to these characters through the course of the play. Act 1 opens on Christmas Eve with Mark and Roger. Tom Collins, a friend and former roommate of Mark and Roger, is mugged and left injured on the streets. Angel finds Tom and helps him tend to his wounds. After discovering that the other also has AIDS, they fall deeply in love.

Meanwhile, Roger meets Mimi because of a power outage. The two are immediately attracted to each other and Roger then invites Mimi to a protest Maureen and Joanne are hosting that is fighting to prevent Benny from developing a lot where many homeless people are taking shelter. At a group dinner after the protest, Roger and Mimi discover that the other has AIDS and they then fall in love.


At the start of Act 2, an entire year goes by. The group tries to break back into their apartment which has been padlocked by Benny who eventually allows them back in due a change in heart after Mimi went to talk to him. Joanne and Maureen break up as do Roger and Mimi because Roger thinks that Mimi is cheating on him with Benny. Eventually, both couples reconcile. Angel’s health is deteriorating and he eventually dies. Roger leaves Mimi to look for his “one song,” in Santa Fe but finally returns to her only to find her on the verge of death. They admit they love each other and Mimi dies. She is then miraculously brought back to life, claiming that after seeing a tunnel with a white light, she heard Angel’s voice telling her to go back. Despite Angel’s death, the musical ends on a happy note as the performers sing about the value of life.


Because Rent is a modern rock musical that tackles relevant and controversial themes, the stage set is mainly black with industrial props that serve to emphasize the non-glamorous urban world the characters live in. Besides the minimal scenery onstage, there are virtual no walls or boundaries to indicate rooms or separate locations. Instead, the actors’ interactions with one another suggest whether they are in the same location or not.


In contrast with their surroundings, the costumes, designed by Angela Wendt, are colorful and eye-catching as they intensify each of the characters’ unique personalities. This separates the characters from their dark environment while highlighting their struggle to remain cheerful despite their situations. The costumes give a downtown 70’s look in which the clothes are tight, bright, and very much thrift-store inspired.


One main theme in the play is value of love and life as seen in the popular song “Seasons of Love,” where the characters of the play contemplate the best way to measure a human life in a year. By the end of the song they assert that love is the only proper measure of life. Similarly, in the song “Another Day,” the character Mimi argues that one should live as if there is “no day but today”. The play uses HIV and AIDS as the major barriers for the characters as many are certain that they will die soon as they try to find happiness in their lives. An example of this is how Roger, a songwriter, avoids having a relationship with Mimi because he has HIV and doesn’t want to burden her with his “baggage”.


Beyond love and life, another theme the musical explores is the discrimination of artists, homosexuals, and others whose lifestyles go against the “mainstream”, as seen in the song “La Vie Bohème”. Through the song, the musical asserts that there is nothing wrong with being different and such unique and artistic lifestyles should be celebrated.


These themes and ideas didn’t spring forth from nowhere, though. The genesis and conception of Rent is an interesting story in itself. The musical was composed by Jonathon Larson. He grew up in New York and always had a passion for both music and theater. However, it wasn’t until college that he began composing music and writing plays. After college, he lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village much like the one featured in Rent. He lived the Bohemian life that his characters did. He wrote several plays, but none of them had any critical acclaim. The idea for Rent was actually conceived by Larson’s friend, Billy Aronson. Aronson shared his dream of writing a modern day version of Puccini’s La Boheme with Larson. He thought that there were significant parallels between the Bohemian lives of the artists in the old opera and the struggles of urban artists today.

Aronson’s idea inspired Larson: he wanted to make a gritty, yet uplifting show “to bring musical theater to the MTV generation.” He was unfamiliar with La Boheme but was very familiar with the lifestyle of the artists in the opera. Another aspect of the opera he related to was that many of its characters were diseased. Larson had many friends who were HIV positive and Rent was his way of responding to his friend’s problems. The two worked together and came up with many songs which they recorded onto a demo-tape for producers. The producers, however, loved the concept and music, but weren’t responding to Aronson’s lyrics. The two friends came to an agreement and it was decided that Larson would continue with the show on his own. He funded his obsession with writing the play by working in a diner on weekends for seven years. After this long period of time, he finally finished and was able to show it to producers again. The producers found that his show lacked focus so Larson cut out more than half of his material leaving us with the version of Rent we know today. He actually went from more than a hundred songs to just forty-two.


These songs were integral to the play. Rent is a rock opera, which means that the story line is told through the music. About half of the songs were in minor key due to the distressing situations the characters are in. However, at the same time, the rest of the songs are in the major key because the characters refuse to give in when faced with poverty and disease. Several of these songs are reprised in the course of the play to emphasize the importance of the themes in them. The play is almost like in opera because there is virtually no actual speaking. Because singing takes longer than speaking, the lyrics to the songs are very potent and poignant to get across as much as possible.

The lyrics to these songs actually show some key parallels not only between Rent and the opera upon which it was based, but also between Rent and Larson’s life. La Bohème is the tale of struggling artists in which many of the characters have tuberculosis. In Rent, the characters are also struggling artists, but here they have AIDS or are HIV positive. The nature of the characters and their diseases related to Larson’s life because he also was a struggling artist and many of his friends were HIV positive as well. The story of Rent came from Larson’s life just as much as it did from La Bohème. An in-depth caparison of the musical, the movie version which was later released, the La Bohème opera, and Larson’s life, can be found below.


After opening, in 1996, Rent was nominated for ten Tony Awards. It won four of them. However, these are not the only awards it won. It also won six Drama Desk awards, two Theater World awards, and three Obie’s. Larson himself also was awarded with five post humus awards after his tragic death just two hours after his first interview on the night before the play was scheduled to open.


Within our group, we had mixed personal reactions towards the musical. Aliza Chasan said, “I actually watched Rent twice. Larson’s music kept me so occupied the first time that I couldn’t focus on the meaning he was trying to share. The play’s sole fault: the music is too good.” Naaila Hassan said, “The characters of Rent are lovable and one does feel sad when seeing the hardships they face. However, at times, I felt the characters were unrealistic and carefree even during very serious situations.” And finally, Anthony Cagliano said, “The music was entertaining and the story was heart-warming. It was interesting to see such unique characters and how they interacted with each other.” Overall, we agreed that the musical’s strengths lied in the interesting array of characters and the rich songs sung by them.

Works Cited

Adler, Steven. On Broadway: Art and Commerce on the Great White Way. Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

Brantley, Ben. “THEATER REVIEW – Rock Opera A la ‘Boheme’ And ‘Hair’.” The New York Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2009. <>.

Duffy, Martha. “FASHION: HUMMING THE CLOTHES – TIME.” TIME Magazine. N.p., 13 May 1996. Web. 4 Nov. 2009. <,9171,984542,00.html>.

Everett, William. The Cambridge Companion to the Musical. New York: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Miller, Scott. Rebels with Applause: Broadway’s Grounbreaking Musicals. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2001. Print.

“Rent The Broadway Tour.” Rent The Broadway Tour. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2009. <>.

Tommasini, Anthony. “THEATHER;The Seven-Year Odyssey That Led to ‘Rent’ – Biography.” The New York Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2009.<>.

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