RENT, 20 Years Later: Why We’ve Come To Hate The Show We Once Loved

RENT, 20 Years Later: Why We Groan About The Show We Once Loved

RIP, Life Cafe

The original cast of RENT is reuniting in celebration of the show’s 20th anniversary. Perhaps you noticed that I recently made fun of RENT, which I will do these days with the slightest provocation and for which my fifteen-year-old self will never forgive me. My fifteen-year-old self did not merely own the soundtrack (on cassette tape and then on CD); she knew all the words to all the songs by heart and spent an inexcusable amount of time crying alternately over that show or the movie Titanic.

In this respect, I was a typical teenager. Adolescents are not, after all, famous for their thoughtful, moderate opinions. Passion is one of the only accepted currencies in high school. (One of the only others is feigned disaffection. How ironic.)

The key thing is that I was not alone in swearing my allegiance to Jonathan Larson’s gritty but ultimately life-affirming show. Nor, for that matter, was I alone in swooning over Titanic. The same melodrama that appealed to me appealed to millions of others, teenagers and establishment critics alike.

According to one in-depth history, when RENT opened in 1996:

The New York Times called it an “exhilarating, landmark rock opera,” and said it “shimmers with hope for the future of the American musical.” Time magazine called it “the most exuberant and original American musical to come along this decade.” The Wall Street Journal called it “the best new musical since the 1950s.” On opening night, the performance began with Anthony Rapp, who played Mark, dedicating the show to the memory of Jonathan Larson. …

The show became a cultural phenomenon. The cast soon found themselves in The New York Times, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and Harper’s Bazaar. They appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Charlie Rose Show, and The Tonight Show, and sang “Seasons of Love” at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. Both Hard Copy and Prime Time Live did stories on the show.

When I got to college, I bonded with other first-years over RENT. Though we dreamed of being Maureen, the charismatic performance artist, we were all, we agreed ruefully, Joanne, the dowdy lawyer. It wasn’t embarrassing yet to be caught humming their duet “Take Me, Baby, Or Leave Me.” Of course, it wasn’t embarrassing yet to hang an Ani DiFranco poster on your dorm room wall, either.

When did the sea change? When did RENT go from something we could all agree about (so brilliant!) to something we can all agree about (ugh, cringeworthy)? Maybe people hate on RENT now because we want to demonstrate how much we’ve grown, because backlash always sets in when a cultural property goes mainstream (and especially when it gets made into a painfully mediocre movie).

Or maybe the culture merely wised up at some point and realized that the show’s fabled bohemians are, on a second glance, less than sympathetic: self-indulgent, occasionally immoral, even kind of … dumb. The way we, too, were when we were young.

Do we hate on RENT because of it or because of us, because our earnest, passionate fifteen-year-old selves simply seem hate-able in retrospect?

It’s worth noting that some important lefty cultural critics were there, planting flags in the “Ugh, RENT” camp, all along. The essayist David Rakoff, for example, famously: if you enter “David Rakoff” into Google, the first autocomplete suggestion is “RENT.” The academic Sarah Schulman as well. She was one of a couple people to unsuccessfully sue Larson’s estate — in her case, she claimed, because he cribbed material from her. “Not making any money from it was also quite annoying, since Rent has earned an enormous amount,” Schulman told Slate, “certainly enough for me to get an apartment with an elevator.”

For the most part, though, it seems that the disdain for RENT has crept up on us slowly, like age itself.

Our culture has changed considerably since the ’90s, and the show seems like a relic. Everyone but the oligarchs has a hard time paying rent in post-Giuliani New York City. That doesn’t mean we guilt-trip our yuppie friends into trying to let us live for free, the way the RENT characters do; it means that, if we choose to stay, we Make It Work: we move to the outer boroughs with roommates and/or take on several jobs at once.

With that in mind, it’s hard not to look back and wonder what so bad exactly about the landlord, Benny. He was designated the villain from the start. He even came complete with the Dickensian name Benjamin Coffin III. But what did he do that was so bad?

Courtney Enlow at Pajiba makes the case:

Benny was not only not the bad guy of Rent, he was the hero.

See, as youthful artistes (meaning: we did musical theater in high school and listened to a lot of Broadway soundtracks) we believed what the show posited: that Benny was a supreme sell-out, a villain heinously attempting to force his friends to pay their rent and get jobs. WHAT A DICK. Then, we grew up, and realized, “holy shit. Benny just wanted them to pay their rent and get jobs. LIKE A PERSON DOES.”

And it’s not like Benny was just sitting around counting pennies, threatening them with eviction and definite homelessness. He offered them free rent and a lucrative job doing exactly what they wanted to do with their lives! DO YOU KNOW HOW HARD IT IS TO GET A JOB IN YOUR PARTICULAR ARTISTIC CONCENTRATION IN NEW YORK CITY? And they rejected him. Coldly. And set a bunch of fires.

She concludes, “if Collins can get off his ass and go teach and Angel can drum and murder dogs for a living, Roger and Mark have zero excuses. GET A JOB, HIPSTERS.”

Alyssa Rosenberg made the same point in ThinkProgress a few years ago. People will probably keep writing version of this hot take with some regularity until Taye Diggs, the original Benny, starts collecting Social Security.

But it’s hard to consider the show from a mature perspective and disagree. Collins and Joanne are both sensible, gainfully employed adults who spend way too much time and money coddling these nitwits, maybe because, as POC, they understood that they couldn’t rely on white privilege to get them through. The rest of the cast, though? Maureen is a narcissistic monster without a leg of talent to stand on. Much as I was in love with him as a teenager, I have to admit that it’s not clear that Roger is any better. (“Your Eyes,” which is supposed to be Roger’s magnum opus, is the weakest song in the whole show.) And Mark! Mark, the filmmaker, actually gets a job — in his chosen field, no less — and then walks away from it, as though he couldn’t possibly be expected to have a 9–5 and do his own projects on the side. As though the universe owes him the chance to Art full-time.

And we’re supposed to, like, swoon? As if.

There are still things about RENT that the most jaded of us can recognize and appreciate. It puts the positive in HIV+. Its cast of characters is more diverse, in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, than the casts of most cultural properties twenty years later, even the ones set in New York City. It preaches love and friendship and not moving to Santa Fe. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Santa Fe.)

Plus, the show’s free-to-be-you-and-me ethos is still pissing off authority figures, especially high school administrators, which means it’s doing something right.

Maybe it’s as simple as this, a spin on the classic saying: if you don’t love RENT as an adolescent, you have no heart; if you’re not totally, 100% over it as an adult, you have no head.

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