At 14 years old, I prided myself in being that queer theater nerd who memorized all the lyrics from Rent, singing "No Day But Today" at the top of my lungs on repeat. I was a total Rent-head, guilty as charged.
When Rent came out in 1996, it was revolutionary. Jonathan Larson set out to create a rock opera for the MTV generation that centered HIV-positive characters and perspectives. His Gen-X interpretation of Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme was an unflinching portrait of queer and "bohemian" East Village life, full of sex-positive play, ACAB performance art and punk rock attitude.
It was cool. It was catchy. And, as a kid growing up in the homophobic climate of George W. Bush's presidency, I ate it up.
Last week, Rent premiered at SHN Golden Gate Theatre for its 20th-anniversary tour, inviting audiences to revisit the corner of 11th Street and Avenue B with a new cast.
The performances were stellar. But watching Jonathan Larson's Broadway hit unfold in 2019, I began to see that many of the once-beloved characters I so admired aren't the freedom fighters I thought they were. Instead, they came off as entitled opportunists with a kink for poverty fetishism.
Despite what Rent's narrative drives home, most people cannot choose their way out of systemic poverty by "selling out." Mark Cohen (Logan Marks) walks off the job at his new digital media gig, calling it "soul-sucking" and a compromise of his bohemian ideals. Raised middle class, he now lives in a warehouse where he's behind on rent. Mark aspires to the starving artist stereotype, as if suffering is more conducive to making art. It's cosplay at its finest.
Throughout the musical, it becomes apparent that Mark often treats the vulnerable people around him as supporting characters in his quest to become an edgy filmmaker. Rewatching Rent in 2019, I fixated on a scene I had overlooked as a teen. Mark films police officers poking their nightsticks at a woman living in their block's encampment. Realizing Mark is filming her, the woman in her blanket rails at Mark, singing:
Who the fuck do you think you are?
I don't need no goddamn help
From some bleeding heart cameraman
My life's not for you to
Make a name for yourself on!
Despite the homeless woman's pushback, Mark goes on to film occupants of the tent city while also questionably carrying his camera into an HIV-positive support group, where he arrives uninvited as a documentarian rather than a participant. Homeless encampments and the people who live in them routinely provide the "gritty, urban" backdrop and holiday-tinged comedic relief in the play.
Enter Maureen Johnson (Lyndie Moe), a heroine I so admired as an emerging young feminist. Though marketed as a protest to save the tent city, her “Over The Moon” solo plays out like a vapid attention grab. Maureen doesn’t care about police raiding the tent city or the eviction of tenants; she just doesn’t want to lose her performance space. She takes on the role of a diva with glee, making her lawyer girlfriend Joanne Jefferson (Lencia Kebede) tend to her every beck and call.
While Maureen and Joanne's relationship once felt like a triumph for bi-visibility (and interracial couples), their courtship is riddled with manipulation, gaslighting and cheating. Much like how Mark expresses his rebelliousness at the expense of others, Maureen disregards Joanne's feelings and continuously crosses her boundaries with carefree antics. Maureen's character also falls into the age-old "slutty bisexual" trope. We hear about her sexual exploits in explicit detail when Joanne opens up to Mark about Maureen's cheating in the duet “Tango Maureen.”
Despite the characters' romantic rebelliousness, they never really challenge the status quo. Instead, they partake in a shallow revolution that's ultimately self-serving. As the ragtag crew of antiheroes crashes a local cafe, they push past the waiter, jump on tables and demand service without the expectation of paying or tipping.
Take, for instance, the anthemic “La Vie Bohème.” As the protagonists rattle off all the tenets of their countercultural lifestyle, you begin to realize that, like the hipsters of today, they're consuming aspects of other cultures to make themselves more interesting:
To hand-crafted beers
Made in local breweries
To yoga, to yogurt, to rice and beans and cheese
To leather, to dildos, to curry vindaloo
To huevos rancheros and Maya Angelou
Followed by this troubling excerpt:
... and Maureen Johnson, back from her spectacular one-night engagement at the 11th Street lot, will sing Native American tribal chants backwards through her vocoder, while accompanying herself on the electric cello—which she has never studied.
Hand-crafted beers, yoga and the appropriation of indigenous ceremonial songs sound more like a recipe for gentrification than something radical. But #LaVieBohème, right?
As a cultural phenomenon, Rent put HIV-positive voices front and center and created nuanced roles for queer, black and brown artists on the Broadway stage. And for a generation who felt betrayed by their government, their bodies and the status quo, Rent offered full-throated release in 1996.
Despite the pitfalls of the script, that legacy of radical inclusion carries through in the performances today. Mimi Marquez (Deri'Andra Tucker) electrified with her soulful rock'n'roll howls in “Out Tonight.” Angel Schunard (Javon King) astounded audiences with a jaw-dropping backflip to the house beat of “Today 4 You.”
While it's undeniable that the original production helped communities feel seen while inciting empathy among the masses, Rent now stops short as a superficial stick-it-to-the-man narrative for the mainstream to consume.
'Rent' plays at SHN Golden Gate Theatre through June 23. Details here.