Rent is a rock musical written by Jonathan Larson. It was loosely based on the 1896 opera La Boheme with some aspects reportedly pulled from playwright Sarah Schulman's novel People in Trouble. Larson's goal was to bring musical theater into the modern era, using rock music to tell a story relevant to the lives of young theatergoers. The result was a hit musical about a diverse group of artists struggling to get by in the late 1980s in New York City. Rent revolutionized the theater world and has been performed all over the world, earning numerous awards along the way.

The Origins of Rent

In 1989, Larson, then 29, began collaborating on a new musical with playwright Billy Aronson. The idea to create a musical based on La Boheme was Aronson's idea, but everything that made Rentunique, including the East Village setting, replacing tuberculosis with HIV/AIDS, and even the title of the show itself. In the early 1990s, Larson and Aronson made an agreement that Larson would make the show his own, but if it ever made it to Broadway, Aronson would be given credit. Larson then focused on composing Rent and spent years writing hundreds of songs and making changes to the plot.

In 1992, Larson teamed up with artistic director James Nicola to start workshopping the show at the New York Theatre Workshop. They cast a diverse group of actors, none of whom had significant experience in theater but many of whom had experience relevant to the lives of their characters. Larson would continue to develop the show until January 1996, when the show was scheduled to make its off-Broadway premiere.

On the night of Jan. 24, 1996, the show had its final dress rehearsal. Larson, who had not been feeling well, gave an interview to The New York Times, then went home. He was found in his apartment the next morning, dead of an aortic aneurysm. The first preview performance of Rent, scheduled for that night, would go on, but it would be staged before friends and family and dedicated to Larson's memory.

The show was a resounding success, moving to Broadway that April. It remained on Broadway for 12 years, spawning numerous stage and screen adaptations.

The Story

Rent follows a group of eight characters: Mark, Roger, Collins, Angel, Mimi, Joanne, Maureen, and Benny. Benny is Mark and Roger's landlord, and he has been letting his two broke friends live rent-free in a building that he purchased with his rich wife's money. But at the start of the show, he reneges on this deal, demanding that they pay him rent for the past year. Ultimately, he reveals his real motive: Mark's ex-girlfriend, Maureen, is staging a performance in a lot next door to protest Benny's plans to evict the homeless people living there and build a cyber-art studio, and Benny wants Mark and Roger to stop the protest. Throughout the first act, the audience is introduced to others who quickly become part of Mark and Roger's circle of friends: Mimi, an HIV-positive exotic dancer with a drug problem; Angel, a drummer and drag queen, and Collins, an academic, both of whom are also HIV-positive; and Joanne, Maureen's new girlfriend.

The conflict between impoverished Bohemians and their newly rich friend is set in the East Village in the last 1980s, and the characters are very much a part of that world, living under the shadow of HIV/AIDS as they manage their own interpersonal conflicts. The show deals with topics including homelessness, addiction, eviction, HIV, and relationship issues that plague the characters as they find themselves.

Rent's Legacy

Rent achieved Larson's dream of bringing musical theater to the MTV generation, and thanks in part to a unique ticketing strategy that introduced $20 day-of rush tickets to the Broadway marketplace, people flocked to see the show. Rent remained on Broadway for 12 years and 5,123 performances, becoming one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time. Its success led to multiple stagings and revivals that have kept the musical in the spotlight for more than 25 years.

  • Due to the success of the Broadway production, multiple North American touring productions were started. The different productions were named after characters in the show.
  • A UK production in the West End premiered in 1998 and lasted for a year and a half.
  • A revised production called Rent Remixed, set in the present day, opened in the UK in 2007; it closed after five months due to poor reviews.
  • An off-Broadway revival was staged in 2011 and lasted for a year.
  • Productions of Rent have been performed in 25 different languages in countries all around the world.
  • Rent received a film adaptation in 2005, bringing back almost all of the original Broadway cast.
  • Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway was filmed during the final performance of the Broadway production and released in theaters in 2008.
  • Fox aired a live televised production of Rent, called Rent: Live, in January 2019 with a star-studded cast.

Honors Received

Rent won numerous awards, including the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Other awards the show earned included:

  • Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical
  • Tony Award for Best Original Score
  • Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Wilson Jermaine Heredia)
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical (Wilson Jermaine Heredia)
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Orchestrations
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music

Rent also garnered many award nominations, including:

  • Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Adam Pascal)
  • Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Daphne Rubin-Vega)
  • Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Idina Menzel)
  • Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical
  • Tony Award for Best Choreography
  • Tony Award for Best Lighting Design
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical (Adam Pascal)
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical (Daphne Rubin-Vega)
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Musical
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Costume Design
  • Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album

Further Reading