On Sunday, Jan. 27, RENT Live premiered semi-live on Fox. The performance can be described as “semi-live” because one of the performers took the traditional “break a leg” advice too literally the night before the premiere. What we watched was actually the dress rehearsal, but if the station hadn’t mentioned it, I wouldn’t have known the difference. While there were the authentic imperfections that one expects in a live performance, the cast had no shortage of talent.
For those of us who weren’t born yet or weren’t forming coherent memories when RENT opened on Broadway in 1996, it’s a musical set in New York City following a loose group of Bohemian young people as they pull together and pull apart over the course of a year. The musical explores themes of love, homosexuality, gentrification and the AIDs crisis.
I didn’t expect to enjoy RENT Live. My memories of watching it as a child are less than fond. But I was hooked by, “Glory,” and “Over the Moon,” the song about a magical cow wasn’t as obnoxious as I remembered. Behind all the shimmying, RENT was a vehicle for raising awareness about alternative lifestyles, poverty and AIDS, which continues to be a worldwide epidemic.
The world has changed in the twenty years since RENT helped to change it, just not as much as we’d like to imagine. If men loving men and women loving women are not as scandalous as they were in decades past, the disparities of class and poverty are as sharp as ever. AIDS is still incurable- though it’s no longer always a death sentence- and infection rates have not disappeared.
A central theme of the musical is the question of how to make sense of a life that could end at any time. They sing, “there’s only us, there’s only this,” in a support group for the HIV positive. It’s about mindfulness, and experiencing the fullness and richness of the moments we have, however fleeting.
The players reject society and security in favor of living for now. Tom Collins, once a professor at MIT, hacks into ATMs for ready cash. Mark, a would be auteur, refuses a job with a major news station because it would be “selling out.” The music is uplifting, even if the actual story reeks of surrender and despair. They reject social norms at great cost to themselves, living on the fringes until it threatens to kill them. Nothing is resolved. The addict stays addicted, someone dies and they never open a restaurant in Santa Fe. Somehow, I’m inspired. That’s the power of music, that it communicates truths beyond reason.
RENT isn’t a philosophical treatise, or a life coaching seminar, it’s just a story about particular people at a particular time. If we’re wiser at the end, it’s only because we’ve learned about people different from ourselves.
It’s hard not to mention Vanessa Hudgens, whose celebrity lent cachet to an otherwise unknown cast. She stood beside Idina Menzel, the original Maureen, and in my opinion met that very high bar. RENT is a cultural milestone that deserves a look from anyone growing up in the world today. This revival arrives at the perfect time for a new generation to experience and enjoy.
Categories: Arts & Entertainment