Authored by Allison Payne
When Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent debuted in the 1990s, the small show quickly grew in popularity. Rent started as seven performances in late 1994 that led to an extended off-Broadway run, all presented by the New York Theatre Workshop (Heredia and Span 1996). It then spent over 5,000 performances between 1996 and 2008 at Broadway’s Nederlander Theater, telling its story of a diverse group of friends trying to live their lives while dealing with the horrors of AIDS (Grode 2015, 253).
Rent touches on a lot of topics that were often ignored by the mainstream media at the time. One thing that draws in such a large audience is the normalcy with which the musical approaches LGBT+ characters. The characters include two queer couples: bisexual Maureen is in a relationship with Joanne and transgender—or drag queen, depending on the iteration of the show—Angel is in a relationship with Collins.
Maureen and Joanne make a polarizing couple. They are strong personalities that bicker with each other, often ending on uncertain ground with one another. Yet their flaws “are no greater than those of other characters in the show, including the heterosexual characters” (Sebesta 2006, 432). Maureen and Joanne are not shown any differently from the other characters for loving each other.
Angel and Collins’ relationship is different from Maureen and Joanne’s. They have a sweet romance, filled with tender moments that offer a contrast to how similar couples had previously been portrayed negatively in media (Breaux 2017). Although their time together meets a tragic end, the compassion that Angel and Collins have for each other shines a joyful light on their relationship.
Sexual orientation and gender identity have no bearing on who Rent’s characters are as people, who they are as human beings. As original cast member Anthony Rapp said, “all of these labelled things about these characters are never directly talked about. They just are. People are who they are in the show…. This is the tapestry of the community in which everyone lives, and there’s no muss, no fuss made about any of those aspects of their lives” (Shulman 2017, para. 31). Maureen, Joanne, Angel, and Collins are not defined by whom they love, but rather by what they do with that love.
Rent follows the Vincentian tradition of furthering efforts to create a safe environment for everyone (St. John’s University 2020). It gave a positive voice to many misrepresented communities, including the LGBT+ population, when there were few such voices around. Many people in the world have a distorted view of those who are different from them out of fear of the unknown, but Rent embraces characters of all backgrounds and humanizes them. These characters are normal people, regardless of how they identify. At least, as normal as anyone can be.
Breaux, Paige. 2017. “‘Rent’ Pulled Back the Curtain on the Queer Experience.” Odyssey, July 19, 2017. https://www.theodysseyonline.com/rent-pulled-curtain-queer-experience.
Grode, Eric. 2015. The Book of Broadway. United States: Voyageur Press. https://search-ebscohost-com.jerome.stjohns.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1092210&site=ehost-live. eBook PDF.
Heredia, Wilson Jermaine and Paula Span. 1996. “The Show Goes On; Reeling from Triumph and Tragedy, ‘Rent’ Rockets onto Broadway.” The Washington Post, April 18, 1996. https://advance-lexis-com.jerome.stjohns.edu/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:3S7T-BG40-009B-N0FK-00000-00&context=1516831.
New York Theatre Workshop. 1995. Rent. Retrieved from: Marymount Manhattan College, Collection #001, William B. Harris Papers, Box 67, Folder 2251.
Sebesta, Judith. 2006. Of Fire, Death, and Desire: Transgression and Carnival in Jonathan Larson’s Rent. Contemporary Theatre Review 16 (4): 419-438. https://doi.org/10.1080/10486800600923960.
Shulman, Randy. 2017. “About a Bwoy: An Exclusive Interview with Anthony Rapp.” Metro Weekly, March 23, 2017. https://www.metroweekly.com/2017/03/about-a-bwoy-an-interview-with-anthony-rapp/.
St. John’s University. 2020. “Our Mission.” https://www.stjohns.edu/about/our-mission.