Trigger warning for mentions of death, HIV/AIDS, homophobia
RENT is not a rarity in the musical theatre world. It’s one of the longest-running shows on Broadway and I’m envious of anyone who’s seen it with the original cast. It’s easy to say that it’s just a sad play where everyone dies from AIDS, but to do so is to do a disservice to everyone who’s very real lives are mirrored in the musical.
The layers of RENT go deep. The story is primarily narrated by Mark Cohen, a Jewish-American aspiring filmmaker, who spends a year chronicling the lives of himself and his friends experiencing homelessness, disease, economic strife, and LGBTQ+ discrimination in Manhattan at the turn of the century.
The story is partially autobiographical, mirroring many of the problems that RENT’s composer Jonathan Larson and his friends experienced living in Lower Manhattan. At the baseline, there is a constant question of how the characters will pay their rent. What seems like a simple question is actually more complex. Context and intersectionality are everything in RENT. And perhaps that’s what makes it so damn sad, that one tragedy simply cannot be separated from another. AIDS, despite recent comments made by DaBaby, is not a disease which affected gay men in the ‘80s and no one else. The HIV/AIDS epidemic killed millions globally in the 80s and 90s, but it wasn’t until 2005 that humanity reached a turning point. Ever wonder why you can get free condoms at any clinic in North America without a second look? Because HIV/AIDS was killing so many people who didn’t even realize for years that they were living with a debilitating disease, that the very least the government could do was give out protection for sexually active adults.
The majority of characters in RENT are living with HIV/AIDS. And the distinction of “living with” as opposed to “suffering from” echoes the essential morality of the musical. RENT shows us that the power of language is important in delivering the basics of human dignity: individuals with HIV/AIDS are “living with, not dying from disease.”
So how does this relate to paying your landlord on time? The answer isn’t so easily explained. In a way, the consistency of bills and payments shows that time is a continuously fluid motion. No matter what tragedy befalls you, no matter how often your world seems to stop: it doesn’t. And as the seconds move forward, so does disease. So does your rent. But even aside from the symbolism, rent is quite a literal problem.
New York City has some of the highest living costs in the world. Economic hardship only seems to increase for marginalized people especially in the ‘90s. Around this time, far-right antisemitic conspiracy theories were gaining traction — including (but not limited to) the ridiculous notion that Jewish people run a secret world government. Cases of HIV/AIDS were vastly misunderstood at that time: while it remains true that countless members of the LGBTQ+ community lost their lives, a core tenet of RENT that echoes real life is that a virus does not care about your background. It will destroy your immunity the same way a tsunami will flood the houses of both rich and poor men. Trans rights can be ignored as quickly as it takes JK Rowling to hit “send tweet.”
Where do we draw the line between being successful and selling out? What is the cost of evicting an entire homeless encampment to build unaffordable studios?
But we can’t think about that because we are too busy trying to focus on how we’re going to pay our rent. A big point in RENT is that homelessness is a killer. People die on the streets while landlords plaster eviction notices on every neighbors’ window. Benny, the main landlord in RENT, does not start off as a man reminiscent of Mr. Monopoly. Tech was just beginning to boom in the late ‘90s. Palm pilots and pagers were in the pockets of every yuppie businessman. Benny, once a creative artist living with our protagonists on the brink of homelessness, marries into a rich real estate family: the equivalent of winning the lottery. His in-laws own the set of apartments that Mark and his friends are currently squatting in. Because they are squatters, they are without legal support.
So here’s the problem: Benny and his in-laws are in the process of renovictions: evicting all tenants to destroy the building and make something else. In RENT, it is a cyber studio to accommodate the emerging tech boom. While Benny is within his legal rights to do this, it is morally horrific to throw your friends onto the street: the same friends who you know are currently unemployed and attempting to fight off a disease considered incurable up until a few years ago.
But perhaps the most tragic part of RENT isn’t that the characters we immediately love are approaching an unknown funeral date. The fight against gentrification, disease, unregulated capitalism, poverty, discrimination — all problems I see in my university’s neighborhood in Toronto. The tragedy of RENT is that history echoes and repeats, time never stops: when the first of the month comes, can you pay your bills? Will your empathy for the homeless change if you learn they’re making a movie?
People are killed by homelessness not because of a lack of housing, but because there is an unwavering gap in affordability. RENT is ultimately a story of living for the moment because you don’t know if your landlord will kick you out tomorrow. It is a story of tragedy, but it’s also the spirit of human resilience. RENT expertly captures the way that even in death, people (New Yorkers?) are fighters. It’s the spark that I see across Gen Z on TikTok, organizing rallies against pipelines and creating detailed Instagram infographics. RENT is timeless because people will always have a fighting spirit against injustice.
is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. When she isn't writing, she's reading and working on her bullet journal. You can read more of her work at ashaswann.com