Christmas bells are ringing! It’s December 24th, (and nearly!) 9pm Eastern Standard Time, which means it’s a great time to talk about one of my favourite musicals of all time, Rent. I watched a production of Rent online recently by the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester and it genuinely was a brilliant production. It still kept the 90s vibe but had some very clever staging choices to keep it feeling fresh. The cast were also brilliant. But, it got me thinking about Rent’s place in contemporary theatre as it is very much a 90s show. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it got me wondering, does Rent really stand the test of time?
Is it TOO 90s?
Ah, the days before smartphones and social media, when people communicated mostly through phone calls and meeting up in person (something fairly rare in 2020, at least!). When I watch or listen to Rent, there are aspects of the story that do feel a bit dated but in the grand scheme of things, the 90s weren’t that long ago. They haven’t crept into the 40-year cycle yet so Rent doesn’t feel old enough to be thought of as a historical piece. However, no one watches Shakespeare and is surprised when they throw in a few “thees” and “thous”, yet when we hear 90s slang in a musical, there’s something weirdly dated about it.
But, isn’t that dated feeling a part of the show’s charm? Ultimately, the story works because it’s set during the AIDS Crisis and at a time when American counterculture was starting to reject the hyper-commercialism of the time. By which I mean, it is a story intrinsically linked to the 80s/90s. The Bohemian lifestyle celebrated by the characters and lifted straight from the show’s source material, nineteenth century opera La Bohème, sees the characters choosing poverty and a life of uncertainty over giving in to the “yuppie” lifestyle. They choose art over career, instant gratification over forward planning, though some of this attitude is also presented as being a reaction to the confirmation that they’ll die young from AIDS. It’s a sad show representing a sad time in modern history. It weaves in and out of social injustices and presents a diverse cast of well-meaning modern Bohemians. From addiction to illness and homelessness to relative poverty, the show explores themes that are are both timeless and strongly contemporaneous to the 90s.
It might not be as easy to relate to Rent now as it was back in the 90s when it first hit Broadway but the show didn’t close over there until 2009, a time pretty far beyond its supposed relevancy. I think one of things that ultimately led to Rent closing may have been the 2005 movie adaptation. There was definitely an attempt made to make the show more suitable for film e.g. some songs were turned into dialogue or removed completely, but the film ended up being criticised for feeling a bit old school and for featuring many of the Broadway actors in roles they originated. The response was that, only 11 years after the show first debuted, the film version already felt dated and the actors felt too old. The critics’ responses to the film mostly coming to the same conclusion, that Rent was past its time, may very well have indirectly led to the show closing just four years later.
However, this wasn’t be the last the stage would see of Rent so, what has been done to update the show since its original Broadway run?
Let’s Talk About Rent Remixed
Rent created a pretty unusual situation. By the mid-2000s, Rent was still a well-respected show (it’s still only one of nine musicals to have ever won the Pulitzer Prize). But, it was feeling dated and new productions were struggling to find a middle ground between embracing the 90s nostalgia and attempting to update the show for modern audiences. Unfortunately, it was from this conundrum that Rent Remixed was realised. This was a revised production that opened in 2007 in the West End. The music was stripped of its 90s grunge sound and instead replaced with more of a noughties pop vibe and the show was updated to the then present day. It was absolutely panned by critics and closed after five months.
I never saw Rent Remixed but from what I’ve heard, everything that was changed about it took away what made Jonathan Larson’s show so poignant and well-respected in the first place. The diversity, the tackling of taboo issues with a mix of boldness and sensitivity and the use of modern-sounding music in a musical was all fairly new in 1996 theatreland but, bizarrely because of the original production of Rent, none of these things would have felt nearly as noteworthy in 2007. In fact, whilst all of those things are still to be praised in modern musical theatre, by taking a musical that had all of those elements anyway and changing it in an attempt to be more commercial, doesn’t it kind of feel like you’re missing the point in taking the risk of being original in the first place?
So, does it matter that it’s dated?
Back to the subject at hand. There are a few issues with the 90s setting that perhaps do cause problems and some of this is down to the problematic aspects of Rent. It’s not a perfect musical by any means. And, while the liberal views of the characters may make them feel almost like proto-millennials, there are a few issues with representation, stereotyping and hypocritical attitudes that might make the show feel a little bit misguided in places to a modern audience. For example, Maureen is a character who has dated both men and women and is presented as promiscuous. Whilst this isn’t an issue in itself, it does play into a recurring negative stereotype in fiction that bi-and/or-pan-sexuality is synonymous with promiscuity. There are quite a few more examples of times in Rent where I, as a modern viewer, get caught between wanting to praise the show for being a pioneer of diversity at the point of its inception and cringing at certain parts of the show that would likely be changed were it a new show doing through workshops now.
Ultimately, how I feel about Rent feels like a microcosm for how I feel about modern political correctness and cancel/call-out culture. I think these things are important but we all get things wrong sometimes and that doesn’t mean we’re not trying. Rent gets some things wrong but when it first appeared on Broadway back in the 90s, it was the first of its kind and actively tried to promote diversity and have something to say. Rent’s not perfect but it tried. We should be able to appreciate that. Sure, the show’s a bit dated and doesn’t always feel totally politically correct but I think we can forgive that for all the things it got right and for all the shows that it paved the way for.
The Hope Mill’s production really renewed my love for Rent. And, hey, as 90s nostalgia is due to come back more and more over the next decade, maybe we’ll be seeing a little bit more of Rent love on the horizon.