The original Broadway cast of Rent in 1996.Photo: AP
Even as we get further and further away from the affection we once felt for the show, it’s not hard to feel a bit of sadness today at the news that Rent is closing in June, after twelve years on Broadway. When the show opened in 1996, it was a bona fide cultural event, a Broadway musical that tried, no matter how half-assedly, to present the lives of New York’s artistic underclass.
It’s always been easy to dump on Rent, and on Rent-heads (who kind of deserve it), but for us in 1996 — just graduated from college and visiting New York from the hinterlands of North Carolina — Rent seemed like a bolt from the blue. Even as we understood that the show was, on its face, fraudulent — that the down-and-dirty characters in the play would never listen to the pop-rock show tunes Jonathan Larson wrote for them to sing — we were entranced by the show, and invigorated by the notion that a kid not much older than us could get a show about his friends on Broadway. That Larson died the night before his opening, of course, only amplified the play’s romantic appeal to us foolish 22-year-olds.
Even if, in the end, Rent never heralded a new revolution in theater — even if it was a cul-de-sac in the history of the American musical — it surely served the same purpose for many other young writers in the mid-nineties. Some of them will surely go on to write some truly great musicals themselves. So light a candle for Rent; we hope we’ll see its like again, only a little bit better.
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