Is RENT a Masterpiece?

It’s the show that inspired many and has a devoted cult following of RENT heads. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and is said to be groundbreaking. It’s the show that caused people to camp outside the theatre in the hope of $20 tickets. Jonathan Larson’s RENT.

Opening on Broadway in 1996, RENT is loosely based on the opera La Boheme. Over a year, it follows the lives of  eight Bohemian friends (Mark, Roger, Mimi, Joanne, Maureen, Collins, Angel and Benny) who are living in New York during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Mimi, Roger, Angel and Collins are all living with the disease. Mimi battles drug addiction. Roger dreams of writing ‘one great song’ before he goes. Mark works on a film. Angel and Collins are deeply in love. Lawyer Joanne struggles with her girlfriend Maureen’s flirtatious nature. Maureen stages protests and Benny has turned his back on his Bohemian principles.

Of course, what really propels the memory of RENT is composer/lyricist/writer Jonathan Larson’s tragic death the night before the first Off-Broadway preview at the age of 35. But the show must go on, and go on it did. RENT was a huge hit with audiences, winning Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Original Score and Best Supporting Actor, as well as 6 Drama Desk Awards. It ran on Broadway til 2008 and has spawned many productions and tours worldwide. A film was released in 2005 starring most of the original cast and the final Broadway performance was pro-shot on DVD. Like I said before, fans of the show (Rent-heads) have been known to literally camp outside the theatre in the hope of getting tickets.
As I said before, RENT won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, becoming one of just eight musicals in history to win the honour. All awards aside though, RENT is usually touted as a masterpiece of theatre and evokes a powerful reaction from RENT-heads. It’s a popular choice for community theatre and just a few days ago a 20th anniversary tour was announced. I myself was involved in a production of RENT while studying my musical theatre degree and had the time of my life.


By the way, who’s had to sing Seasons of Love in choir singing?

However, is RENT really the masterpiece it’s often proclaimed as? Is it worthy of the pedestal it’s placed upon?

Well, quite honestly, no.


RENT heads assemble

Wait, RENT heads! Don’t scream for my blood!

I don’t hate RENT. I like it. I think it’s a good show. I just don’t think it’s perfect. I think it has some glaring flaws that people overlook on a phenomenal scale. That doesn’t make RENT a bad musical. It should be watched and celebrated, all aspects acknowledged. Maybe consider this as an acknowledgement of what doesn’t work in RENT, as so much has been said and written about what does work. Maybe it’s time to consider the other side.

The characters aren’t all that well developed

If you read the casting brief/character descriptions, all the characters call for ‘excellent’, ‘strong’ or ‘good’ actors. This struck me as being oddly specific.
On first glance this seems like a no-brainer. Generally speaking, the arts require ‘good’ performers. But I have a theory about this, and some people might not like it. I believe that the reason RENT needs particularly talented actors/singers is not just due to the vocally demanding nature of the show. It’s because the characters are written quite sketchily. There’s little to no backstory given for them, and not many of them change and grow in the story. At least, not in an obvious way. It’s up to the actors to portray these characters and make them real. This requires performers who are exceptionally skilled in their craft working overtime to make these characters into three dimensional personalities. And the character who is the hardest?



I know a lot of people are going to hate me for this, but it has to be said. Maureen is the weakest character in the show. I’m always astounded by how many people love Maureen. I think Benny has more to work with than her.
Maureen, a bisexual performance artist, is Mark’s ex-girlfriend, leaving him for lesbian lawyer Joanne. And that’s pretty much the extent of her characterisation. The only aspect of her personality is how apparently ‘sexy’ she is. She’s irresistible to both genders. Men and women alike fall over themselves to get to her. Apparently. It’s all tell-don’t-show. Sure, she kisses another woman in front of Joanne, but Maureen initiates it all. Never once do you see anyone begging to go to bed with her or flirting with her. It’s all Maureen and the other characters talking about it.
Maureen expects Joanne to be completely ok with this. She has no sense of loyalty or commitment to her partner and revels in her supreme attractiveness. Oh, and in case it wasn’t obvious, she’s a serial cheater. Yet we’re all supposed to be accepting of this as a delightfully quirky character trait.
All this wouldn’t be a problem if this was part of a character arc. But of all the characters, Maureen is the only one to get precisely no development. She doesn’t change, learn anything or develop in any way, shape or form. She just has an on-off relationship with Joanne which eventually becomes permanently on. This is NOT character development, despite what many people think.
To her credit, she’s got some great fun songs, and she does stage protests, but you don’t really get the sense that this is for the good of others. I think there’s a lot of truth to Benny’s statement “Maureen is protesting losing her performance space. Not my attitude,”

There’s a lot of ‘tell-don’t-show’, and many plot threads don’t add up

Regular readers of my blog will know how much I loathe the dreaded ‘tell-don’t-show’. For those not aware, ‘tell-don’t-show’ is any time the writer decides to state something about a character or story detail while providing no commentary or proof. The Twilight Saga had this in spades.
In RENT, there’s a fair bit of this too, and it starts with the casting brief. The character descriptions gives a lot of details that are not in the show, or are only given the most flimsy of air time. Benny ‘eventually realises his friends are more important’. Only in a single act of paying for Angel’s funeral. And by the way, I never understood why Benny is supposed to be such a douchebag. They never actually say what their problem with him is. Wait, I tell a lie. It’s because he dared to get married. Granted, he isn’t the nicest guy around but is it possible that he became this way because all his friends turned their backs on him? “Ever since our wedding, I’m dirt!” Anyone?
The timelines don’t add up either. Mark says he’s going to fix Maureen’s equipment and then suddenly he’s back with Collins and Angel having not gone!
Then, in a fashion that would make your average Disney Princess shake their heads, Angel and Collins fall in love after a few hours. Yes, it is a few hours. The show opens December 24th, 9pm, Eastern Standard time. There’s a Life Support Meeting at 9:30. Maureen’s protest takes place at midnight. Angel says he’s ‘been hearing violins all night’. No. It’s been two hours MAXIMUM and last I looked that is not all night. This is not love at first sight, which, you know, doesn’t exist in reality. You can have lust, attraction and interest at first sight, but real love takes a lot of time to develop.
And while I’m on the subject, what the hell is Mimi doing with seducing Roger? Let’s think about this logically for a moment. She has HIV, and she’s trying to sleep with a guy who isn’t interested. Yes, he has HIV too, but she doesn’t know that. There’s no way to spin that this is an incredibly selfish thing to do, but it’s totally ok because ‘no day but today’. But don’t worry, once he finds out she has HIV too, boom! They’re in love. At least their love story has conflict and legitimate problems. I can’t justify her actions though. Nobody can. I may like RENT, but these are some pretty serious flaws in both character and story.
Joanne is ‘committed to helping those less fortunate’. When? When do we ever see that happen? Mimi says “Angel was one of my closest friends”. WHEN?!? I don’t think they even share a single line of dialogue. Mimi has ‘lived a lot of life’. How? What information do we get about this in the show? Is it her drug addiction that’s hardly mentioned at all? Speaking of which….

The Movie: Good or Bad?


Does fan service work?

I’m a lot more forgiving of the 2005 film version than most people are. It’s one of the few movie musicals of this day where all the actors could sing and act effectively. The problem was, with the exception of Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, the actors were all far too old for these characters. They’re meant to be playing 20-somethings while pushing forty. I have nothing against older actors, but this is incredibly distracting. Having the original cast to make the fans happy was a very bad idea. Fan service is not always a good thing.
I loved the way some songs were handled, such as Another Day, One Song Glory and the opening number with the burning eviction notices. But at the risk of being controversial, there is one plot point which I think the film did BETTER than the stage show.
Mimi’s drug addiction.

In the stage show, Mimi apparently struggles with a heroin addiction. We never see her use. She buys it once in front of the audience. She doesn’t have any symptoms, she never tries to quit for real and it’s really not interesting. But in the movie, we see her genuinely struggle. Film has the power of montage and visuals, so we can see a lot more. I really believed Mimi’s battle in the film, because they showed there was one to have. I didn’t in the stage show. There was little sense of actual urgency in the script. It’s all up to the actors and director to try and add some sense into everything.

Despite popular opinion, it’s not groundbreaking

RENT is often professed as groundbreaking. I disagree. Rock musicals had been around since the 70s with shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar. As for the subject matter and characters, it’s pretty similar to HAIR.
Although if someone has a counter claim on how RENT is groundbreaking, I’m all ears.

Now, what DO I like about RENT?

I love the music. The music is undeniably excellent. It’s catchy, melodic, fits the style of the show and really does drive the emotion and story. People say the lyrics are terrible. Well, they’re definitely not Sondheim, but I’ve listened to Love Never Dies and NOTHING could be worse than those.
Not to say that some of the songs aren’t unnecessary or less-than-good. For instance, you’ve got Roger’s big songs. Roger’s driving point is that he wants to write ‘one great song’ before he dies. One Song Glory is the song he sings about his dream, and it’s far better than the great song he ends up writing. Your Eyes is…well, it’s not exactly terrible, but it’s not memorable or engaging and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Mimi’s eyes aren’t a recurring theme or something Roger continually refers to. He only says ‘brown eyes’ in a passing line and that’s not particularly enthralling.
Mimi, if you think this song is worth coming back to life for, it’s really not.



Sorry to disappoint

And then you have Santa Fe, the most pointless song of all. It’s not necessarily a bad song, per se, but it’s just so….meaningless. This is a filler song to behold. Think about it. You could take Santa Fe out of the show and it would make absolutely no difference. I think it’s only there to give Collins something to do other than fawn over Angel.
Whenever I hear a pointless song in a musical, and let’s face it, most musicals have at least one song you could get rid of and lose nothing, I call it the Santa Fe of (musical). In the production I did, our rather brilliant director made Santa Fe a drug trip. He did the impossible. He made Santa Fe interesting.
The musical is also very well paced. There’s action, but there’s enough moments of silence and quietness so there’s time to breathe. And even though it’s flawed, I love the subject matter and what the musical was trying to say.

RENT isn’t a bad show. It’s unfinished. RENT needed another rewrite or two after the road test of previews. I think a lot of the fans see things in the script which are hinted at, tantalisingly close to reality but because Larson died, it was never completed.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this COULD have been a pretty spectacular musical. There’s something very special in RENT, it’s just not fully realised.  You can see what Larson was trying to accomplish. If he had lived, we’d probably have a more polished and better show. But would it have been as successful? We’ll never know.

Take RENT for what it is: not a masterpiece, but a work in progress that became a musical phenomenon. And I for one, will enjoy the aspects of the show that I enjoy, relish in the memories of the 2013 production and wonder at what might have been.

Take it or leave it.

1 thought on “Is RENT a Masterpiece?

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