Recently, Rutgers’ Cabaret Theatre had a production of the musical Rent. Rent is also one of the nine musicals to have won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama (1996). Unfortunately, the show just closed, seeing as student theater productions do not run long. So why choose to this production. Of course it was popular when it came out, it explored a lot of the problems of that age. Homosexuality and the HIV/AIDS epidemic were huge issues in the 90s. While I can’t say society has fully accepted homosexuality and other LGBTQ issues, they are more out in the open and publicized. The problems are talked about. And while we do not have a cure for HIV and AIDS, we have a lot more solutions, medications, and treatments then we had in the 90s. It’s not like people of our generation are plagued by AIDS so what gives?
To answer that we should look to the inspiration for the musical itself. Rent is loosely based off of the 1896 opera La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini. It tells the story of poor young artists struggling with tuberculosis in 1800s Paris. Now doesn’t that sound familiar? The musical is about a group of young artists struggling with AIDS in 1990s. The characters, even in name in most cases, parallel characters of the opera. The music as well uses melodies and words for the opera. I, for one, love when traditional works are made more contemporary. It shows the versatility and adaptability of a piece of work.The longer a work stays relevant and whether it can change with the times is what makes a piece so popular.
Jonathan Larson, who wrote the music, lyrics, and script for the show, included many elements of his own life into the show. I think whatever you create, even fiction, contains pieces of your life or things you are curious about. This musical is quasi-autobiographical in that he too was a struggling artist living in New York, living an unstable life all for his art. The fact that he was able to relate to something written in the 1800s speaks to how we are able to relate to Rent now, why it is so popular, and the reasons the production was chosen. We are all artists struggling in some way, whether you are dealing with the arts, science, math, or what have you.
*I suppose “how are we gonna pay rent” can translate to how are we gonna pay Rutgers?