In Defense of RENT

19 Feb

The other day I heard someone compare RENT to politics, to wit, “If you don’t love RENT when you’re a teenager, you have no heart; if you don’t identify with Benny when you’re an adult, you have no brain.” Just like being a liberal versus being a conservative, apparently continuing to believe in art, love, friendship, and diverse representation in media after the age of 25 makes you an idiot.

People of the internet, I will not have it. If you find yourself identifying so strongly with Benny as an adult, maybe you need to take a step back and look at why your priorities changed.

RENT was huge. RENT was a phenomenon, like unto Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis in scale and cultural reach. Unlike those shows, though, it puts its money where its mouth is. Let’s look at the diversity of the cast—of the eight main characters, three are women, five are people of color, one is Jewish, four are living with HIV—and then there’s Angel, who is either trans* or a drag queen, but either way is a male-born individual who uses female pronouns. The casting breakdown requires actors of color in the roles of Angel, Collins, Joanne, Benny, and Mimi (while leaving Roger, Mark, and Maureen open for interpretation), and specifically calls for further diversity in the chorus. There are three romantic relationships, all of them are interracial, and only one of them is a “traditional” male/female coupling. RENT passes the Bechdel test (which, for instance, Hamilton does not). It passes the Racial Bechdel Test (is there a better name for this?). It passes the Sexuality Bechdel Test (there must be a better name, seriously).

From where I’m sitting as a former suburban teen, RENT helped open the eyes of suburban teens. Along with a lot of other media of our youth, I credit it with our generation’s increased/increasing acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, AIDS awareness, diversity, and representation. Of the dozens of visionary figures cited in La Vie Bohème, only seven are straight white cis men, and of those, Bob Dylan is culturally Jewish, Václav Havel is Eastern European and therefore not historically considered white, and Pee-Wee Herman is Pee-Wee Herman. RENT also said, loudly and repeatedly, that it was ok to prioritize love, friendship, and art over money. It was more than ok—it was important, and good for us, and we were good people even if we weren’t getting an MBA. Music, dance, film, theatre, writing, painting, sculpture—all these things are worth studying, worth practicing, worth time and energy and effort. This is the beginning of the argument for paying professional artists a livable wage.

Is it dated? Of course it is; it came out 20 years ago. Is it perfect? No, of course not. From either an artistic or representative perspective, RENT has problems. Maureen exists so Jonathan Larson could take pot shots at an ex-girlfriend—it pleases me to see the immense popularity of the character as a giant middle finger to men who feel the need to eviscerate women who leave them. Angel veers into moments of walking, talking symbolism. “Contact” is fucking terrible, and cutting it was the best decision they made in the terrifically bad movie. The ending is treacly nonsense. A number of changes that should have been made in previews didn’t get made because the creative team was too devastated by Larson’s tragic death to see clearly.

But RENT is not, as some would have it, a naïve fantasy of bullshit where Benny is secretly the hero fighting against the stupid artists trying to muck up the world even farther. Let’s look at Benny, actually, since you’re all so keen to ally yourselves with him. At the beginning of the musical we learn that he used to live with Roger, April, Mark, Collins, and Maureen, sharing a giant industrial loft in the rougher parts of NYC circa the late 80s. He married into money, bought the building, and magnanimously declared that his friends could remain living there for free. A year later, at 9:00 PM on Christmas Eve, he calls and demands a year’s worth of rent immediately. “Rent, my amigos is due, or I will have to evict you. Be there in a few,” he threatens them. I’m in a two-income household with no kids, good credit, and some savings, and I couldn’t come up with a year’s worth of rent in a few weeks, much less a few hours. Is this legal? Yes, because apparently verbal contracts aren’t legally applicable in real estate (you learn something new every day). Is it sleazy and dickish and horrible? Why yes. Yes it is. At this point Roger and Mark are the only people still living in the apartment, though there are plenty of others in the building. They are broke. Roger is HIV positive, is a recovering drug addict who has just come back “from half a year of withdrawal,” and is clearly suffering severe depression from when “his girlfriend, April, left a note saying ‘we’ve got AIDS’ before slitting her wrist in the bathroom.”

Can we talk about AIDS? Nowadays, if you live in a first world country and have the money and/or insurance, HIV is not a death sentence. It is possible, with the correct medicinal cocktail, to have an undetectable viral load. It is entirely feasible to contract HIV, live for decades and die of old age. In the late 80s, when RENT is set, that was most assuredly not the case. Where we live now, we’re fortunate enough that AIDS is more like contagious diabetes–dangerous, expensive, a giant pain in the ass, but survivable. In the 80s and 90s, it was more like getting attacked by a polar bear. You could manage for a while, but you were going to die, slowly and painfully and probably alone. I draw your attention to the refrain at the Life Support meeting, repeated over and over:

Will I lose my dignity?
Will someone care?
Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?

Roger is going to die, very soon. Under the multiple handicaps of poverty and the lingering scars of drug addiction, as well as the self-sabotage not uncommon in the sort of severe depression that keeps a person from leaving their home for a full 12 months, he has a few years left to him, maybe, and how many of those will be good years, as opposed to years racked with the disease that ravages your body after HIV leaves it defenseless? He’s in his early to mid 20s, and his imminent death looms over him every second of every day.He is probably also the one who gave April the virus, given the mechanics of the way the virus passes between heterosexual partners, so he’s drowning in guilt for that too.

Knowing this, Benny shows up on Christmas Eve and demands his friends pay him a full year’s rent immediately, lest they be evicted. That night, after they refuse his demands, he has the power shut off and locks them out of their apartment. In the middle of the winter. In New York City. After promising them they could stay for free in the building he owns. This would be a dick move for anyone, much less a guy whose friend who is literally dying.

Does Benny have his good qualities? Of course, just as Angel has his faults. Benny pays for Mimi to get the inpatient rehab she desperately needs, and he pays for Angel’s funeral when Collins can’t. He also has vision for Cyber Arts, and the cleaning up of the neighborhood. “Do you really want a neighborhood where people piss on your stoop every night?” he asks in the lead up to La Vie Boheme. Nobody wants that, of course, and I hear that a lot as justification for his actions when he clears the tent city next to the building.

Riddle me this: where do the homeless people there go when they are forcibly removed from their makeshift shelters in the dead of winter?

I’ll wait.

Homelessness is not solved by shoving homeless people into a different neighborhood anymore than you’ve cleaned your room if you hide all your stuff under the bed. It’s true, as Benny says, that “Any owner of that lot next door has a right to do with it as he pleases.” When Collins replies “Happy birthday Jesus,” you’ll note that Benny shuts down and starts yelling. He’s defensive and angry—because he knows Collins is right. He knows he’s not solving anything. He’s not finishing his vegetables, he’s just moving them around his plate and then asking for dessert. And so do you. Benny is not shy about using his money to do good on a personal scale, but he either can’t or won’t see the big picture here.

Benny has turned into the kind of person we all bitch about—the guy who comes in to a neighborhood, tears everything down, and builds condos nobody can afford, with zero regard for the people who are already living there. Benny has lost his way. He has a ton of money and influence, and rather than try to really improve the city in which he lives and the lives of others there, he is kicking out people who have no recourse, no money, and literally nowhere to go. If you love that character so much, I have great news—he’s everywhere! Check out any major US city! He’s buying homeless people one-way bus tickets to other cities, putting spikes on the ground in doorways, removing benches, locking public restrooms, and arresting people who give out food in city parks! He’s even “remodeling” Manuel’s Tavern! Benny’s tactics for cleaning up the neighborhood are short-sighted. They are harmful. They are bad.

Mark and Roger get a lot of criticism for the way they live, for their insistence on making art that is legitimate and fulfilling and true to them rather than, in Mark’s case, keeping a shitty job at a tabloid shilling such journalistic excellence as “vampire welfare queens who are compulsive bowlers.” If you’ve never had a job that made you feel sleazy, or like you were making the world an objectively worse place, or just bad, I don’t know what to say to you except “congratulations,” and maybe also “screw you, you lucky shit.” Roger, as we covered, is actively dying. Mark isn’t, but he deeply loves several people who are, and two who do. He is just as aware of his mortality as they are, and wracked with survivor’s guilt, and in light of that, his priorities make perfect sense. If you were staring at a clock ticking down your remaining time on earth, wouldn’t it change your behavior?

You don’t have to like RENT. You don’t have to like anything. But you don’t have to stop liking RENT because you are older now than you were when you first loved it. You can see Benny’s point without agreeing with his tactics. You can shake your head at Mark for disregarding his family’s concern, or roll your eyes at Maureen’s theatrics, or whatever you want, but nowhere is it written that being an adult means we have to stop prioritizing love, friendship, compassion, activism, art, caring for people other than ourselves and our immediate circle.

And finally, let me leave you with some of the closing lines of Act 1, which are still some of the most important in my life.

Revolution, justice
Screaming for solutions,
Forcing changes,
Risk, and danger
Making noise and making pleas!
To faggots, lezzies, dykes
Crossdressers, too!
To me!
To me!
To me!
To you, and you, and you, you, and you!
To people living with, living with,
living with
Not dying from disease!
Let he among us without sin
Be the first to condemn!
La Vie Boheme!

Viva La Vie Boheme!

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