What is it about RENT? I’ve loved it, disdained it, watched it, been moved by it, been left cold by it, left it behind, returned to it and loved it all over again. I’ve sat for hours with the CD analysing the score, read books about the show, even written papers about it during my post-graduate studies in musical theatre – all in the hope that the secret of my tumultuous relationship with RENT will be revealed.
The South African production of RENT in 2007 played received mixed reviews and to less than full houses. The production was passionate if not perfect and was marketed as a controversial musical that “changed Broadway”. This was possibly not the best way to promote the show to South African audiences and I guess the poor houses proved that point.
Looking back to that marketing strategy, I don’t know that RENT changed the face of the musical theatre industry; it did, to a certain extent, create a space for an alternative, contemporary voice in which the mainstream musical could sing. And yes – the controversy is there: in the AIDS-related themes, in the depiction of homosexual characters and relationships on stage, in the use of language, in the in-your-face style of performance that the show employs.
But those things are not what RENT is about. RENT is about “La Vie Boheme” – the bohemian life. Everything else is secondary; everything is mediated through the tinted lenses through which these characters see their existence and the credo that is at the bottom line of this lifestyle is “No Day But Today”. As a theatrical text, RENT at its strongest and most vital when it remembers this. When it gets lost in its narrative complexities or resorts to blatant emotional manipulation, the show is less successful.
But more about that later: for now, it is time to start thinking again. To start unlocking the secret of this show once again, more than a decade after I was first exposed to the material. And maybe this time, I’ll find some more conclusive answers.
RENT isn’t about the bohemian life first and foremost. It’s about being open to the idea of love in the midst of woes and trials and hardships and poverty brought about by the bohemian life. That’s what makes it so special and that’s what makes it relevant even after over a decade of being in the theater. That’s what makes all of us attracted to RENT.