It awakens thoughts of love and hope.
"We're all renting." Now there's an old adage that could serve as the motto for the musical Rent as well as for each of our short lives. The new film Rent, expertly directed by the multitalented Chris Columbus, romanticizes the bohemian culture of New York at the beginning of the last century's last decade. Because we were all just learning about the scourge of AIDS and the challenges of multisexuality, it is as much the stage and screen version of Philadelphia as it is the underside of the romantic Moulin Rouge. Regardless, there is nothing romantic about AIDS or trying to pay rent in NYC. As Susan Sontag says, "AIDS obliges people to think of sex as having, possibly, the direst consequences: suicide. Or murder."
For a musical that won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama and four Tony Awards, among others, the barrage of muscular songs leaves little time for any serious dialogue about the dangers of poverty (But, hey, this is a musical, so don't demand a reality that would strip it of its essential fantasy), yet the effects of drug use are apparent throughout. Rent has the West Side Story feel of reality massaged, prettied if that is possible in the slums of New York, unafraid to shout that Puccini didn't bother about realism either because operas and musicals take a pass in that category in order to celebrate the human spirit of hope through song. Not only does La Boheme come to mind but also Les Miserables in its impoverished heroes' own way. Chicago is the opposite: uptown and glossy.
Having just seen a fine adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, depicting the opposite end of the social order (albeit early 19th century England) from 20th century New York, I am struck by the extremes of living, so entertainingly presented through dialogue and cinematography in the former and song and set design in the latter. Both films, however, exalt the primacy of true love no matter what one's place in the pecking order or size of bank account. Rent's easy way of celebrating gay love adds a dimension Austen never faced.
In the mid eighties, I spurned a veiled call for help from a former college chum, who worked in the city and contracted AIDS from dirty needles. Because I thought it could be spread like a cold, I did not let him visit me and my family in the Midwest. Of course he died before I learned more about his condition, me a victim of my ignorance and detachment from the real lives of the urban poor. Rent makes me cry when I think of my struggling artist friend alone and misunderstood. Rent awakens thoughts of love and hope for all of us.