Note: If this seems copy-and-paste, well...it kind of is. But that's because it's an essay that I wrote for a drama class back in January. Ran across it in my notebook today and figured, "Why not?" So, still all mine. Just put here for me to share.
Viva La Vie Boheme: Live The Bohemian Life
RENT, a rock opera written by Jonathan Larson and inspired by Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme, touches hearts and pulls a sympathetic reaction from viewers. One gets the impression that the world is cruel to those who do not fit under the oppressive definition of “acceptable.” The play takes place in Manhattan's Lower East Side; no year is directly specified, but it can be assumed through references made throughout that the story unfolds over the course of one year, beginning on Christmas Eve, between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s. During this time, the Lower East Side was known for being a common location for budding artists, and Alphabet City, where the most of the characters reside, had a track record for high crime. The story resonates with many because it shows real people dealing with real issues. RENT forces its audience to delve into the other side of society, the part where life can only be measured by whether one makes it through the day or not.
The story begins when the show's narrator and resident filmmaker, Mark Cohen, begins to shoot an unscripted documentary following the life of he and his friends. His roommate, Roger Davis, a songwriter, has spent the last six months of the year suffering from heroin withdrawal, and is trying to cope with both his girlfriend's suicide and his new life with HIV. The two reside in a loft owned by their former friend, Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III, who threatens to evict them if they do not pay the rent. Roger eventually meets up with Mimi Marquez, a nineteen year old exotic dancer who, as the audience eventually learns, is also HIV positive. As the story progresses, the audience is introduced to Tom Collins, a gay professor, and Angel Dumott Schunard, a drag queen with a passion for percussion. Both are surviving despite being victims to HIV. More characters trickle in, such as Mark's performance artist ex-girlfriend, Maureen Johnson, and her Harvard-graduate girlfriend, Joanne Jefferson. Once all the players are on the field, the game continues as the group bands together and attempts to make names for themselves, achieve their dreams, and simply enjoy life as it comes. Relationships are built, and then fall apart. Circumstances bring the crew immense joy before leading them into times of despair, especially after the death of one of their own. Some abandon the makeshift family as well, but in the end, they all return, welcomed by open arms. RENT follows the stories of eight completely different people, and the paths they take to reach the so-called “end” of their tale, all from the watchful perspective of Mark's camera.
While one may not realize it at first glance, RENT carries with it a number of conflicts. One conflict would be society. Because the heroes and heroines of the play refuse to conform to social norms, they are looked down upon, and constantly discriminated against because of it. Their lifestyles keep them alienated from everyone else, but this segregation is not one that they wished for or requested. In order to leave their marks on this world, they had no choice but to fight against the social order that held so strongly, crushing them. No matter the situation, the judgment they received from others came from a misguided, biased place. As Jesus said in John 8:7, “ The sinless one among you, go first: Throw the stone. “ (MSG) Another conflict the group was forced to deal with is HIV/AIDS. The disease that still runs rampant today was more of a death sentence during the period in which RENT takes place. Antiviral medicine was available, but was understandably not as effective as recent variants. Also, attaining said medicine required money that many of the characters did not possess. Overall, the outlook was bleak, and the only somewhat effective method for dealing with this fact was to exercise a sunny disposition and take every pill on time. Half the cast was at the mercy of the deadly virus, and all were well aware that they were simply living on bought time. They had to figure out how to continue on with life despite the ever-slowing ticking of survival's clock. Finally, there was the confrontation with Benny, the supposed sell-out and assumed antagonist. Benny was once a “Bohemian” himself, living with Mark and Roger in their industrial loft. But when he married into a wealthy family, acquired ownership of the building his friends occupied, and warned that if they did not pay the rent quickly, they would be thrown out, the rest of the group considered him on of “them.” In their minds, he had become “the enemy of Avenue A,” obsessed with money and real estate, caring little about the people he stepped on and hurt in his ventures.
However, each character also must work with their own personal conflicts, all of which emerge during the course of the show at some point. Roger spends much of his time looking for purpose and meaning in his own life, grappling with his fear of lost dignity and impending death, and writing his one song “before the virus takes hold.” His love interest, Mimi, fights to control her heroin addiction. Joanne works on trying to balance her devotion to the flighty and flirty Maureen with her need for “margins and discipline.” Mark fears being left alone and, forever watching from the outside in, realizes how the fates of his friends have forced him into being disconnected; Roger himself says that the young filmmaker is “detached from feeling alive,” though Mark immediately counters by claiming that this is “because I'm the one of us to survive.” Even Benny eventually tries to work his way back into the gang's good graces, hoping to return with little malice. The realistic touch behind all of these struggles – both story-wide and personal – is that in truth, none of them are completely resolved. One can assume, without much thought, that long after the end of the show, the characters within will still be dealing with their issues.
The theme for RENT can be summed up into the four-word mantra often associated with the play: “No day but today.” Jonathan Larson uses song and characters to drive home this message. The theme is first introduced into the play during the song “Another Day,” where Roger, wallowing in months-old bitterness and the fears that resulted, refuses to become romantically involved with “the dancer from the Catscratch Club.” Mimi tries to reason with him, asking him to “forget regret” and saying that there was no more than the day in which they were in, the moment they were sharing at that second. Every character, especially those with the HIV virus, is looking to take each day as it comes without worrying about problems that have yet to appear. At the same time, people like Mimi and Angel refuse to fret over mistakes made in the past, realizing that nothing can be done and depressing oneself makes life “yours to miss.” Anyone who watches RENT should be able to take notice of the theme with ease, and the Christian can find Biblical validation in Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (NIV)
The sub-theme, which in this particular case, is repeated throughout the show more often than the theme itself, is to “measure your life in love.” Again, Larson backs up this idea through character interaction. The message is not mentioned until the beginning of the second act with the song “Seasons of Love.” However, Larson's belief can be displayed from start to finish. The group is intertwined by all sorts of friendly and romantic affections. Mark, Roger, and Collins share a brotherly love; Maureen and Joanne share very real – though peppered with quarrels and heated arguments– sentiments for one another; Collins and Angel develop a deep fondness in the months after their meeting; Joanne and Mark become an unlikely duo as they revel in the difficulties of being with Maureen; Roger and Mimi's relationship suffers due to personal battles, but the two fight their apprehensions for each other; and Angel displays her tenderness and widespread respect for all by giving of herself and showing her selfless nature at all times. Clearly, Larson has connected everyone in this way in order to get across the idea that the most important and lasting thing on Earth is love. What better to do than judge the value of one's life by something so timeless?
RENT spent a grand twelve years on Broadway, touching hearts in the most eccentric of ways. People have walked out of the theatre with a new energy and a renewed drive to truly live their lives, one day at a time. After watching seven of New York's unlikeliest people handle the ups and downs of being underestimated, unwanted, and constantly opposed, an entire audience may leave knowing that they are not alone in their hardships. Crowds are drawn in by the raw intensity of the show, the tenacity of the characters, and the important life lessons their story reveals. Jonathan Larson's RENT was a reflection of not only the times as they were, but his life as he knew it. Mark, Roger, Mimi, Maureen, Collins, Joanne, Angel, and even Benny have defined a new way to count all 525,600 minutes of the year.