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Rent’ still relevant a decade later

Mary Squillace | Wednesday, November 30, 2005

With people spontaneously bursting into song and chorus lines materializing out of thin air in the background, it can be difficult to take the average musical seriously. But “Rent” is a musical that can, and should, be taken seriously.

“Rent is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS at the turn of the century,” said Jonathan Larson, the musical’s creator, a few months before his death.

Larson worked for seven years to nurture the show into being but died suddenly the night before it was ever performed for an audience, which effectively added another dimension to the play’s “seize the day” attitude.

Now, nearly 10 years after it first came to life, Larson’s music remains fresh and the show’s underlying themes still ring true among audiences across the nation.

One of the most defining features of the ensemble of characters featured in “Rent” is the fluidity of sexuality among them. The three romantic storylines feature a straight couple, a gay male couple and a lesbian couple. But what makes this portrayal so innovative is not the presentation of their sexuality as something novel, but as something that is almost insignificant.

Each relationship consists of tribulations as well as triumphs, regardless of the sexuality of characters. In fact, each couple could conceivably be replaced with one of a divergent sexuality without significantly altering the show’s plot.

Arguably, the least tumultuous and most tender relationship is between Tom Collins and Angel, a drag queen. While it’s difficult to overlook the fact that this is a man dressed in opaque tights and a wig, Angel’s status as a drag queen takes a backseat to the devotion between himself and Collins.

This representation is particularly relevant today in a world where, not only are homosexual relationships hotly disputed in the political realm, but most portrayals of gay men and women tend still to be stereotypical, and are usually peripheral to a central romantic storyline between straight characters.

Similarly, though the cast is multiracial, the characters Larson created fail to represent any particular racial archetype. Instead, Larson forefronted how, despite their diversity of experiences, the characters connect with one another. They ultimately share the same goal of thriving in the face of adversity, instead of merely surviving in the wake of a large breadth of challenges.

In addition to struggling to afford their artistic ambitions in New York City, the characters also endure the devastation of AIDS. The play was originally written when AIDS in America received an enormous amount of attention.

Today, though discussions about the issue have somewhat subsided, audiences are still reminded of the serious toll AIDS continues to take on the world’s population.

Larson penned his musical in part to pay tribute to the friends he’d lost to AIDS, an issue which takes particular relevance this week at Notre Dame. Students will have the opportunity to assert themselves as part of the cure at a number of events that are being held in conjunction with World AIDS Day 2005, which is on Dec. 1.

The words, music and spirit of “Rent” have withstood time, and, thanks to the feature film’s wide-release, are now available to the population at large.