The 1996 musical about AIDS-afflicted artists scandalized and inspired my romantic teenage self. Figuring out what Rent got totally wrong about adult life — and right.
Rent first came to San Francisco in 1999, when I was in seventh grade. My best friend Dylan and I were allowed to go see it unaccompanied, which was a big deal.
Dylan and I were good kids. Kids who reacted to our differently difficult home lives by being extremely active in things like theater. Kids who sought mentors. Kids whom teachers would befriend. His mother dropped us down the street from the theater and we found our way inside. Our seats were decent and I remember as we took them wondering whether the people around us knew we were only 12. I wondered if they thought we were older — high-schoolers perhaps, basically adults. It was insane, the idea that we would be adults.
I don’t recall whether I knew anything about the play before it began; I’m fairly sure I didn’t know much. Rent is a rock opera about a group of twentysomething artists living in squalor in Alphabet City during the dawn of the ’90s. Its plot is based loosely on Puccini’s La Bohème — though its ending is not actually tragic, as its heroin-addicted, HIV-positive heroine Mimi ultimately survives her near-death experience.
I had never seen anything like it. Its music was gorgeous, its spectacle captivating. But then there was the scandal of it to my 12-year-old self. I’d never heard something as horrifying as having your ex-girlfriend break the news that you both have HIV and slitting her wrists in the bathroom. I’d never heard someone say the words “dildos” or “masturbation” or “marijuana” or “erection” or “faggots lezzies dykes cross-dressers too.” I’d never seen a depiction of a romance between a gay man and a drag queen, let alone one so beautiful it made me weep. Most importantly, it depicted what to me was a fantasy as attractive as any I’d ever seen: that you could be in your twenties, living in New York City, surrounded not by the family you’d left behind but by the ones you’d made. That you could pursue above all else art and love. At its end, I leapt to my feet in applause. After, Dylan and I waited by the stage door and got autographs with every actor we could. In the photographs his mother took we are beaming.
In late middle school and early high school, on weekend mornings, I would sit at my desk in my bedroom, the blinds still drawn, and listen to the soundtrack, which hadn’t come with a lyrics sheet, and listening on my Discman try to write out the words to the songs in my journal, especially those to the epic, two-part, 12-minute number at the play’s center, a sort of manifesto to the lifestyle embodied by the play’s characters, “La Vie Boheme.” I’d have to carefully press the button down to backtrack and listen to the contours of the words I didn’t understand — “Sontag,” “Vaclav Havel,” “Pablo Neruda,” “Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kurosawa, Carmina Burana.” I don’t recall trying to search the internet to see what these things were. They were strange and beautiful symbols of the unknown. For years to come I’d encounter them in museums and textbooks and life and they’d ping that Rent part of my brain.
It was the schmaltzier stuff in the play, though, especially, that made me love it, that made me listen to its soundtrack over and over and over. The romance between Collins and Angel and to a lesser extent the one between Mimi and Roger. And the specter of mortality, both within the play and without: Early on the morning of the play’s off-Broadway premiere in 1996, its creator Jonathan Larson dropped dead at age 35. At that point he’d put about eight years of his life into the show. He’d had an undiagnosed heart problem and, without ceremony, was gone. He wouldn’t know Rent’s mega success. He wouldn’t accept its Pulitzer or its Tonys. (Thankfully he wouldn’t see the bafflingly bad movie version released a decade later.)
These were the saddest and realest things I could imagine: that you could pour yourself into a person and they could die, or that you could pour yourself into art and you could die before you knew that art changed the world. On the front of my journal, I made a collage that included the phrases “seasons of love” and “the opposite of war isn’t peace / it’s creation,” and the play’s motto and last line: “No day but today.”
But I kept my love of Rent quiet, especially as I tried to eschew some of the intense uncoolness that had so defined me. Eighteen — that was the last time I could love Rent without shame, when I was first, finally living thousands of miles away from my family, in Providence, Rhode Island. When I was having my first drunken evenings, my first heartbreaks, my first exposure to intellectual texts and to people who had been raised among art that was much better than Rent. When I was finally beginning a thing called adulthood and would therefore begin to see that, yes, Rent is kind of dumb.
In 2009, about three years before he died, I had the opportunity to talk on the phone with my favorite writer. Or one of my favorites. David Rakoff was not the most esoteric or highbrow writer whose work I love, not one whom I’d name if I were trying to impress, say, a bearded man in a dark Brooklyn bar. In that case, I’d say David Foster Wallace. Or Didion. Maybe George Saunders. Emerson if he seemed the kind of guy who’d want to go there. None of these would be lies but as we fill out OkCupid profiles or meet strangers at parties, we all choose to reveal our actual tastes, I think, selectively. David Rakoff was a public radio guy, his name mostly made on episodes of This American Life. He wrote, mostly, wry, often campy, quasi-reported essays that poked fun at humanity and himself and betrayed a huge crush on the English language for all its vulgarity and variousness and bizarreness and grace.
I had moved to Iowa City for grad school a few weeks before I interviewed David Rakoff. I had never before felt so utterly alone. I had signed my lease sight unseen. I knew no one in the state.
It was humid. It was hot. I had bought David Rakoff’s Fraud as an audiobook and took to running through neighborhoods whose names I didn’t yet know, past houses and yards and dogs and cats and blooming flowers and few people. David’s essays, especially in Fraud, his first and I think best collection, were about youth and folly, about the terror of being honest to the world about who you really are, and about being around others who seem to somehow be more all right with who they are in the world. They are all funny. They are all sad. Sometimes I would have to stop and belly laugh. Sometimes I would stop and weep. I found myself in graveyards and forests and would momentarily feel less panicked and afraid about this decision I’d made to maroon myself thousands of miles from anyone who knew me in order to obtain a master’s in creative writing when the thought of calling myself a writer made me ill. I was also in a relationship with a man I thought was the love of my life — how many times have I, will I, think this? — who I was afraid wouldn’t move to Iowa to be with me.
I padded around my apartment as David Rakoff and I spoke and the interview was going well when — I don’t particularly remember how it came to began — he began talking about Rent. I realized David Rakoff fucking hated Rent. I was talking with my favorite writer on Earth and he arbitrarily was ragging on something I loved. “Rent is a middlebrow lie,” he said.
I fell silent. I felt my love for the play sting. I managed to ask why he had what seemed a pretty random disdain for Rent, given that there seemed hardly any reason to be writing or talking about it; it had long since closed on Broadway. He explained he had for some time been working on a longer essay about his hatred of Rent that he would eventually publish.
The formal part of our interview ended a few questions later. He asked where exactly I was calling from and I replied Iowa City, that I’d just moved there, and he said that he’d thought I was in the Bay Area, because of my area code, that this whole time he’d pictured me looking out some stunning Pacific vista. I told him, no, I was from there but now I lived here. We talked about our love for San Francisco. We talked about my boyfriend too, about how nervous I was that he wouldn’t move to be with me. For about 45 more minutes or so, I continued to chat with David Rakoff on the phone.
David Rakoff never actually published the longer essay about Rent. He died in August 2012 and the devastating episode of This American Life later released in his honor, titled “Our Friend David,” would include a portion of that unpublished piece, tape that Ira Glass explained he’d had around but never really had reason to include in an episode of the show before. “It just seemed weird to pick a fight with a hit Broadway show that had closed and nobody was talking about anymore anyway,” Glass said.
Rakoff begins: “Here’s some ways to broadcast creativity in a movie. Start plinking out a tune on a piano, scratch a few notes on some music paper, plink some more, suddenly crash both hands down on the keyboard then bring them quickly up to your head and grab the hair at your temples, screaming, ‘It won’t work!’ Or sit at a typewriter, reading the page you’ve just written, realize that it’s shit, and tear it from the platen and toss it behind you. Cut to waste paper basket overflowing with crumpled paper.
“Here’s what they do in Rent to show that they are creative — nothing! They do nothing! They hang out. And hanging out can be marvelous, but hanging out does not make you an artist. A secondhand wardrobe does not make you an artist. Neither do a hair-trigger temper, melancholic nature, propensity for tears, hating your parents, nor even HIV. I hate to say it. None of these can make you an artist. They can help. But just as being gay does not make one witty, you can suck a mile of cock — it does not make you Oscar Wilde. Believe me, I know. I’ve tried.”
He is right that this is the show’s juvenile, and very Gen X, stance: You’re either an artist or a sellout. The former is embodied by our crew of protagonists, who as Rakoff puts it “bark” in the show’s opener, “We’re not going to pay this year’s rent / last year’s rent / next year’s rent / rent rent rent rent rent rent rent rent.” The latter is embodied by their former friend-cum-landlord Benny who drives an SUV and wears a puffy vest and says things like, “This is Calcutta. Bohemia is dead,” and threatens to evict the crew at the show’s beginning. He’s more interested in making a creative condo space called Cyber Arts wherein artists can be charged to exist instead of freeloading. To sell out, in the world of Rent, is worse than death, because at least death is romantic. At one point in the play, after shooting footage of their artistic protest of Benny locking them out of their building, Mark is approached by a suit named Alexi Darling who offers him money in return for his art (singing “ka-ching! ka-ching!”). “That’s selling out!” someone protests. The media company Alexi Darling works for is called Buzzline.
In the essay, Rakoff describes his own experience of being “angry and ignored” in his twenties in Brooklyn, living down the street from a prison, above a ridiculously hot neighbor, who would have loud sex, during which Rakoff recalls lying flat on the floor and listening.
“Lying flat against the tile of my kitchen floor, listening to someone else have sex is essentially my twenties in a nutshell. I was robbed in that neighborhood twice. And there were days when it hardly seemed worth it to live in a horrible part of town just so that I could go daily to a stupid, soul-crushing, low-paying job, especially since, as deeply as I yearned to be creative, for years and years I was too scared to even try. So I did nothing. But here’s something that I did do. I paid my fucking rent.”
Being an artist, committing yourself to that, is terrifying. Being in love, committing yourself to that, is terrifying. This is the tension that I love most about Rakoff’s work: He presents, initially, as such a misanthrope, a critic, as better and bored than anything he sees, but he is actually the opposite. He lies flat on the floor of his kitchen floor. He yearns.
During our interview, right after he’d gone off on Rent, I asked him about this tension, between being jaded and taking risks and he replied: “I suppose in my twenties I was visited by fantasies of a ghoulish and grandiose nature, but I’m happy to report that such considerations fade super quickly. It’s a lot more relaxing with them gone.”
But this wasn’t the whole truth, he continued: “I’m really looking for longevity, both as a writer and a person. I’d like to see a shelf with more than three titles on it.”
When I decided I would move to New York, my dad said to me, “You’ve always wanted to move there,” and I genuinely asked, “I did?” Moving to New York as a writer seemed such a cliché I had forgotten I’d ever freely said that I would someday do it. I had done so when I was a teenager, an idealist, a romantic, a girl who loved Rent. What I’d said instead now was that there were jobs here, that’s why I moved here. I pay my fucking rent by working for this website, a job I love, actually, but whose name I note with a chuckle is awfully close to “Buzzline.”
There’s a scene in an episode of Girls when Marnie has planned a birthday party for Hannah. It’s at a bar and it’s weird and it seems to be more about Marnie having planned the event than about Hannah or her birthday, and what Marnie wants most of all is to sing Rent’s quintessential lady-power duet “Take Me or Leave Me” with Hannah on the stage like they used to do in college. Hannah makes clear she doesn’t want to do this and yet Marnie forces it.
The scene gutted me. On the one hand I identified with Hannah and her rolling eyes. Hannah who wants so desperately to be successful, to be cool. (Hannah who now is moving to Iowa City.) On the other, I identified with pathetic Marnie. I would also love nothing more than to stand on a stage with the best friend I had at 18, who had an incredible voice, and sing that duet. Or with Dylan, who is now a professional actor and recording artist, and sing the Roger-and-Mimi love duet, “Would You Light My Candle.” I have a time or two been in the company of others who likewise can still sing the entirety of the play by heart — including the interludes, the scenes on the street, and some of the second act’s more lamentable numbers (“Halloween,” the very bad “Contact,” the horrible and pitchy “Your Eyes”) — and it’s felt so good.
David Rakoff never saw a shelf with more than three titles on it, on a technicality; his fourth and last book was published posthumously. Titled Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, the book is a departure from his others, which were essay collections. It’s a complicated, multigenerational novel composed entirely of rhyming couplets that centers in part around a character named Clifford who dies in the ’80s of AIDS in San Francisco. The book is a ridiculous undertaking and one I cannot imagine another writer pulling off. There is nothing fearful in it. It is David, language acrobat, sailing far above our heads. He worked on it even as the cancer that he’d had as a young man and returned and killed him. He was 47.
When it was released, a year after his death, I attended an event at the Union Square Barnes & Noble wherein his friends and family and famous and not-famous writers lined up and read the entire thing aloud in pieces. It took a few hours. When it was his turn to read, Ira Glass instead turned on a bit of tape of Rakoff himself reading the appointed lines, which happened to be now-dying Clifford coming to terms with his own mortality. Rakoff’s voice, breathy and careful, a sick simulacrum of the one we’d all grown to love on the radio, came small through the speakers and our eyes welled. It was really schmaltzy, both the sentiment and that moment, and it was beautiful, and it was huge. Before the tape had even ended, Glass rushed off the stage and, behind a bookcase, lost it.
As I write, I am relistening to the soundtrack and when the reprisal of “I’ll Cover You” comes on, I still tear up. It’s the song Collins sings when his Angel, the love of his life, dies. He begins the song a cappella — “Live in my house / I’ll be your tenant” — the same lyrics that together they’d sung up-tempo in the first act, and it is so gorgeous, and so devastating, and when the band and then other voices come it swells and by the climax — “All my life, all my life, I’ve longed to discover, something as true as this seems” — his voice is so high it’s nearly breaking, and then he finally climaxes into a death wail — and it’s not fair; it’s not fucking fair.
I wish I’d pushed back when David Rakoff ragged on Rent. I wish I’d said to him what I now think: He hated Rent in part because Rent is sort of right. It’s about these things — the power of love and the fact that art can make life feel better and the finality of death — things that are corny, yes, but also big and real and no amount of posturing can outrun them. Talking about them feels cheap and is embarrassing — it is totally embarrassing to write about still loving Rent.
For some weeks this autumn I lay in bed laughing in the arms of a bearded Brooklyn man and wondered if we were falling in love. New York’s leaves were turning and days were light and I don’t know if Rent made me such a romantic, but I know it didn’t help. I felt I could be myself in front of this man. I told him David Rakoff was my favorite writer and learned he loved his work too. I told him of my terror as my friends on Facebook share pictures of their book galleys as often as they do pictures of their engagement rings, that I will never write the book I’ve spent years working on but perhaps not hard enough. That I am, actually, a sellout. That this is Calcutta; Bohemia is dead.
But he wasn’t it. And maybe no one will be. Or maybe someone will and then he will die. And maybe the book will never happen. Or it might and I could drop dead in my kitchen. It’s all terrifying. The point, I think, is you have to pick yourself up from off the proverbial floor.
Another season has begun. The sidewalks are fragrant with fir trees and their litter. Christmas bells are ringing. I zip my coat up to my chin and walk through the streets of this imaginary city I moved to because of a play, in search of love, in search of art, and under my breath sing, “And it’s beginning to snow.”