When the musical Rent first appeared off Broadway in 1996, it immediately became a hit. Tragically, Jonathan Larson could not appreciate the over-whelming success of his play, since he had died on the evening of the final dress rehearsal. His death made the play that much more poignant in its focus on the diseased and drug-addicted young people of New York City's East Village. Still, in its examination of the lifestyles of the young men and women who inhabit the slums of the Village, the play becomes a celebration of life and the heroic struggle to survive. It was published by William Morrow in 1997.
Rent is loosely based on the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini's La bohème, an opera that focuses on the experiences of bohemian artists living in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. Larson places his play in New York City a century later than Puccini's work. It opens on Christmas Eve and chronicles the characters' lives over the course of one year. The fast-paced production moves through a collection of vignettes that are united by a rent strike against the landlord of the run-down tenement where some of the characters live. During the course of the play, the characters protest the landlord's plans to evict them and face other obstacles that are more difficult to fight, including drug addiction, AIDS, and troubled relationships. The characters do not overcome all their problems, but those that they do overcome provide them with a sustaining sense of community and the will to endure.
Rent opens on Christmas Eve at Mark and Roger's apartment. They are freezing, since there is no heat in the building. The landlord has turned it off. Mark is filming with a movie camera, and he explains that he is shooting without a script, to see if anything comes of it. He notes that Roger has not played his guitar for a year and that he has just gone through drug withdrawal. Roger's dream is to write one great song.
Mark's mother leaves a message on the telephone answering machine, expressing sorrow over the fact that Mark's girlfriend, Maureen, has left him. Mark and Roger's friend Collins rings the doorbell, but before he is let in, two thugs mug him. Benny, their landlord, then calls, asking when Mark and Roger will be paying him rent, which they have not paid for a year. After Benny inquires about Maureen, Mark tells him that she has left him for a woman named Joanne. Benny warns that if Mark and Roger do not pay the rent, he will evict them.
Mark wonders how anyone can "document real life / When real life's getting more / Like fiction each day." Roger asks how a person can write a song when he has lost his creativity, and Mark adds that they are hungry and cold. They both wonder how they will pay the rent. Mark, along with half the actors, asks how a person can "leave the past behind / When it keeps finding ways to get to your heart." With the other half of the company, Roger asks how someone can "connect in an age / Where strangers, landlords, lovers / Your own blood cells betray." Both Mark and Roger note that one way to connect is through artistic expression, Mark using his camera and Roger his guitar. The entire company then declares that they are "not gonna pay rent."
Angel appears on the street and offers to help Collins after he is mugged. When the two discover that they both have AIDS, they decide to go together to a support group meeting. Upstairs, Roger declares that he has wasted opportunities in the past and is determined to write one good song "that rings true." Mimi, a neighbor, enters, shivering, with a candle. As they talk, she insists that she dropped a bag of heroin somewhere in the apartment. Mimi tells Roger that she is a stripper, and Roger admits that he used to be a junkie. He finds the bag and puts it in his pocket, but Mimi grabs it on her way out.
After returning from the support meeting, Collins introduces Angel to Mark and Roger on the street. Angel is dressed up in Santa drag and clutching twenty-dollar bills in each hand. Benny appears and tells a homeless man to get out of his way, the very sort of callous attitude that Maureen will soon be protesting in her performance demonstration outside his...
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