Why Rent (the Musical) Sucks

With election anxiety like an unscratchable itch in all our minds right now, I thought I’d attempt to give everyone a brief moment of levity by telling you about why I can’t stand the musical Rent.

I was a theater kid in high school, but I was never quite a true theater kid—I existed slightly on the outskirts of the core theater kid group. That might have been because unlike most of them, I had a bunch of other friends who weren’t part of the theater world. It might also have been because while they were all hardcore theater obsessives, I was there at least in part due to some calculating high school logic. Don’t get me wrong—I do like theater. But I also wanted to drink and have sex, and I was never going to make it into the popular crowd, so the theater kids were the obvious alternative.

There was no greater sign of my being a TKINO (theater kid in name only) than my abiding hatred for Rent. Rent is perennially popular among high school theater kids, probably because it’s about the kind of sexy bohemians they imagine they’ll become when they grow up. But it’s actually terrible, largely because almost every single person in the show is a colossal asshole.

In case you aren’t familiar, Rent tells the interweaving stories of a bunch of different characters in the mid-1980’s East Village. We open on Mark and Roger, a pair of whiny white guys who think that not paying their rent makes them artists, even though they haven’t actually produced any art in years. Mark and Roger are huddled together in their apartment—which is cold because they’re too poor to pay their heating bill—commiserating about how hard it is to be an artist when you don’t have any talent or motivation.

Enter Benny, their former friend and long-suffering landlord, and a successful Black businessman in his local community. Rent paints Benny as the villainous face of gentrification despite the fact that a) all he wants is for Mark and Roger to pay some rent after living in his building for free for over a year and b) the so-called “gentrification,” which all the artist characters of the show vehemently oppose, is his attempt to turn a vacant lot he owns into a community arts center. Of course, Mark and Roger refuse to pay, because they don’t have any money, and because apparently they believe that having once been Benny’s friends entitles them to live rent-free in his properties forever.

Although any other landlord would have called their lawyer at least six months ago by now, Benny offers Mark and Roger a deal: Maureen, Mark’s ex, is leading a protest against Benny’s plan to develop that arts center, along with her girlfriend Joanne. If Mark can convince her to cancel the protest, he and Roger can continue living in Benny’s building for free.

But Mark and Roger, being assholes, refuse. In fact, Mark decides that just because Benny asked he’s actually going to go help Maureen with the protest, even though he doesn’t really like her that much. He is apparently completely unaware of the irony that as unemployed artists, he and Roger could probably really benefit from a community arts center opening up in their neighborhood. (Meanwhile, in actual 2020 New York, the site of Benny’s proposed arts center is almost certainly now a Starbucks.)

Nearby, their friend Tom Collins (yes, just like the drink), a gay, HIV-positive NYU professor (and one of the few characters in the show who’s actually employed) meets Angel, a cross-dressing, also HIV-positive street performer whose presence as the moral center of the show is subtly underscored by the fact—in case you missed it—his name is literally Angel. Despite their embarrassingly unoriginal names, Collins and Angel are both pretty alright guys, so I won’t rag on them any further here.

Back at the apartment, Roger underscores his lack of creative output and low expectations for himself by explaining how he just wants to write one good song before he dies. (Spoiler alert: he fails.) Their neighbor Mimi, a junkie and exotic dancer, flirts repeatedly with Roger, but he resists her. He’s probably jealous that she’s managed to hold down a job despite being a heroin addict, while he can’t even pay his rent or write a single good song.

At the protest, Maureen performs a painfully bad avant-garde art piece that reminds everyone why even people who share their politics often hate leftist protesters. During the after-party at a nearby café, Benny—who hasn’t yet realized that he should probably just find some better friends or something—shows up and criticizes the group’s self-centered bohemian lifestyle. In response, they prove him right by dancing on tables, throwing food, and just generally partying so riotously in the café that they definitely ruin the night of anyone else who happens to be having dinner there.

Also during the party, Roger and Mimi lock lips for the first time, and the locking theme continues when we also find out that Benny has padlocked Mark and Roger’s building. Admittedly, it is a violation of landlord-tenant law to lock occupants out of their building without a court order, but by this point Mark and Roger totally deserve it.

If you haven’t walked out yet (or turned off the even-worse film adaptation), you’ve made it to Act Two. Before the plot resumes, the cast lines up to sing Rent’s most famous song, “Seasons of Love,” in which they demonstrate their mastery of basic multiplication by successfully calculating the number of minutes in a year. It’s also the song in which they exhort the audience to measure their life based on how full of love it is, despite the fact that they all just spent the first act behaving like absolute assholes to each other.

When the song ends, Benny, who still hasn’t learned his lesson, shows up to offer Mark and Roger a truce. It apparently has something to do with the fact that Benny and Mimi used to date, though that doesn’t really explain why he bothered padlocking their building if he was going to turn around and offer them a truce immediately after. Maybe he was moved by the whole “how many minutes are there in a year” thing.

Of course, instead of being happy that his ridiculous quest to live rent-free forever has finally paid off, Roger is immediately jealous that Benny and Mimi used to date, even though he and Mimi literally just kissed for the first time. Apparently he thinks he’s entitled not only to a free apartment, but also for any woman he kisses to have a completely chaste past. His position becomes especially egregious when you remember that Mimi works at a strip club.

Roger and Mimi aren’t the only ones having trouble: Maureen and Joanne’s relationship is also strained, and they soon break up during a song in which each flings a litany of criticisms at the other. In a shocking oversight, Joanne fails to include Maureen’s obscenely bad performance art piece from Act One in her list of grievances.

Soon after, Angel dies of AIDS. Collins is devastated, but he can take solace in the fact that at least Angel doesn’t have to experience the remaining third of the show. At Angel’s funeral, Roger reveals that he’s going to move to Santa Fe, which for some reason causes everyone to get in a huge fight about basically nothing, which then causes Collins to get super upset that his friends are selfishly ruining Angel’s funeral. (He obviously wasn't paying attention to the show so far, since this behavior is completely in character for all of them.)

Also, Benny, who somehow still hasn’t learned his lesson, pays for Angel’s funeral and for Mimi to go to rehab, but everyone still hates him because he wears a suit.

One year later, the group reunites for a screening of a film Mark made. Apparently, Roger too has achieved his long-sought artistic breakthrough and written his one good song, but he doesn’t have much time to celebrate, since Mimi soon arrives, sick and nearing death. This is the eighties, so the prognosis for AIDS patients isn’t good, but luckily Mimi has access to a powerful medicine ACT UP could only dream of: the power of—you guessed it—Roger’s song.

So Roger finally plays his one song and it is, I kid you not, fucking terrible. This is especially egregious because for all its plot and character flaws, the songs in Rent are generally pretty good! But this one song—the song that we’ve been building up to for two and a half hours, that took Roger over a year to write, that’s supposedly the “one good song” that will secure his legacy, and that literally brings a woman back from the brink of death—is far and away the the least memorable song in the show. If you don’t believe me, listen for yourself and try to imagine how there could possibly be a universe where this song is the cure for AIDS.

But it works. And with Mimi back to life, the crew gathers together in a moment of shared happiness. They immediately change the subject from Roger’s song—probably so they don’t have to pretend they liked it—and resolve to enjoy whatever time they have left with each other and appreciate the small moments in life.

We, the audience, now also have a newfound appreciation for the small things in life, like how we’ll never have to sit through this show again.

And that’s why I hate Rent. See you next week, if civilization is still standing.

Yours in refreshing the FiveThirtyEight forecast so often I’m going to break my keyboard,