"Rent"

A Full Length Rock Musical by Jonathan Larson

From the musical Rent
Performers at a "Rent" sing-along. Bryan Bedder

Rent is a rock musical based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème and La Bohème is based on Henri Murger’s book, Scènes de la vie Bohème. Each incarnation of the story features a cast of creative young bohemian characters eking out a living at the turn of a century under the threat of illness. In La Bohème that illness is tuberculosis and in Rent the illness is HIV/AIDS. La Bohème premiered in Turin, Italy in February 1896 and almost exactly one hundred years later, Rent premiered on Broadway in April 1996.

Playwright Jonathan Larson was 36 when Rent went into rehearsals. He had already written two musicals: Superbia and tick…tick…Boom. Originally, Larson worked on Rent with a partner, Billy Aronson, but their two visions for the show clashed and the project was put aside. Larson picked up work on Rent again after several friends of his were diagnosed with AIDS and the project became a personal message from him to the world. Sadly and shockingly, Jonathan Larson died of an undetected aortic aneurism after the final night of dress rehearsal for Rent. He never knew the impact and success his rock musical would achieve.

Plot Synopsis

Mark and Roger share an industrial apartment in the “Alphabet City” portion of New York City. They are broke and cold and it is almost Christmas.

Mark is a filmmaker. He is currently attempting to film a documentary about the lives of his friends and the homeless and hungry on the streets of New York at the turn of the century.

Roger is a musician. He acquired AIDS through an ex-girlfriend, became a junkie, got clean, and now refuses to leave his apartment due to depression. The audience meets the rest of Mark and Roger’s circles of friends as the first few scenes begin.

The drag queen, Angel, finds Tom Collins beaten from a recent mugging.

Angel helps him up and gets him to a Life Support meeting for victims of HIV/AIDS. The two quickly become lovers.

Mimi is a 19-year-old junkie from Mark and Roger’s building. She and Roger are attracted to one another, but Roger does not consent to a relationship with her until he discovers that she too is afflicted with AIDS.

The last two characters to weave in and out of Mark’s life are Joanne and Maureen. Maureen is Mark’s vivacious ex-girlfriend who has recently turned lesbian. Joanne is Maureen’s new girlfriend and the manager of Maureen’s performance career. Both Mark and Joanne battle with jealousy. Mark isn’t over his feelings for Maureen and Joanne is never sure of Maureen’s commitment to her.

Rent follows these characters through a year of their lives jumping from one holiday to another: Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day, Labor Day, Halloween, and back to Christmas. During the year Angel eventually succumbs to the disease. Mimi loses her battle with her drug addiction and begins living on the streets. Maureen and Joanne break up and come together several times. Roger sells his guitar and moves to Santa Fe only to return to his bohemian life in New York a short while later.

Mark is left as the sole healthy and unattached observer of his friends’ lives.

Production Details

Setting: A mostly bare, curtain-less set that represents Mark and Roger’s apartment as well as various locations around New York City.

Time: 1996

Cast Size: This play has 8 main roles plus an ensemble.

Male Characters: 5

Female Characters: 3

Characters that could be played by either males or females: 0

Roles

Roger Davis is a struggling musician looking to write one more hit song before he succumbs to AIDS. Due to his diagnosis, he is reluctant to leave his apartment and join society. In effect, at the beginning of the play, he has already buried himself. Mimi brings him back to life and forces him to get out and interact with the world again.

Mark Cohen is working on a documentary about the lives of his friends at the turn of the century and under the threat of AIDS.

He is a mostly neutral observer and remains unattached despite encouraging his friends to connect and take chances. He sees himself as the lone survivor coming out of the AIDS epidemic and is already mourning his friends.

Tom Collins is a computer whiz and sometimes university professor diagnosed with AIDS. He falls head over heels for Angel. He offers Angel everything he has and everything he will be and takes care of the dying man in his last hours. Despite what society thinks of their relationship, it is the most stable, trusting, and loving one out of any presented to the audience.

Benjamin Coffin III is Mark and Roger’s ex-roommate. He gave up the bohemian lifestyle to marry into money. He buys the building where his old roommates live and wants to turn it into a cyber studio. He is an entrepreneur at heart, not a bohemian, and urges his old friends to leave their underfed, hand-to-mouth existence, and join corporate America. They see him as the enemy and everything they are fighting against.

Joanne Jefferson is Maureen’s new lover. She is proud of the life she has built as both a lawyer and a lesbian. She loves Maureen, but is never confident about Maureen’s commitment to her. Maureen’s past is a lot to contend with and Joanne is prone to jealousy. This causes many fights between the two women.

Angel Dumott Schunard is a flamboyant drag queen who is generous of mind, body, and spirit. He is quick to make friends and spread the love, as he knows his time in life is short. Despite his illness he finds his happy ending with Tom Collins.

Mimi Marquez is the young AIDS afflicted drug addict who lives below Mark and Roger. She is immediately attracted to Roger and once the two confess their diagnosis to one another, they begin a relationship. Mimi has a past with Benjamin Coffin III and that and her drug addiction eventually causes Roger to leave. She is devastated, begins living on the streets, and nearly dies.

Maureen Johnson is the kind of vivacious, enigmatic, flirtatious woman that both men and women flock to for attention.

She is not the kind of girl who is used to reining in her behavior for anyone and she feels stifled by Joanne when Joanne asks her to commit. She is a bold and unapologetic figure who is beloved by almost everyone she meets.

Other Small Ensemble Roles

Mark’s Mom

Mr. Jefferson

Pastor

Mrs. Jefferson

Woman with bags

Gordon

The Man

Mr. Grey

Steve

Man with Squeegee

Waiter

Paul

Police Officers

Alexi Darling

Roger’s Mom

Production Notes

Rent is meant to be produced with minimal set and costumes. A large cylindrical tower is the only specified set piece. It should be non-descript in order to represent such things as a steeple, Christmas tree, and wood stove. In addition to the tower, the set notes discuss a platform and rail fence. The five-piece band that accompanies the actors should be situated on stage and be as much a part of the set and blocking as the actors are. A method of projecting video from Mark’s documentary at the finale of the show and a moveable phone booth are also required set considerations.

Content Issues: Strong language (profanity), HIV/AIDS, homosexuality, drugs

Resources

Production rights for Rent are held by Music Theatre International.

Music Theater International has a high school version of Rent available for young actors to perform. The website stresses that minimal changes to the script have been made mostly to accommodate length of songs and the abilities of young actors’ voices. The language and content of the show remain intact.

A video of an entire Broadway production of Rent is available online.

Arguably the most significant song from the musical is “Seasons of Love.”, heard and seen here in this video clip from the 2005 movie.