America, At The End Of The Millennium: Rent As A 90s Period Piece

Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking 1996 musical Rent takes place over approximately 525,600 minutes – but which 525, 600 minutes were they? The stage musical is silent on the year. The movie is set in 1989. But if you found a person who was reasonably well-versed in recent history and pop culture (except that they know nothing about Rent) and had them watch the musical, they’d probably come up with some year between 1993 and 1998.

Yes, Rent is a dated musical, and I mean that in only the most complimentary way. Jonathan Larson set out to make a contemporary musical – his generation’s Hair. He wrote, in 2016 musical theater terms, how Alexander Hamilton did, how Lin-Manuel Miranda does. Larson wrote like he was running out of time. He didn’t know it, but he was: Jonathan Larson died on January 25, 1996. It was the morning before Rent’s first Off Broadway preview. Alterations were made before the Broadway premiere on April 29, 1996, but only using Larson’s words. Therefore, we have a very clear stop-point in the chronology of Rent. Even if it is staged in the “present day,” Rent was written without knowledge of any events taking place after January 25, 1996.

Still, the amazing thing about Rent in the 90s was how modern it was – modern in a way no other musical was. Rent addressed technology, AIDS, trans* identity, sexual orientation, drug use and gentrification. In contrast, look at the other top-grossing Broadway shows of 1996: The Phantom Of The Opera, Beauty and the Beast, Show Boat, Les Miserables, Sunset Boulevard. Your grandma would have liked them – in fact, your grandma could have liked some of them in her youth. Cats was still in the midst of its epic run. The next-edgiest show was probably Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk, and it didn’t even bring in THAT much funk. (I kid, we love tap.)

So for the earlier part of Rent’s run, Rent was set in the present – even if Jonathan Larson’s present didn’t extend past early 1996. For example, costume designers constantly trawled hip neighborhoods to make sure their cool young characters looked up to date. For years, the libretto held up to a modern interpretation. Cyber cafes, check. Urban drug boom, check. End of the millennium, answering machines, pay phones: check, check and check.

Then, one by one, the references from Jonathan Larson’s book became dated. It’s a bit like when somebody you love dies. First you find yourself writing out checks using a year they never saw, then you’re singing along to songs they didn’t live to hear. One day you look at a photo of them and they don’t look like somebody from the present day anymore: their clothes and hair mark them as a member of the past. So it was with Rent. By 2000, the theme of “America at the end of the millennium” was obsolete (OK, 2001 if we’re being real pedantic about it). Nobody really used the word cyber anymore, and anyway, we didn’t have special Internet places like Benny’s cyber arts space. The answering machine – plot device of so many great 80s and 90s works – was a thing of the past. These people have a land line? What are they, millionaires? To that end, Joanne’s cell phone no longer marked her as an upwardly-mobile, always-connected lawyer. HIV and AIDS are still prevalent, and still more common in communities with a high rate of intravenous drug use, but mercifully, AIDS doesn’t wipe out whole friend groups in the way it did in the 80s and early 90s. And although we voted for a platform of hope in 2008, a lot of the unbounded, youthful optimism of Rent died, at least for a while, after 2001.

By the time Rent was adapted for film in 2005, it was very obviously not modern. Even if you cut out the end of the millennium spiel, you couldn’t slap low-rise jeans and trucker hats on everybody and call it 2005. Jonathan Larson succeeded; he created a musical that defined his time so well that only 5 to 10 years after its release, you could already pinpoint in which era it must have been written. The filmmakers had to choose when to set Rent, and they chose 1989. There’s plenty to recommend 1989. That’s the year Jonathan Larson came up with the early concept for Rent. The AIDS crisis was at its peak. The Tompkins Square Park riot was just the year before.

The movie works – 1989 works – but I still say there’s a little more evidence that the original musical was intended to take place in the 90s. Through years of revisions, Larson incorporated references that wouldn’t have existed in 1989. Cyberarts seems 90s – cyber as a prefix didn’t really take off until that decade. As far as millennia go, 1989 is pretty close to the end of one, but the “end of the millennium” talk gained more traction in the 90s (that’s when we weren’t self-referentially explaining “it’s the 90s.”) Even the relationship that served as Larson’s inspiration for Maureen and Mark didn’t occur until the 90s (although it could as well have happened in the 80s). Most stage productions seem to have taken the 90s concept and run with it. I looked up a few school productions, bright-eyed teenagers done up in 1996 cosplay, imagining a year before they were even born. It’s how we must have looked on 80s day during spirit week in high school in the early 2000s. The teachers must have hated us.

Whichever year you want to place Rent in, it seems pretty clear that it’s somewhere between 1989, when Jonathan Larson’s idea took root, and 1996, when he died. In a play that tells us that there is no future, and there is no past, Rent takes place right now: but it takes place in Jonathan Larson’s right now, and for the last 20 years, for a few hours, we get to live there, too.

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