Snacks? Check. Copious amounts of alcohol? Got ‘em. Cast sweatshirt from your high school production of what felt like the edgiest musical in the world? It’s here, it’s on, and it’s snug. That right: It’s Rent: Live night and an entire sub-genre of millennials are prepping to cry nostalgically for, like, three hours. Tonight marks the third of FOX’s live television musical productions — Grease hit the small screen in 2016 and A Christmas Story ran at the end of 2017 — and its latest production, Rent, may just break NBC’s live musical record of 18 million viewers.
That’s because while Rent is not as widely recognized as some other members of musical theater’s canon, it holds a particularly special place in the hearts of a generation of young artists who are, roughly, about the same age now as the characters in Jonathan Larson’s operetta. Rent, after all, debuted in 1996, and is for many of today’s 20-somethings not only the first album they had with swearing but also likely the first time they saw a love song performed between two queer characters, the first time they saw lead characters talk about their struggles with AIDS, and the first time they saw something subversive that was also sanctioned by parents and Tony voters alike.
My own experience of “discovering” Rent came as a musical theater-obsessed 10-year-old in Ohio, feverishly listening to the cassette tapes in my mom’s Subaru as I waited for my brother’s hockey practice to finish. It’s a story that’s been told in many a think piece; for Esquire, Tyler Coates makes a similar point in an essay last week about how Rent moved the culture forward.
Because for millennials, in particular, Rent was a generational awakening. We were kids who had watched the adults absolutely lose it during the Y2K panic; two years later, 9/11 again ripped through our bolstered sense of safety. It makes sense, then, that a show about estranged kids (because that’s ultimately what Rent really is) captured the moment.
Rent, whose 1996 debut felt vintage in 2001, was unabashed about complaining, angrily, about the state of the world. We watched and listened, wide-eyed, as actors stomped and screamed across the stage. The world of Rent, of artists struggling in NYC’s East Village, was messy and loud and full of creative people struggling to create. And honestly? They created some goofy ass art.
It’s interesting to think how today’s kids, who have seemingly become experts at profiting off social media-driven creativity, will react to Maureen’s performance piece, “Over the Moon,” which culminates in her convincing the audience to moo alongside her. How will they see Roger, whose drug addiction sidelined his career as a “rock star”? Will Mark’s frustration at his inability to finish his filmmaking side projects resonate as much with a generation of kids who were, thanks to YouTube, self-fashioning as mini-documentarians starting at age 6?
The cultural parallels between 1996 and today are numerous. The impulse to angrily scream is still there. But Rent, whether intentional or not, challenges artists as much as it does the status quo. It shows that suffering and pain don’t inherently make a good song or dance or film. And as we watch tonight, quietly singing our favorite lines, we may begin to see the cracks in the art that we once saw as revolutionary.