This past Sunday, FOX broadcast the much-hyped, much anticipated live version of Rent. I’ll be honest, when I first saw the teaser about three weeks ago, I was a bit nervous. You see, Rent is the story of several artists living in New York City at the turn of the decade (from 1989 to 1990). Jonathan Larson was and still is a genius of how he told this story while exploring the very basic right and privilege it is to be alive, despite the struggles these artists experienced. He calls to attention the social injustices of unfair housing practices, the AIDS epidemic, and the maltreatment of the city’s homeless population. From the very first line sung in the show to the very last breath uttered in the script, I was mesmerized. I remember feeling a calling to do something, anything to fight social injustice, to stand up on a table at my local diner with my fist flung high into the air, while saying something power in French. The music, the acting, and dancing… everything. It’s truly exhilarating. How romantic, I thought, to stand together as one, fight against “the man” and refuse to bow down to his whims. It’s for the cause, after all.
Now, this post might seem a bit cynical becasue Rent is a show about cherishing the meaning of life, seeing that it is a gift, a blessing that no matter how much time we have on this world should not be wasted. Jonathan Larson, unintentionally, was a testament to that. He died before his show made it’s off-Broadway debut, a show ironically that celebrates the beauty of life, even in death. And for this, Rent is a beautiful, beautiful show. But the adult in me has some serious questions about the expectations of some of the characters.
The show starts off with two of the main characters lamenting over their current living situation. They had been living rent-free for a while thanks to their new landlord who just happened to be a former friend of theirs. However, now he is demanding the rent and is threatening eviction if they fail to pay. Mark and Roger, our heroes, argue that it is unfair that now they have to pay their rent when they didn’t have to pay an entire year’s worth of rent in the past. Now, suddenly Benny (their former friend and current landlord) wants his money or he’s prepared to throw them out if they can’t pay! What’s a couple of adult men to do in this situation? Mind you, they are artists, living artists’ lives.
They see Benny’s demands and raise him one better. They are not going to pay the Rent and begin to tell him how much he’s changed. Suddenly, he’s no longer a man of the people because he’s doing his job. Now, I never said Benny was a nice guy. It’s true that most people who come up in the world tend to change a bit because of their new circumstances, and sometimes that change doesn’t make them the best kind of people. Benny is a rude, pretentious snob who marries into money and is desperate to please his father-in-law who is loaded. Benny is just like any of us who have a position wherein making the right contacts and pleasing the right people is key to upward mobility. The difference between some of us and people like Benny is that Benny is willing to do anything to get it, including evicting his own friends, and having the police get involved with a peaceful protest later in Act 1. And for most of the musical, Benny is the obvious antagonist. He’s “the man” and it’s worse because he’s seen as a traitor who is now out of touch with the people.
I saw Rent for the first time as an idealistic 17 year old having fallen in love with it during my early teens. It was easy to dislike Benny because I didn’t have any bills, very little adult responsibility. These were artists! They were fighting against the system! It was all romantic and wild and fun. How dare Benny come in and ask them to pay the rent for the apartment in which they live! But now as an adult, I see the pure ridiculousness of Mark and Roger’s protest. Adulting while securing certain freedoms also involves real responsibility like going to work and paying your bills. It’s yucky, I know. It’s submitting to “the man”, I know. But it’s the way of the world, people. To have a place to live, one needs to pay for it, one way or another. And to throw a fit because your friend, who had let you have a pass in the past, now needs to charge you the same rent your neighbors are required to pay is a little immature. We aren’t privy to the amount of money Benny is asking for, whether he wants just the current amount due or wants that in addition to back pay for all the months missed. Regardless, Benny has worked hard and that, along with making the right contacts and networking effectively, has helped him become a successful businessman. It’s hard being the one to break from the mold. And although Benny has a bit of an attitude during the show, alright a terrible attitude, it’s within his right to ask his friends to pay their rent that he gave them more than enough time to earn. We know that Rent tells the story of artists, but we don’t know if Mark or Roger have actual paying jobs, you know the ones that are supposed to pay the rent during the day, so you can live your dreams at night and on weekends or whenever you’d live your dreams opposite of work schedules. Either way, wouldn’t it have been fairer and more mature for Mark and Roger to be grateful for the time allotted that was rent-free and find some way to pay what they owe on their home? Most New York City digs are super expensive and yes, there are some that do not live up to the expensive hype (ie: shower in the kitchen? What even are NYC’s building codes?) But nonetheless, in the real world, artist or stockbroker, you have to pay on what you owe. Everybody has bills and everybody has to pay those bills.
I felt called to take a stand for Benny, even though he is the “bad guy”, “the man.” He’s still a man, a black man at that. And even though he was the “bad guy,” I was super psyched to see a black man in a role that wasn’t stereotypical. Benny found a way to be successful, to create a life wherein he wouldn’t have to struggle to survive. And it was in Benny that we saw that man doesn’t always forget where he comes from. Benny made a transformation during the show; in seeing the love among his friends, the pureness of that love which transcends all things, he was able to change his attitude and provide solace, and financing, for them in their times of need. He paid for Angel’s funeral, and took care of Mimi when she fell ill. He saw that he could use his success story for good; that he didn’t have to leave the “hood” in order to affect positive change within it. Benny wasn’t the bad guy; he was simply doing what adulting called him to do.
Maybe it’s high time Mark and Roger follow suit. No day but today!