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How do you measure 20 years of Rent backlash?

Can Rent's legacy prepare us for Hamilton's future?

'Rent' Cast Appears On 'Today' Show Photo by Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

It's been roughly 10,512,000 minutes (give or take a few) since Rent premiered on Broadway, immediately electrifying the world and settling in for a 12-year run. Over the last two decades, the legacy of the cultural phenomenon has mostly remained as strong as ever, despite the best efforts of cultural critics, religious conservatives, earnest flash mobs, and the guys from South Park.

For new fans who are currently witnessing an increasing volume of Hamilton criticism in the wake of its Pulitzer prize win, it's probably easy to imagine that Rent, which also won a Pulitzer, underwent similar patterns of backlash.

In fact, Rent backlash has taken a while to percolate alongside the recent cultural resurgence the musical has enjoyed in its 20th anniversary year — including renewed interest in the iconic original cast and high-profile revivals of the show. It's only been very recently that pop culture, through the lens of arbiters from Broad City to BuzzFeed, has finally started asking the baseline question, "Why didn't the characters of Rent just grow up and pay their damn rent?" and its natural follow-up: "How did they get away without paying rent for a whole year?"

From there, it's a quick step to Benny apologism and arguing that Rent's depiction of queer characters is fundamentally troubling. Earlier this year at Broadway Con, Anthony Rapp, who first starred in the lead role of Mark on Broadway, even participated in a panel called "Your Fave is Problematic," discussing the ins and outs of critiquing beloved shows like his own.

But it's been a slow journey to this point, mainly because of a tragedy: Jonathan Larson, Rent's bohemian creator, was savvy enough to drop dead the night before his musical about how life is short began previews in New York.

Thanks to this brilliant viral marketing tactic on Larson's part, Rent was more heavily fortified against meaningful criticism and backlash than the average show: To be an early critic was to dismiss not only a major cultural phenomenon, but the creative genius of a man who never got to see the realization of his life's work. And nobody wanted to be that guy.

So it took a very long time, longer than the typical fermentation period for most forms of cultural backlash, especially given the modern 24/7 social media cycle where everything is open for instant criticism, for the Rent bubble to burst. But over the years, mockery and criticism have slowly crept into the general reverence we still tend to adopt for this landmark musical of the '90s.

A timeline of Rent backlash:

1996: Rent premieres on Broadway: The New York Times calls it brilliant but messy.

1997: Musical theatre parody revue Forbidden Broadway devotes a full suite to parodying Rent. Songs like "Season of Hype" and "This Ain't Boheme" skewer the musical as an overrated product of commercialism, fueled not by substance but by its own drama and media frenzy. The show itself is described thusly:

A convention of spoiled 20-somethings going mad.

Precocious, obnoxious

Kids re-inventing Hair

1998: Writer Sarah Schulman, believing Larson had plagiarized her 1990 novel People in Trouble, writes a scathing critique of modern theater, Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, in which she argues that Rent is emblematic of a broader trend in queer narratives being appropriated, capitalized upon, and sanitized by straight white America.

1999: Generation X reviewers begin to argue past the hype, labeling Rent as "shallow, overinflated," and "easily forgettable."

2004: Team America: World Police parodies the musical with Lease, a musical whose closing number is "Everyone Has AIDS!"

2005: The Rent movie is released, earning a giant "meh" from critics and bringing in just $29 million in domestic sales.

2006: The understanding that Rent is a problematic depiction of the AIDS epidemic, one that marginalizes the reality of the obstacles faced by the queer community in order to focus instead on its straight characters, has entered into the cultural criticism of the show. An early essay by activist Yasmin Nair notes, "Rent is so unconcerned about the realities of the epidemic that it should be called AIDS: The Musical."

2009: Neil Patrick Harris, whose turn as Mark in the 1997 touring company of Rent won rave reviews and singlehandedly revived the actor's career, hosts Saturday Night Live and spoofs his own performance in a skit titled "Let's Save Broadway." It mocks Rent, along with Broadway's failure to produce anything as culturally significant as Rent in the decade and a half since.

2011: The Office parodies "Seasons of Love" with "Goodbye, Michael" in Steve Carell's penultimate episode.

2015: "Seasons of Love" is by now a totally overused parody of itself; Deadpool turns up in a Rent T-shirt in his blockbuster movie — we assume ironically.

Can Hamilton preserve Rent's legacy along with its own?

In 2001, the critic Scott Miller, in his critique of modern musical theater Rebels with Applause, devoted a substantial chapter to Rent's cultural influence and lasting legacy. Concluding that the show hadn't really changed Broadway, he wrote a final paragraph musing about who Larson's bright young successor would be:

The other young composers making their marks on Broadway are following more in the tradition of Sondheim's sophisticated, complex musicals than following Larson's populist lead. … Maybe the only hope resides in a new voice we haven't heard yet, that will appear on the scene as suddenly as Larson's did, who will finish the work of putting musical theatre and pop music back together again, without sacrificing the integrity of either, the way Larson did so brilliantly and so lovingly.

Lin-Manuel Miranda looking adorable and capable of carrying a musical theatre legacy
A wild Lin-Manuel Miranda appears.

Much has been made of the cultural, structural, and generational similarities between Rent and Hamilton. Each show speaks both to and for subcultures whose stories have traditionally been less well-represented in musical theater — the poor, the immigrants, the minorities. Like Rent, Hamilton has completely electrified its cultural moment — and like Rent its social conscience speaks directly to the current political climate.

Rent offered what was at the time an unprecedented frank look at sex, drugs, queer identity, and the devastating impact of AIDS in the late '80s. It did this while simultaneously speaking to the concerns of a world-weary pre-millennial generation, triumphantly heralding the return of the rock musical and ushering in a permanent new era of modern sound on Broadway.

Hamilton, too, has all the same potency of modernity and intergenerational social commentary on its side — and, crucially, a hip-hop score serving as the strongest musical statement on Broadway since Rent itself.

But while Larson never got to see the legacy of his show, Hamilton's creator is alive, well, and not a white man on Broadway; so naturally it hasn't even snagged its inevitable Tony for best musical, and the critical negging has already started.

Don't get me wrong — Hamilton contains plenty of entry points for interrogation and critique. It's just that many critics have chosen the ones that dismiss what Hamilton is actually about.

Still, the cultural similarities between Rent and Hamilton have helped bear both shows aloft on the wings of near-universal, Pulitzer-winning acclaim. It seems almost cosmically fitting somehow that Hamilton is enjoying a critical coup the same year that Rent enjoys a cultural comeback and a milestone anniversary. In a heartfelt application letter for the Jonathan Larson Award in 2004, Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote movingly about how Rent had impacted him:

I saw Rent on my 16th birthday, and it simply changed everything. I had been a lifelong fan of musicals, but never had I seen a show that spoke to me so directly, that used fresh, new music as a way of addressing contemporary concerns in an honest way. By writing about his friends with the problems and anxieties he faced, Jonathan Larson gave me permission to write about my life, hopes and fears.

With a valediction like that, it's no wonder that despite all the relatively recent cultural pushback against Rent, which might have finally turned the show into a cliché, Hamilton's success has instead made us culturally even more fond of Rent. Even though Rent hasn't quite managed to stay a perennially relevant phenomenon, it has at least remained one we occasionally love to revisit, even with its flaws, its dated feel, its economic and cultural implausibilities.

It's possible that, in another 20 years, we'll be looking back at both Rent and Hamilton as dated products of their time. But it seems more likely that, as long as Hamilton lives on — which will probably be a very long time — its legacy will help keep Rent feeling fresh.

After all, we like to think there's a reason Miranda closed out that heartfelt letter with: "Siempre."

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