“I’m a New Yorker. Fear is my life.” These words from an AIDS patient in Rent tell you alone that musical is taking you deep into the depths of New York City life. With all its bright lights and charisma, New York City has an underbelly of degradation, loathing, sorrow, and sin. And, Rent tries to show it all.
Rent is La Boheme with Mimi as a pole dancing, stripper. Rudolpho becomes Roger, a down and out musician with AIDS. The setting is not the classy poverty of Paris, but the streets of New York City’s broken society. Urban New York City is unclean and dirty. It is in such disrepair it clouds the vision and dreams of those who see it. It is a place of row house tenants who ride the infamous subways.
Even songs like “Tango Maureen” bring the frustrations together. The tango is a moody dance of dark tones; sultry, but dominated by remoteness and grey. It is not a dance done with a smile, but rather a hard face stiffened by life and cultural decline
Rent is filled with sex, drugs, bondage, lesbianism, transexualism, AIDS, heroin use, and massive multiculturalism. It is filled with a sense of alienation actually common in Broadway’s biggest hits; from “Old Man River” in Showboat, to “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” in South Pacific, to “America” in West Side Story. If you can’t see the isolation and cold in Le Miserables, you are not watching and listening very well. Broadway’s hits often play to the sense of alienation in American society.
Of course, like the dancing hoods in West Side Story, it does take work to accept drug addicts and outcasts singing and dancing; but like West Side Story, it is worth it. And you get to see the underbelly of the glitter that is New York City.