Rent follows the lives a group of young East Village artists, performers and philosophers living in 1990s New York City, as they struggle through the hardships of poverty, societal discord and, the AIDS epidemic in the search for life, love and art. Created by Jonathan Larson,, and inspired by Puccini’s opera La Bohème, with a song list that includes the iconic “Seasons of Love.” The latest stage production directed by Thom Allison is now playing at the Stratford Festival until October 28, 2023.

The production opens in a dilapidated Alphabet City loft, where Mark, an unemployed filmmaker, and Roger, and HIV-positive struggling rock star, are facing a Christmas without electricity after consistently failing to keep up with their rent. Mark has begun work on a low-budget documentary chronicling their lives as artists struggling to find meaning in life and work to survive in contemporary Manhattan. Roger, who discovered his HIV diagnosis a year earlier after his girlfriend’s suicide, has recently weaned himself from heroin addiction and is determined to write one great song before he dies.

Things take an even more dire turn for Mark and Roger when their former loft-mate Benny— now the building’s landlord—is the one to turn the power off on them. Trouble is layered onto financial stress when good friend Tom is mugged on his way to visit the loft. A crack in the darkness comes in the form of a proposition when Benny offers to forgive the outstanding rent if Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen will call off a protest against evictions and increased homelessness. Faced with the choice between integrity and the cold economic demands of big-city life, the aspiring artists choose art and passion.

In the play’s second act, Mark and Roger break into the now-padlocked loft on New Year’s Eve, only to find that Benny has decided to let them move back in. Over the next year, Mark, Roger and their fellow bohemians chase their dreams while struggling against addictions, trying to dodge personal demons, and avoid the temptations of stardom. Mark is offered a job at a shady news outlet after he captures an act of police brutality on video, while Roger desperately searches for the perfect chords and harmonies to set his angelic visions to music.

When Rent premièred on Broadway in 1996, shortly after the tragic death of its creator Jonathan Larson, the play’s innovative blend of pop music, raw emotion, and breakneck pacing helped to bridge the gap between the traditional musical and the MTV generation. Rent confronts issues surrounding poverty, sexuality, race, police brutality, AIDS, and drug addiction that are as relevant today as they were in the 1990s. While we may think the political climate of 25 years ago may have changed, we come to realize that perhaps it hasn’t changed all that much. We still continue the fight for freedom and acceptance for all to this day.

Thom Allison’s current production hasn’t been altered much from the original, which makes it feel somewhat dated in parts, but the strong young diverse cast he’s working with each give strong performances that make it feel more current day as well. Closing with a depiction of the AIDS memorial quilt centre stage is both a reminder of the past and tribute to those who passed, and also a takeaway to possibly evoke conversations from the audience post performance. Overall, it remains a solid story of heartache and despair, but also love and understanding.

Rent – Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford, Ontario – Now playing until October 28, 2023 Tickets

Runtime: Two hours and 40 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission. House Program

Jonathan Larson received the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and also won the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical and the 1994 Richard Rodgers Award for his production of his rock opera, Rent. It had its world premiere on February 13, 1996 at the New York Theatre Workshop. Mr. Larson died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm on January 25, 1996, ten days before his 36th birthday. His music (including songs cut from his shows) is archived in the Library of Congress.

Director’s Statement – Thom Allison

From the moment I started working on this production, these two quotes from Rent have spent equal time inhabiting my psyche. They live together, as two sides of the same coin. Inspired by Puccini’s romantic opera, La Bohème, Rent also tells the tale of three sets of lovers, but instead of being set in 1830s Paris, Rent is set in the gritty New York of the 1990s, playing out under the dark spectre of the AIDS epidemic.

When Jonathan Larson was writing Rent, New York was besieged by two crises—AIDS and what was then referred to as homelessness. He was writing about what was happening around him at the moment. Fear, anger, hope, desperation. More and more people were becoming unhoused through the boom in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. The gap between the haves and the have-nots, seemed to be widening every day. Part of those numbers increasing was because of the fear and prejudice around the AIDS virus. The infected would lose their jobs, their homes, their friends and families.

From 1981, when AIDS was first recognized, through 1990, there were more than 100,000 known deaths from AIDS in the US alone. And because most of those infected with HIV/AIDS were from the gay male community, too little was done for too long. None of this is meant to give you all a history lesson. It’s to create context for this show. We all want to believe the world has changed, but here we are, only partially over the hump of a pandemic.

Many people hoped this challenging time would bring us closer together as a world community; but instead society has eroded into blame and side-taking. We can’t seem to learn to consistently play nice together. Without fail, we seem to recreate a “them” or/against “us” scenario, over and over again. What is different, scares us. And when we react out of fear, we take another step backwards.

The characters in this show are artists, exotic dancers, independent filmmakers, rock singers, anarchist professors, drug addicts, gay people, people of colour, the unhoused, drag queens. People who, in the early 1990s, were not welcomed into “polite society” or given respect, at the best of times. Sadly, many still aren’t, as we witness on a daily basis. Several of the characters in this show also have HIV/AIDS.

In 1990-1996, when Jonathan Larson was writing Rent, they would have been deeply stigmatized by society. Many doctors and nurses wouldn’t care for AIDS patients. Politicians weren’t rushing to free up money to find a cure because the disease wasn’t affecting “regular” people. Families who were already distanced from their gay children wanted nothing to do with them, especially once they were ill. Back then, if you had HIV/AIDS, people were scared to have physical contact due to misconceptions about transmission. No one was there to pat your head or squeeze your arm or hug you. So, finding those friends/angels who would be with you—hold you, wash you, rub your back—was a rare and powerful experience. To love in the face of AIDS became a revolutionary act.

Rent was Jonathan Larson’s revolutionary act. He knew that, in the end, the only thing that moves us forward as a civilization is love. That’s what I was taught in my biracial family home, growing up. My mother was white and my father was black. They had been married for 56 years by the time my father passed. They experienced prejudice in many forms, from death threats, excommunication from the church, housing barriers like their right to rent an apartment, and even that was hindered by discrimination. The list goes on and on. Through those times, they chose to hold each other closer and laugh… and laugh… and laugh at other people’s smallness. They never let it wear down their spirit or their love. They taught me that choosing radical joy and love in the face of oppression fills the darkness with light—I have made that my life mantra, no matter how dark the world gets.

That’s why Rent isn’t about dying. It’s about living. If you knew you were going to die in a year, how would you measure each day? In time, in breaths, in doctor’s appointments, in money? As Rent says, “Measure your life in love.” That’s all that really counts. What have people meant to you? How much did you love? How much love did you let in? The community of characters in Rent fight and feud and laugh and love as any other family would. That is the magic that Jonathan Larson offers us. If we can sit with someone who seems completely different than us and understand—even just a little—that they are not that different from us, we make the universe a little cosier, a little less scary. So in the end, how will you measure your life? Take Mr. Larson’s advice: measure it in love, my friends.

Listen to this Spotify playlist curated by Thom Allison.


About the Author

Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.