For the Love of “Rent”

I had never seen anything like it. Its music was gorgeous, its spectacle captivating. But then there was the scandal of it to my 12-year-old self. I’d never heard something as horrifying as having your ex-girlfriend break the news that you both have HIV and slitting her wrists in the bathroom. I’d never heard someone say the words “dildos” or “masturbation” or “marijuana” or “erection” or “faggots lezzies dykes cross-dressers too.” I’d never seen a depiction of a romance between a gay man and a drag queen, let alone one so beautiful it made me weep. Most importantly, it depicted what to me was a fantasy as attractive as any I’d ever seen: that you could be in your twenties, living in New York City, surrounded not by the family you’d left behind but by the ones you’d made. That you could pursue above all else art and love. At its end, I leapt to my feet in applause. After, Dylan and I waited by the stage door and got autographs with every actor we could. In the photographs his mother took we are beaming.

In late middle school and early high school, on weekend mornings, I would sit at my desk in my bedroom, the blinds still drawn, and listen to the soundtrack, which hadn’t come with a lyrics sheet, and listening on my Discman try to write out the words to the songs in my journal, especially those to the epic, two-part, 12-minute number at the play’s center, a sort of manifesto to the lifestyle embodied by the play’s characters, “La Vie Boheme.” I’d have to carefully press the button down to backtrack and listen to the contours of the words I didn’t understand — “Sontag,” “Vaclav Havel,” “Pablo Neruda,” “Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kurosawa, Carmina Burana.” I don’t recall trying to search the internet to see what these things were. They were strange and beautiful symbols of the unknown. For years to come I’d encounter them in museums and textbooks and life and they’d ping that Rent part of my brain.

But I kept my love of Rent quiet, especially as I tried to eschew some of the intense uncoolness that had so defined me. Eighteen — that was the last time I could love Rent without shame, when I was first, finally living thousands of miles away from my family, in Providence, Rhode Island. When I was having my first drunken evenings, my first heartbreaks, my first exposure to intellectual texts and to people who had been raised among art that was much better than Rent. When I was finally beginning a thing called adulthood and would therefore begin to see that, yes, Rent is kind of dumb.

– In this tender, funny and damned relatable essay for BuzzFeed News, Sandra Allen traces the intersections of her love of Rent, an interview with her favorite author and her own romances.

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