The Musical 'Rent' Will Be Televised, but Has It Lost Its Potential to Spark Action Against HIV Stigma?

Contributing Editor

Like The Sound of Music, The Wiz, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Peter Pan, Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Hairspray before it, the groundbreaking musical Rent is going to air live on television -- this Sunday evening, January 27, 2019.

I'm a musical-lover (surprise!), and Rent is a favorite. I'm excited about this production, but I'm also a bit wary.

When Rent opened on Broadway in 1996, it was revolutionary. Creator Jonathan Larson based the rock musical on the Puccini opera La Bohème but set it in modern day, in the gritty Lower East Side of New York City. The characters were racially diverse misfits, sexy outcasts, and poor artists, illegally squatting in an apartment, struggling with addiction and poverty, banding together to form a family. And in the midst of it all, AIDS was ravaging their community.

Everything about Rent was subversive. Larson's vision was to create a musical for the MTV generation, and he succeeded. The score had an edgy alternative rock sound. It had characters who were unashamed of their lives: gay, straight, trans, drug users, strippers, homeless people. It breathtakingly told realities of living with HIV in the midst of the crisis, with four main characters living with HIV at a time when AZT was literally the only option for treatment. The very first antiretroviral therapy drugs were just making their way to people with HIV the same year Rent opened. The musical celebrated the delicate dance for survival and the need for community in dire circumstances -- and despite the harshness of the situation, the presence of love. The show became a runaway hit, earning four Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It ran for 12 years, playing 5,123 performances, and was the 11th longest-running Broadway show in history.

But that was over 20 years ago. The Lower East Side is no longer gritty (there's a Starbucks on every corner!). The misfits and outcasts have been cast out, to where I don't know, replaced by the upwardly mobile with baby strollers. And thankfully, HIV is no longer a death sentence for people with access to treatment. Also in that time, the subversive show has become mainstream, as more and more gay characters and people living with HIV have become more visible in television and theater. A big Hollywood movie was produced in 2005 (it was just meh). The once-rebellious show has now taken its place among conventional musicals like Cabaret and Godspell in regional and community theaters. There's even a Rent: School Edition, sanitized for junior high and high schools. The song "Seasons of Love" has become somewhat of a pop standard, performed at graduations and holiday concerts.

The cast of Fox's Rent
L-R: Mario as Benjamin Coffin III, Jordan Fisher as Mark Cohen, Tinashe as Mimi Marquez, Brennin Hunt as Roger Davis, Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen Johnson, Kiersey Clemons as Joanne Jefferson, Brandon Victor Dixon as Tom Collins, and Valentina as Angel Dumont Schunard.
Pamela Littky via Fox

Rent is a show that we in the HIV community feel belongs to us. Like Angels in America and The Normal Heart, Rent tells our truth, our history. So how will Fox handle this new production? The Fox production stars actress Kiersey Clemons as Joanne, Emmy nominee and Tony Award winner Brandon Victor Dixon as Tom Collins, singer/songwriter Jordan Fisher as Mark, actress and singer Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen, newcomer and singer/songwriter Brennin Hunt as Roger, R&B/pop superstar Mario as Benjamin Coffin III, and recording artist Tinashe as Mimi, and it fabulously features performer Valentina (yes, that Valentina! From RuPaul's Drag Race!) as Angel. Keala Settle will perform the iconic solo in "Seasons of Love" and join the ensemble in the live musical.

Recently, the cast, director, and producers held a live Q&A on YouTube and talked a bit about their approach to the work.

"This show has always been about community coming together," said director Michael Greif. "It's about people stepping up for one another. It's about recognizing your own value, your own self-worth."

Kiersey Clemons added, "Rent really is about family. It's important because all the characters create their own family together, and that's such an important thing to carry into 2019, because we all need to come together."

"[Rent] perpetuates humanity," said Jordan Fisher. "How beautiful is this blurred but beautiful silhouette of every creed and shape and color and orientation, all loving and accepting one another." He went on to say that this story isn't just a New York story, or a Los Angeles story, but that it's relevant in every corner of every state.

Valentina made the family conversation a little more personal. "Sometimes we're born into a family that might not accept us and pushes us away. [Rent] shows the beauty of friendship and your chosen family." Valentina spoke about how this is especially relevant to the LGBT community. "Through the stories of the people in Rent through finding each other, through finding your own tribe, your own people, you can feel empowered and feel safe."

While all of this sounds very lovely, it does sound a bit like Hallmark card sentimentality to this jaded New Yorker. Although the message of coming together as a community is a lovely one, and certainly a message that is relevant to 2019, I want a little more. This production has the potential to educate people about the dark and challenging time in our country and the world when AIDS was annihilating entire communities -- and people, even the president, were afraid to talk about it. People living with the virus were either in the headlines or in the shadows. This musical was one of the landmark shows that got people talking about the realities of the epidemic. This current production of Rent could ignite new conversations about the current state of HIV and inspire people to get tested, to get into care, and possibly even to help end the stigma against people living with HIV.

Or it could be just an occasion for families to hold hands and sing along to familiar show tunes.

The live musical event Rent airs Sunday, Jan. 27 (8-11 p.m. ET live/PT tape-delayed) on Fox.