Twenty years before Hamilton swept the Tony Awards, another groundbreaking sensation took the Broadway stage for the first time. Written by the late Jonathan Larson and based on Puccini’s La Boheme, the rock opera Rent told the story of a group of poor artists trying to make a life for themselves in Alphabet City. Unfortunately, Jonathan Larson died the night before its Off-Broadway debut and was never able to see its Broadway run, his Pulitzer Prize win or its Tony Award for Best Musical. Even with such a tragic history, Rent proves a celebration of love, hope, sexuality, and of course–sticking it to the mainstream.
Running at 160 minutes, the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Rent was released on August 27, 1996. It features some people that are very familiar in the current pop culture landscape before they were Broadway and Hollywood stars. Idina Menzel (who if you don’t know her from Wicked, you’ve certainly heard her belt “Let It Go” in Frozen) Jesse L. Martin (who stars in The Flash and Law & Order) and Taye Diggs (How Stella Got Her Groove Back) Rent was also home to major Broadway players like Anthony Rapp (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, If/Then), Adam Pascal (Aida, Chicago, Disaster), Daphne Rubin-Vega (The Rocky Horror Show, Les Miserables), and Wilson Jermaine Heredia (La Cage aux Folles).
Some musicals fail to make their songs a seamless part of the story; songs then have the opportunity to stand out as clumsy drop ins that might further the plot along or not. Rock operas have to be dynamic and clever to ensure that the audience doesn’t feel every second of the cast singing out their feelings. Using a variety of vocal talents and musical influences, Rent escapes the trap and accomplishes just that. Beautiful songs like “Life Support” and “Will I?” contemplate mortality and the reality of a slow death in between the hilarious “Tango: Maureen” and Maureen’s ridiculous performance of “Over the Moon” because there’s always so much going on. Threads are picked up, themes are explored over the course of multiple songs with different tones.
Everyone has heard “Seasons of Love” before–it’s a favorite of middle school chorus groups, as it’s one of the only songs on the album that doesn’t require editing for children. While “Seasons of Love” has a good message and vocal power behind it, Rent’s true strength lies in the more unique, dynamic songs that provide heaps of information about the characters and the plot quickly. Five voicemails perfectly spell out Mark’s, Roger’s, Mimi’s, and Joanne’s relationships with their parents in less than four minutes. We learn everything we need to know about Roger’s and Mimi’s pasts during the flirtatious, pretty “Light My Candle”–including the fact that Mimi is an exotic dancer who’s addicted to heroin. Everything about Rent is cohesive.
Consider “Christmas Bells,” which was eliminated from the 2005 movie for reasons I will never understand and won’t accept to this day. “Christmas Bells” is a song that explores an Alphabet City street on Christmas Eve in several layers that overlap one another. Homeless coat vendors are pitted against Collins and Angel building their relationship, Roger telling Mark about meeting Mimi, and Roger confronting Mimi’s drug dealer. Relationships are grown and changed within a song. The inimitable “La Vie Boheme” encapsulates the ‘90s Bohemian lifestyle with several historical and pop cultural references, all while sticking it to the man–the man in this case being their former friend Benny and his wife’s father. You can’t help but start to identify with everything they’re saying, even if you’re a suburban high schooler who’s never come in direct contact with HIV or you know, heroin. The spirit is inescapable.
The best thing about the Original Broadway Cast recording of Rent is that it presents the entire story, minus a few bits of extraneous spoken dialogue and narration. Theater is expensive and very location-dependent, meaning that there are a ton of people who will never get to experience it in person. Having such an all-encompassing album allows people to experience the story and music in full without being there in person–much like the Hamilton soundtrack does today. Or for those of us who were lucky enough to see it during its twelve-year run at the Nederlander Theater, experience it over and over again.