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An Examination of Jonathan Larson's "RENT"

Updated on December 29, 2017
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I have a B.A. in English with a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies. I've been a Goth since age fourteen, and a Pagan since age fifteen.

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Jonathan Larson wrote RENT in the early nineties as a response to several of his friends testing HIV positive and dying of AIDS-related complications. He was inspired by Giacomo Puccini's play La bohème. Sadly, Larson passed away from an aortic dissection the day of RENT's first off-broadway preview on January 25th 1996. Thankfully, his musical took off and spread more awareness about the human immunodeficiency virus.

RENT takes place in New York. It includes characters that are:

  • HIV positive or negative

  • white, hispanic or black

  • heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual

  • artistic and/or business-oriented

  • poor or wealthy

  • educated or uneducated

Anthony Rapp at BCEFA
Anthony Rapp at BCEFA | Source

Mark Cohen [narrator]

  • Documentary filmmaker
  • Jewish
  • Lower-class
  • HIV-negative
  • Heterosexual
  • Roger's friend and roommate
  • Maureen's ex-boyfriend

Cast list at NJPAC "RENT: Broadway Tour"   2010.Nov.27 [Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal originated Mark and Roger]
Cast list at NJPAC "RENT: Broadway Tour" 2010.Nov.27 [Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal originated Mark and Roger] | Source

Roger Davis

  • Musician
  • White
  • Lower-class
  • HIV-positive
  • ex-drug addict
  • Heterosexual
  • Mark's friend and roommate
  • Mimi's love interest

Joanne Jefferson

  • Lawyer
  • Black

  • Upper-class

  • HIV-negative

  • Lesbian

  • Maureen's girlfriend

Maureen Johnson

  • Performer
  • White
  • Lower-class
  • HIV-negative
  • Self-declared lesbian
  • Joanne's girlfriend
  • Mark's ex-girlfriend/ex-roommate

Angel Dumott Schunard

  • Street drummer
  • Latino
  • Lower-class
  • HIV-positive
  • Homosexual drag-queen
  • Mimi's best friend
  • Collins' love interest

Tom "Collins"

  • Former professor
  • Black
  • Lower-class
  • HIV-positive
  • Homosexual
  • Mark and Roger's ex roommate

Benjamin "Benny" Coffin III

  • Landlord to Mark, Roger and Mimi
  • Black

  • Upper-class through marriage

  • HIV-negative

  • Heterosexual

  • Ex-roommate of Mark, Roger and Maureen

  • Mimi's ex-lover/boyfriend

Mimi Marquez

  • Dancer
  • Latina

  • Lower-class

  • HIV-positive

  • Drug addict

  • Heterosexual

  • Mark and Roger's neighbor

  • Roger's love interest

  • Benny's ex-lover


HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

HIV: Human Immunodeficiency Virus

AIDS: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome

When the immune system of someone with HIV breaks down enough it enters the AIDS stage. Nobody dies of HIV or AIDS itself; they die of the complications from such a weak immune system.

RENT does not directly explain the difference between HIV and AIDS, but there are hints. One example is during the "Life Support" scene when Gordon shares that he found out his T-cells are low. Low T-cell count is an indication of AIDS because it means the immune system is weakening, drastically.

"No day, but today"


Living with HIV and AIDS

RENT promotes the idea of living for the day. It's meant to encourage those with the disease to live life to the fullest. Some of the characters have relationships with other characters with HIV. It reminds us of the beautiful risk that love is for someone with or without HIV.

It educates society on the diverse types of people with HIV or AIDS: Any race, any sexual orientation, any educational background, and so on.


Today, homosexuality is less stigmatized with same-sex marriage laws; however, not everyone is on board.

Angel and Collins' relationship is one of unconditional love. Angel teaches everyone how to live in the moment and how to love, whether affected by HIV or not. As a drag-queen, Angel adds a positive image of the misconceptions surrounding other gender identities.

Drug Addiction

Roger is a former drug addict who helps Mimi with her addiction. It's suggested that both Roger and Mimi contracted HIV from their drug use. By giving such a close examination of Roger and Mimi, the audience has an opportunity to learn about drug addiction in a more sympathetic way. Rather than seeing addicts as criminals, we see them as the struggling people they are.


RENT includes a few scenes with homeless characters. Mark films a homeless woman to expose the horrible treatment of the homeless by police. This gives attention to the issues homeless people still encounter on a daily basis which encourages the audience to consider these issues, as well.


RENT is not so much about race as it is about individuals. Most of the characters' races do not reflect their experiences. Different productions of RENT have changed the races of characters. Doing this reinforces that race is just a social construct.

RENT: The Movie

In 2005, RENT became a movie. This allows people to experience the show without paying the extra money to see it at a theater. Also, it means the musical can reach beyond those who attend musicals and broadway shows on a regular basis. By making it more accessible it spreads the messages further. In addition, the movie version includes most of the original '90's cast, who got their start by portraying the original characters which makes the film version all the more special as a dedication to Jonathan Larson's work.

Original cast members in the film:

  • Anthony Rapp: Mark

  • Adam Pascal: Roger

  • Idina Menzel: Maureen

  • Jesse L. Martin: Collins

  • Taye Diggs: Benny

  • Wilson Jermaine Heredia: Angel

© 2014 social thoughts


Submit a Comment
  • social thoughts profile imageAUTHOR

    social thoughts 

    5 years ago from New York

    grand old lady,

    Thank you!

  • grand old lady profile image

    Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

    5 years ago from Philippines

    I loved the movie RENT and I love your review of it. It was also nice to see that you chose excerpts from the play instead of the film.


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