Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rockin' out on Broadway: RENT and its fans (the culmination of my research this semester)

A Broadway phenomenon that touches hearts of all ages. A fresh, new sound that brought a new generation to the theater. A lasting, emotional story that has stood out for over a decade. This, my friends, is RENT.

This is a collage I made for a different class (Playwriting) in response to RENT.

In my studies, I have attempted to discover the power behind the Broadway musical RENT; just what makes it so captivating to its audience? RENT has millions of devoted fans across the globe. Why are they so dedicated to this one show? What is it about this particular show that brings them together, either online or at the Nederlander Theater, creating such a passionate community?
Through interviews with fans, studies of RENT’s creation, examination of my own position as a fan, and readings about Broadway, theater, and the topics RENT deals with, I believe I have found answers to these questions. My research has consisted largely of interaction with fans on the fan website Voices for Rent. This is the official RENT fan community, where fans from all across the world can chat and discuss the show. This is essentially the strongest community RENT fans have. While the show is only performed in certain theaters, fan websites like Voices for Rent connect fans from far and wide, in the comfort of their own homes. All quotes from fans in this blog are from fans I’ve communicated with through Voices for Rent.

The Fans

Rentheads at the Life Cafe, where the scene "La Vie Boheme" takes place and was filmed for the movie.

I sent out a voluntary survey to members of Voices for Rent. Responses came mostly from teenagers who visited the site daily. Most were female high school or college students, and most stated that they were involved in or enjoyed music and/or theater. They lived in various places all across the country.
It’s hard to generalize about RENT fans. In my experience at the show, I observed audience members of all ages, dressed appropriately for a Broadway show so that their class or typical lifestyle was hard to guess. When asked about the typical fan, members of Voices for Rent were hesitant to stereotype. Cassandra, a fan of age 20 from Mississippi, said, “Any one can enjoy the show if they open up their mind.” And most fans are willing to include anyone who enjoys the show as a fan. “It doesn’t matter how many times you have seen the show, or if you know all the words to the songs,” says Lauren, age 19 from Pennsylvania, “because not everyone has the chance to see it. All that matters is that you love the show and you love the meaning of the show.”
Of course, there is a higher level of fandom that goes beyond watching and enjoying the show. Avid fans are often called “Rentheads”. The term originally referred to those fans who would wait for hours in line outside the Nederlander Theater, where RENT is performed on Broadway, before the show when it first opened. While waiting in line, fans talked, played games, entertained each other, and forged bonds of friendship, creating a strong community. “Renthead” is now a more broadly defined term, if it is defined at all. While some fans would consider any fan of RENT a Renthead, others are hesitant to place that title on themselves. Mary, a 16-year-old fan from Long Island, said “In my opinion, a "Renthead" is a person who was constantly camped outside the Nederlander in 1996 for tickets. I see the show all the time (I've seen it 67 times in less than a year…) but I don't consider myself a "Renthead"…we call ourselves the “regulars”… None of us really like the term "Renthead".” The term implies a crazed obsession that most fans do not want to admit to. And some fans are crazily obsessed. They plaster their walls with posters, see the show on a weekly basis, dress up as characters from the show for Halloween, and crowd outside the theater to see the actors as they exit (commonly known as stagedooring.) These fans have been called “fangirls” – because they are most often young, teenage girls obsessed with the actors or the fame of Broadway.
Here is a video of “fangirls” stagedooring when the original cast members Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp returned to Broadway in 2007. Notice the huge crowd of teenage girls, all just hoping to get an autograph from these stars.

“Renthead,” I believe, is a term that deserves more respect than “fangirl.”
“A major factor in being a Renthead is learning more about Jonathan and his life,”
said another fan, Joe, age 52 from New York City. The most devout fans, the fans that I would consider Rentheads, know and appreciate the show’s history. They respect the writer of the play, Jonathan Larson, more than the actors, because it was his difficult life that inspired the play. They do not have to stagedoor every performance, but they understand and take to heart the message the show sends – a message of faith, love, and acceptance.
No matter what label fans would give themselves, they all share a special bond. Many fans are brought together at the show or online and create lifelong friendships. “I've made some of my closest friends through the show,” says Mary. “I see Rent at least once a week, usually more, and what draws me to the show, in addition to the music and the message, is just this amazing feeling of home and warmth. I never really fit in anywhere. I always felt like an outsider. The Nederlander is the one place where I feel truly happy.” Teens who struggle at home find a different kind of family through RENT. The RENT fan community is a place where they fit in. Just having love for the show in common is enough to make them feel connected.

The Music
Another thing that attracts fans to RENT is its music. The music in RENT is not your typical Broadway music. RENT is a rock opera – the majority of the lines are sung to modern music. Jonathan Larson’s goal in writing a musical was to “bring the MTV generation and the theater together” (quoted from "No Day But Today"; see my full bibliography for more information). In a time when youth were often put off by Broadway and the idea of musical theater, Jonathan Larson brought them back to the theater with music that they liked.
Watch this video of the song “Rent” from the moive. This song is a perfect example of the show’s rock style of music. Also note the scenery in the video and the lyrics – this is how many people in New York actually live, how Jonathan Larson and his characters lived.

In the Broadway show, the band is set up onstage. The band is more of a rock band and less of a pit band, consisting of guitars, drums, keyboard, etc. No wind instruments, no orchestral conductor. Young fans love this style of music. Some would not otherwise have ever gone to Broadway. Nina, a 15-year-old fan from LA, said, “Rent has changed my life in so many ways, it opened me up to theater as well as some other music.” RENT has re-introduced the youth to theater, and introduced theatergoers to a new style of music.

The Message
In a poll on Voices for Rent, members were asked for the number one reason why they tell their friends and family about RENT. The majority, 49.5%, said that the story touched their life and they wanted to share it. RENT tells the story of a filmmaker, a struggling musician, a gay anarchist, a transgender street musician, a lesbian performer, a lesbian lawyer, and a heroine-addicted strip club dancer living in Alphabet City. Several of these characters are diagnosed with AIDS. Together, they struggle through addiction, disease, discrimination, unemployment, love, life, and death all in one year.
RENT has a very inspiring message. One of the most famous quotes from the show is “No day but today.” “It gives everyone hope that today can always be better then yesterday,” says Erika, age 15 from Miami, “or to just live your life in “Today”, don’t think about tomorrow and the problems waiting for you. Think of today, and only today.” Aside from living life for today, RENT inspires people to accept everyone. Gay, straight, diseased, poor, rich – we all have our place in the world. It also relays a message that love conquers all, and with help from friends you can get through anything.
No one can say it better than the fans: “Rent stands for living life to the fullest and accepting people even though they are different,” says Lauren. “Live in the now, never compromise love of any sort, and celebrate life while you have it. Any struggle will be worth it in the end,” says Sophie, a 17-year-old fan from Massachusetts. “Rent has been a HUGE part of my life! It just has made me accept people for who they are, and to give them another chance,” says Erika. Acceptance, no regrets, and love are the lessons RENT is trying to teach.

The Poor, the Diseased, and the Discriminated
RENT reveals its setting in run-down East Village immediately with the appearance of the theater. The stage is designed to look like a nightclub (RENT: The Podcast.) Abstract art lines the walls as you enter the theater. Outside, the sign is incomplete and the walls are covered in graffiti. This “decoration” immediately establishes the atmosphere and the place where the characters live – poor, Bohemian, East Village.
The Nederlander Theater from outside:

The stage:

The stories in RENT are very real. The debate over homosexuality and its politics, ethics, etc. has become part of America’s culture (Yingling 1991). The AIDS epidemic was a bigger shock in the 80’s, but is still a problem that affects millions across the country now (discussed in Watney 1987). And although Alphabet City and the poor regions of New York are slightly better off than they were in the 70’s and 80’s, they are still struggling. The bohemian lifestyle portrayed in RENT thrives around these poor regions (Florida 2002), partly because these people have so little to work with. They become artistic out of necessity, making the junk they have seem beautiful. They also struggle with authority – in RENT the authorities are trying to shut down a Tent City that has built up as a community for the homeless; things like this do happen in reality. Bohemianism is a way to speak out against that authority.
To go into detail on these subjects and their realities could be a separate research project, so for now I will simply state that the fictional tales in RENT are realities for many people, and fans of RENT clearly sympathize. Fans may not be on welfare – after all, the unemployed can’t quite afford Broadway tickets – but they are also nowhere near upper class. They, like the characters, and like Jonathan Larson himself, are happy as long as they can express themselves, and would never trade their passions for money. That is the philosophy of the bohemian lifestyle, “La Vie Boheme.”
This video shows a scene from the Broadway show, the song "La Vie Boheme." Notice the costumes and the lyrics during this song - this song defines the bohemian lifestyle.

About half of the fans who responded to my survey also said that they know someone who has AIDS or died of AIDS, is homosexual, or uses/has used drugs, therefore they relate very directly to the characters. As one of the show’s producers said in the movie’s documentary, “I cannot think of anybody who at times doesn’t feel isolated or lonely the way that Mark does. At times we’ve all been depressed and going through a really tough time the way that Roger is. And we’ve all had that reckless side like Mimi, and we are all playful like Collins, and we are all generous at times like Angel…Not only do we know these people, we are these people, all of us.” In this way, every fan relates to the characters. Fans are living for their passions and often fighting disease and discrimination just as much as the characters are, and they are drawn to the show because they relate and feel at home with each other and with the show’s characters.

In Conclusion…
RENT has attracted fans from far and wide ever since its debut in 1996. I believe this is because the lessons and themes that RENT deals with carry on throughout time. The controversy over AIDS and homosexuality has not died out in a decade. Drugs will always be an issue. People will always fight for love, and people will always be struggling to pay their rent. The artistic, liberal youth are attracted to RENT because they empathize with the characters and enjoy the music. Many fans can relate to the way the characters are living; others just relate to the ideas they represent. RENT has affected many lives. Fans say the show has helped them through hard times, introduced them to lifelong friends, taught them to accept everyone, and taught them to live their lives to the fullest. Fans are dedicated to RENT because they respect its history and its truth, and they believe in its messages. This belief and love for the show is enough to create a worldwide community, which remains connected through the internet.
There are many aspects of the show and the fan culture that I did not mention in detail – the lives of those actually living in Greenwich Village, the different effect on those struggling with AIDS or homosexuality, the effect the subject matter had at the time it came out, the differences between the stage show and the movie… I would like to continue further research on these subjects. However, if I mentioned everything now, this blog would go on for ages (I think it’s already long enough!). For now, I will conclude with one final statement.
For the music, for the history, for the truth, for the story, and for the message it portrays, fans become addicted and dedicated to RENT. The wide web of fans out there have stuck together and stuck with the show for a decade, and will continue to live its lessons in every moment of their lives – “Forget regret, or life is yours to miss. No other road, no other way, no day but today.”

Sunday, December 9, 2007

videos and sounds to use in my final post

La Vie Boheme (note costumes and lyrics - this scene defines the bohemian lifestyle)

La Vie Boheme Lyrics

Rent (the song itself is representative of the "rock opera," also note the scenery - this is how some people are actually living)

Seasons of Love

Stagedooring for Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal ("fangirls")

Photo of the Nederlander Theater from outside

The stage

Rentheads at the Life Cafe, where the scene "La Vie Boheme" takes place

works cited

Books and articles:

McDonnell, Evelyn and Katherine Silberger. 1997. Rent: Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Melcher Media, Inc. New York, NY.

McNamara, Brooks. 2001. Broadway: A Theatre Historian’s Perspective. Cambridge, Ma. The MIT Press.

Kauffmann, Stanley. 1985. “Why We Need Broadway: Some Notes.” In Performing Arts Journal. New York, NY.

Yingling, Thomas. 1991. “Sexual Preference/ Cultural Reference: The Predicament of Gay Culture Studies.” In American Literary History. Oxford, UK. Oxford University Press.

Watney, Simon. 1987. “The Spectacle of AIDS.” In AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism. Cambridge, Ma. The MIT Press.

Florida, Richard. 2002. “Bohemia and economic geography.” In Journal of Economic Geography.

Tommasini, Anthony. 1996. “The Seven-Year Odyssey That Led to 'Rent'.” In The New York Times. New York, New York.


Rent The Musical on Broadway and on National Tour

Rent (2005) Official Site

Voices for Rent - the official Rent fan website

Cyberland - a fan-created website

RENT on Myspace - the myspace fan group for RENT

Other media:

RENT: The Podcast. iTunes. 2006.

RENT on DVD. 1492 Pictures, Revolution Studios, Directed by Chris Columbus. 2005. - The film version of the Broadway show. Also on the DVD - "No Day But Today": a documentary about Jonathan Larson's life and the creation of Rent; commentary on the film by the director and selected cast members.

a brief summary of a loaded history

In order to understand the value, message, and fans of RENT, one must know about its history and its creator, Jonathan Larson. Fans say that this separates the true fans from casual fans. Knowing its history also has a great affect on how the show is received. Therefore, I will attempt to summarize an intense history in a brief post before my final ethnography posting.
Jonathan Larson was an actor, a singer, and a writer. He had talent as a performer ever since he could sing, starring in school musicals even as a child. Determined to go into theater, Jonathan Larson lived a difficult life. He lived in a small, run down apartment in the West Side of New York City, much like the characters of RENT, who live in the East Side. His bathtub was in his kitchen. He had to throw his keys down out his window to visitors, which will ring a bell to anyone who has seen the show – in the first scene, two characters, Mark and Roger, throw their keys down to their roommate Tom Collins. While writing plays, Jonathan worked at the Moondance Diner – minimal pay, but he was getting by. As a friend of Larson’s said in the documentary made when RENT was produced as a movie, “RENT was Jonathan’s dramatization of the life he was living.” He lived the poor, Bohemian lifestyle that his characters lived. Jonathan put everything into his writing, including inspiration from his own life.
Jonathan wrote several failed shows before RENT. None were ever produced. He faced rejection after rejection, but Jonathan never gave up. When the idea for RENT was given to him, by Bill Aronson, Jonathan could see it immediately. The idea was to re-write the opera La Boheme, placing it in modern times. Jonathan chose to set it in the poor areas of New York City, and while the characters in La Boheme suffered from tuberculosis, Jonathan made his characters suffer from AIDS. AIDS was the plague of the late 80’s and 90’s. Everyone in that time knew someone who had AIDS. Jonathan had several friends who died of AIDS; his best friend was a homosexual diagnosed with AIDS.
With inspiration from his friends and his life, Jonathan Larson wrote what would become a huge Broadway hit. RENT was first produced in a three week workshop in the New York Theater Workshop in 1994. In those three weeks, RENT came to life. The actors, who would go on to be the original cast members on Broadway, brought the characters off of the page, onto the stage, and into reality. At the end of those three weeks, the dress rehearsal was opened to an audience, and the audience was moved to a standing ovation.
That night, Jonathan Larson died.
He died of an aortic aneurism due to Marfan’s Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder. The next morning, news of Jonathan’s death spread. As those involved in the show learned of his untimely passing, they all gathered at the theater, in shock. Jonathan Larson would never live to see his dream fulfilled. It was the show’s opening day, but no one wanted to cancel the show – that was the last thing Jonathan would have wanted. Instead, they decided to just sing through the show that night, without acting and staging it. However, the actors couldn’t sing the show sitting down. By the end of the first act, they were out of their seats, performing the show full out. They performed the rest of the show as it was meant to be done, and at the end, the audience was silent. After a few moments of complete silence, one boy in the audience voiced the thought in everyone’s mind when he said, “Thank you Jonathan Larson.”
The show went on to Broadway, without Jonathan. It became everything Jonathan could’ve ever dreamed of and more. His life and death inspired everyone involved in the show. As Wilson Jermaine Heredia, the first actor to play the character Angel, said, “It was really Jonathan’s death that really drew us together.” Every step of the way, they thought of Jonathan and what he would want for the show. Twelve years later, Jonathan Larson’s story is still told, and his show still touches the hearts of millions across America.
True, thoughtful RENT fans know and respect this history. They idolize Jonathan Larson more than any of the actors. After hearing this story, I believe that Jonathan Larson deserves all the respect in the world. He struggled nearly every minute of his life, but he was happy. He never gave up, and he never even lived to see his show performed. And yet, he created a masterpiece that would affect generations after he was gone. A truly inspiring story that could change the way you view the show. Knowing what went into it, that Jonathan Larson literally gave his life to this show, makes me respect the work and the art so much more.
The history I've given you is really just a glimpse of the work that went into the creation of RENT. But hopefully it is enough to gain your respect.
For the creation of RENT, for the unending dedication, for everything he put into his art, only four words can be said: “Thank you Jonathan Larson.”

Thursday, November 1, 2007

more fieldnotes

This is going to be a very long post (just to warn you)...

I posted this survey online on Voices For Rent ( to get some thoughts from fans. I got a lot of lengthy responses, which was inevitable with these kinds of questions, so I won’t post them all, but here are some bits and pieces, or overall generalizations, that I think are very interesting and telling:

1. How and when did you first hear of Rent?
Most people first acknowledged it when the movie came out, so the movie definitely increased publicity for the show. Others just heard the music, it got stuck in their head, and they had to see the show.

2. Describe as best you can your first experience of the show.
“Every song, every note, every word stuck with me and really affected me (in a good way)… I was almost in tears after it was over. It was such an incredible experience.” – Anonymous (16-yr-old girl from Long Island – to make it easier, I’ll call her Mary)
“The first time I saw the show, I was so enchanted by it all. To see the movie is one thing, but to see it live, there’s no comparison.” – Nina (age 15, from LA)
“It just made me feel like life was good. Probably the best feeling I’ve ever had.” – Sophie (age 17, from Massachusetts).

3. Why do you like the show? (I know this is a loaded question, but just try to list a few reasons. What draws you to the show?
“Rent is an amazing show with an incredible message. It promotes love, friendship, family, hope, and living each day like it's your last… The theatre also has a very warm and homey atmostphere. I see rent at least once a week, usually more, and what draws me to the show, in addition to the music and the message, is just this amazing feeling of home and warmth. I never really fit in anywhere. I always felt like an outsider. The Nederlander is the one place where i feel truely happy.” – Mary
“The show is raw and truthful. Very untypically of any other broadway show in topic and music. The music is diverse, uplifting, powerful and fun.” – Joe (age 52, from NYC
“It deals with real life issues… Rent really appeals to everyone whether they are old or young because everyone deals with things like love and death and addictions…And I love the music. It’s not like a normal Broadway show. It has fun music that appeals to a lot of younger people.” – Lauren (age 19 from Pennsylvania)
“I love the music… That is my favorite part of the show. I also love the characters…that are so believable and so real that anyone can relate to them. I also love the messages it portrays…I try to incorporate all of them into my everyday life.” – Rachel (age 19, from Rochester, NY)

4. Pick an inspirational quote from the show and explain its meaning to you.
“ ‘No day but today’… it gives everyone hope that, today can always be better then yesterday, or to just live your life in “Today”, don’t think about tomorrow and the problems waiting for you. Think of today, and only today.” – Erika (age 15, from Miami)
“ ‘Forget regret or life is yours to miss’…if you dwell on things in the past, you are gonna miss out on what life has in store for you in the future. It’s pretty much saying carpe diem, live life to the fullest. You only live once, so make worth while!” – Lauren
“ ‘I can’t control my destiny; I trust my soul; My only goal is just to be.’Well, it’s pretty self-explanatory. It means live life just for the sake of living. You can’t control the future, so don’t worry about it, trust yourself, your instincts, and your heart, and just live.” – Sophie
“ ‘No day but today’…I also apply this to my homework, seeing as I like to be a procrastinator, there is “no day but today” to get it done! I also think that this is the most important theme from the whole show” – Rachel

5. How would you define the term “Renthead”? Is any Rent fan a Renthead, or does it take a higher degree of fandom? Would you consider yourself a Renthead?
“In my opinion, a "Renthead" is a person who constantly camped outside the Nederlander in 1996 for tickets. I see the show all the time (I've seen it 67 times in less than a year…) but I don't consider myself a "Renthead"…we call ourselves the “regulars”… None of us really like the term "Renthead".” – Mary
“A major factor in being a Renthead is learning more about Jonathan and his life… I am not a Renthead since I do not wear Rent items or take pictures and obviously much older than most people on the board.” – Joe
“Anyone who has seen the show and loves it. It doesn’t matter how many times you have seen the show, because not everyone has the chance to see it, or if you know all the words to the songs. All that matters is that you love the show and you love the meaning of the show.” – Lauren
“I think that anyone who wants to consider him or herself a RENThead can be a RENThead.” – Rachel

6. Did the show change your views on AIDS or homosexuality at all? If so, how?
“I learned a lot more about AIDS from Rent. It showed me that even though somebody has AIDS, they can still live a normal life filled with love, hate, friendship, heartache, and happiness.” – Mary
“It has made me more open minded about both issues. More sympathetic to AIDS victims. And to accept people more for their homosexuality.” – Joe
“It did change my perspective on drug abusers, it told me that people can truly change” – Erika
“I was a little na├»ve to the facts before I had heard of RENT. I didn’t know anyone that was homosexual and when I saw someone that was, I just thought they were weird and “gross.” I am ashamed that was how I was, but I can happily say that RENT completely changed me in this regard. I am now more educated on the subject and do not find it weird at all… I do not judge people anymore and I am so happy because of it.” - Rachel

7. Do you think there is a certain style or stereotype associated with Rent fans? What is the typical fan like, if there is a typical fan?
“Well there's differnt types of fans. The "regualrs" are one type. We see the show all the time. We all know each other and most of us are friends with each other. We love the show and the music and we see the theatre as a kind of home…A lot of people think we're "elite" or something, but we're really not. We just get kind of annoyed at the fangirls who are another type of fan. They are usually girls between the ages of 12 and 17 who scream and cry and attack actors. They write on the wall and leave the show early to stagedoor.” – Mary
“most typical Rent fan, though not limited to, is probably: young (13-20), more women then men, liberal thinking, high achiever (grades) in school, goals in life would include in the field of arts (music, theater) or work in an aread that would help others in need (eg. medical, community help groups, etc.)” – Joe
“When I first found Rent I expected there to be a stereotype, a very loose bohemian fan girl. But after meeting more fans, I’m learning there isn’t really one stereotype because Jonathan’s words have such power they can really capture anyone” – Nina
“There’s no typical style, really. I mean, we’re all bohemians at heart, but we don’t necessarily dress in leopard print, tights, and clunky boots every day. Rent fandom is more in the mindset than anything else” – Sophie
“I think people of all walks and ages enjoy this show” – Erika
“No I dont think there is. Any one can enjoy the show if they open up their mind.” – Cassandra (age 20, from Mississippi)

8. How often and how do you interact with other fans?
Most participants said they interact daily, or at least several times a week, on Voices For Rent or other websites. (although I may need to poll a broader group of people on this question, since I found all of these informants on VFR) Many of them mentioned that they have made very good friends through the show.

9. What do Rent and Rent fans stand for? Is there any statement you’re trying to make, any specific idea you want to represent?
“Rent and Rent fans stand for Love and trying to find your place in the world.” – Cassandra
“It is amazing the vast scope of types of people they represent. Everyone is so different yet they get along, but it is alright to disagree as long as we accept each others views.” – Joe
“Rent stands for living life to the fullest and accepting people even though they are different” – Lauren
“Rent, the bohemian lifestyle, all of that is just about expressing yourself and doing whatever it takes to love your life. Live in the now, never compromise love of any sort, and celebrate life while you have it. Any struggle will be worth it in the end.” – Sophie
“I am just trying to appreciate good musical theatre and feel really good for a while when I am there. I am not really trying to make a statement of any kind.” – Rachel
“I'm not trying to make a statement by seeing the show all the time. I just love it… The message the show tries to send to it's audiences each performance is that you shouldn't take even a second for granted. Life's too short to hold back. You need to live each moment like it's your last because for all you know it could be.” – Mary

10. How has Rent affected your life? Do you relate to any specific part of the show?
Several of these fans have someone close to them who has recently died, had/has AIDS, is homosexual, or has/does use drugs, so they relate very closely to the characters, but about half did not have this relation. For them, Rent has helped their confidence, helped them through other hard times in their lives, and taught them acceptance. For many, this show introduced them to musical theater, as well.

11. What’s your personal lifestyle like? (what’s your career, what do you enjoy doing in your free time, etc.)
A wide variety of people took this survey. Ages ranged from 15 to 52. They enjoy varying activities, from travel to sports. However, they were mostly females, mostly high school or college students, and most of them are involved in or enjoy music and/or theater.

12. Define Bohemian (what does it mean to you?).
“Poor starving artist” – Cassandra
“Bohemian probably means free spirited, take each day one at a time lifestyle” – Joe“A person, as an artist or writer, who lives and acts free of regard for conventional rules and practices.” – Erika
“Anyone who is doing what they love in life, even if they aren’t making a lot of money” – Lauren
“Poor, but holding onto your beliefs, and happy because you’re doing something you love. You’re not gonna give up your dreams for money. You have to have a creative, passionate mindset, strong beliefs, and the ability to make the best out of the worst.” – Sophie

13. If you’ve seen both the show and the movie, how do they compare? Which is better, why, and what are the biggest differences?
Unanimously, these fans liked the show better. There are several scenes that are in the show that are not in the movie, and all the participants feel that those scenes are valuable. Some say that the movie is easier to follow, but they all shared an unbeatable feeling from seeing the performance live, feeling like they’re more directly in the action – there’s a rush that theater-lovers get in the theater that can’t be beat.

Friday, October 12, 2007

field notes from the Broadway show


As you walk into the theater, you’d hardly know you’re going to see a fully prepared Broadway show. The sign outside the theater looks old and broken. The halls have been covered in messy paint, with some obscure, bohemian artwork along the way. The ceiling inside the theater has random strips of white paint covering the intricate ceiling design that you’d expect to see in a Broadway theater. The outline of the stage is made of broken glass and ceramic pressed into cement. The stage itself looks like the perfect place for a workshop or rehearsal – a brick wall visible at the back, a simple metal balcony, three tables and a metal trash barrel set in the middle, posters stuck on the table and the back wall. The band is onstage – a rock band, basically: guitar, keyboard, bass, drums, synthesizer. If you didn’t know what the play was about, you’d think, “Am I in the right theater? Are they really performing a show in this?”
But the run-down look of the theater is all part of the bohemian atmosphere. Rent is a true story of how people in Alphabet City live. Their apartments are not much more than a brick wall and some tables. This is their style. This is their world.
In this particular show, Anthony Rapp, the original Mark Cohen, is performing. The show starts, he walks out onstage, and the crowd erupts in cheers. I wonder, since he was in the movie version of the show, how many of the people are cheering because they really appreciate him as a performer and how many are just excited to see someone famous. For me it was a little bit of both. I was in awe when I actually saw him onstage right in front of me. But that’s because I know that no one can play Mark better than Anthony Rapp.
As the show went on, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one singing along to all of the songs. Yes, this show definitely has a strong following. I also realize how hard it will be for me to be unbiased in this ethnography. I just absolutely love this show! I don’t see how anyone can not be inspired by it.
I’ll dig into the songs and the ideas the show presents later, but just a few notes of what I thought would be important as I was watching it:
  • “Will I?” and it’s relation to everyone, because of AIDS, poverty, homosexuality… I bet even everyone in the audience has felt the feelings expressed in this song at least once
  • Style of costumes – whatever they could dig out of the bottom of their closets, or buy at a cheap second-hand store, regardless of matching. Ripped jeans and shirts, chunky black boots, lots of layers, arm bands, leopard print, plaid… each main character had his/her own signifying clothes, too
  • The audience themselves didn’t have a distinctive style, but I wonder if that’s because it was a Broadway show, where a certain level of dress is expected – what would they wear on a daily basis?
  • The fan culture isn’t highlighted at the actual show, but the bohemian style and the ideas represented by the show are all over the place

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Some sources to be referenced

Here are a few sources I will be using in my research:


McDonnell, Evelyn and Katherine Silberger. 1997. Rent: Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Melcher Media, Inc. New York, NY.
This book recaps the history of Rent, taking a behind the scenes look at how it was created and produced through interviews with those who helped make it. It also references the life of author Jonathan Larson and how his life and his sudden death right before the show's premier affected the production.

Schulman, Sarah. 1998. Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America. Sarah Schulman, Inc.
Schulman compares her own novel, People in Trouble, with Rent and discusses how AIDS and gay people and communities are represented in America through art and theater.


Rent The Musical on Broadway and on National Tour - the official website for Rent the musical

Rent (2005) Official Site - the official website for the film version of Rent

Voices for Rent - the official Rent fan website; message boards, chats, blogs, and posts about Rent for fans and a place where fans can interact

Cyberland - a fan-created website for e-mail discussion, and a fan's view of Jonathan Larson's life.

Other media:

RENT: The Podcast - A series of podcasts interviewing the cast, crew, and fans of Rent

Rent on DVD. 1492 Pictures, Revolution Studios, Directed by Chris Columbus. 2005. - The film version of the Broadway show. Also on the DVD - "No Day But Today": a documentary about Jonathan Larson's life and the creation of Rent; commentary on the film by the director and selected cast members.