For a musical that's quintessentially of the 1990s, Jonathan Larson’s Rent is suddenly having a moment in 2019. Fox staged a (sort of) live version of the musical at the end of January. Rent is once again on a national tour and will hit the Kimmel campus for a weeklong run at the Merriam in early March.
The reappearance of Rent in popular culture has made a lot of Gen-Xers like me think anew about the musical, its values, and how its young characters differ from the young people of today. It's a comparison that, for all of the flak millennials get, isn't especially flattering to Generation X.
Rent, which debuted in 1996, was the hottest ticket on Broadway for a considerable period of time, leading to a lucrative national tour. The musical was adapted into a not-especially-well-received movie in 2005. The current Broadway tour's upcoming March stop at the Merriam is already sold out—tickets to a newly announced October 2019 return to Philly go on sale February 26.
In recent years, especially as the show reached its 20th anniversary in 2016, a lot of Gen-X writers who loved Rent when they were younger have revisited the show through the lens of adulthood. Perhaps the most famous anti-Rent rant of all came from the late David Rakoff.
Among the common gripes: Angel is the clear moral center of the piece, yet she is introduced singing about killing a dog for money. How is Roger able to sell his guitar and use the proceeds to buy a car? How expensive is this guitar, and how cheap is the car?
Most notably, why do Mark and Roger think they don't have to pay rent? Why don't they get jobs or move back in with their parents, who (it's implied) are wealthy? Why do they think they're entitled to live for free in the most expensive city in America? Most of all, the show treats them as fantastic artists, when nothing we see of their talent to indicate that.
There's something about Rent that's quintessentially stuck in the early to mid-1990s, the age of Generation X’s cultural primacy.
Don’t sell out
Enter the slacker, a popular figure in 1990s pop culture. As seen in films like Richard Linklater's Slacker (1992) and Ben Stiller's Reality Bites (1994), a slacker is a person (nearly always male) who is unemployed as an affirmative lifestyle choice. Usually it's someone who's cynical about politics and obsessively focused on not "selling out." Probably the quintessential fictional slacker isTroy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) in Reality Bites, another story in which, like Rent, the protagonist is an aspiring documentary filmmaker who spends every waking moment filming his group of friends.
Rent 's Mark and Roger certainly are slackers. In revisiting Rent, something else about slackers occurs to me: millennials have no corresponding concept.
Kids these days
As a Gen-Xer who turned 40 last year and spent the era of Reality Bites and Rent in high school and college, I've always been skeptical of knee-jerk millennial- bashing. Sweeping judgments of entire generations tend to be reductive and useless. And it’s nothing new for each generation to look down on the music, attitudes, and pop-culture tastes of kids these days—it’s the oldest, laziest perspective out there.
If millennials aren't paying rent, it's not because they feel entitled to an East Village loft while they film their friends nonstop or spend an entire year writing a single song. They aren’t paying rent because they're more likely to live with their parents. A survey by Zillow last year found that 12 million young adults — the highest number in a decade—were still living in their original family unit. Of that group, less than 12 percent of them were unemployed; they were workers with stagnant incomes and rising rents (not to mention staggering student-loan bills and healthcare costs) stymying their independence.
Not just young people
Perhaps it's because of the times, from the 2008 economic meltdown to neverending wars to the nonstop calamities of the Trump era, but many millennials are more engaged with politics than young adults of previous generations.
Yet despite their political engagement and economic woes, millennials seem to have a worse reputation than other generations, even if a lot of the criticism directed at them is incoherent (and fixated on stuff like Tide Pods or the way they’re “killing” everything from home ownership and golf to napkins and light yogurt). Plus, millennials is no longer just a synonym for "young people": the oldest millennials are now well into their 30s. If they can’t get a 9-to-5, many of them are running themselves ragged in the gig economy. Millennials, unlike Gen X, haven't created an archetype that involves proudly not having a job.
When Rent returns to Philadelphia, I expect at least some of the audience, of any generation, will view today's real twentysomethings in a more favorable light than the ones on stage.