Rent Summary

Jonathan Larson


  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Rent Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Rent by Jonathan Larson.

At the musical opens, it is Christmas Eve in Manhattan’s East Village. Two roommates—Mark, a struggling filmmaker, and Roger, a rock musician looking to reignite his formerly successful career—struggle to stay warm in their shabby loft apartment. Mark’s mom calls and leaves a Christmas message, consoling him over his recent break-up with Maureen, a performance artist.

Their friend, Tom Collins, an anarchist, part-time, philosophy professor, calls and declares his intention to visit, but he is mugged on his way. At the same time, Mark and Roger’s landlord, their former roommate Benny, reneges on his promise to allow the pair to continue living in the apartment for free, and demands the pair pay the previous year’s rent. Mark and Roger are defiant.

In the meantime, Angel, a cross-dressing, street drummer, who is not dressed in drag at the time, discovers Collins in an alley and tends to his wounds. The two have an instant attraction to each other. They also learn that they are both HIV-positive.

Roger, too, is HIV-positive. He has contracted the disease from an ex-girlfriend, who has committed suicide. These events account for Roger’s deep depression. Mark leaves the apartment to look for Collins, leaving behind Roger, who pines for the opportunity to write one last great song before he dies. Mimi, a drug-addict neighbor who works as an exotic dancer, arrives. She flirts with Roger.

Collins arrives and introduces Angel, who is now dressed in full drag. Angel shares the money she has recently made. Benny enters the stage to discuss Maureen’s upcoming protest against his development plans for a nearby empty lot from which homeless people must be evicted. Benny says that, if Maureen will cancel her protest, Mark and Roger can continue living rent-free. The pair rejects the offer.

Mark goes to fix Maureen’s sound equipment for the protest. He meets Joanne, Maureen’s new girlfriend. They are hostile to each other at first, but then bond over their shared experience of worrying about Maureen’s promiscuity.

Later, Mark accompanies Angel and Collins to their HIV support group meeting, where he films the proceedings for a documentary he wants to produce.

Back at the apartment, Mimi arrives again and tries to seduce Roger. He demands to be left alone and contemplates dying from AIDS.

Collins reveals his dream of opening a restaurant in Santa Fe, and once alone with Angel, he confesses his love for her and she for him. Joanne helps Maureen prepare for the protest, and Roger apologizes to Mimi while inviting her to accompany him to the protest and a party afterwards.

A crowd gathers for the protest. Maureen performs a strange reworking of the “Hey Diddle Diddle” nursery rhyme. At a café, where all the characters have gathered after the protest, Benny criticizes the protest and the others’ lifestyle. Mark leads them in a celebration of their way of life.

Mimi and Roger become more comfortable with each other and express their feelings, but also reveal to each other that they are both HIV-positive.

The play’s first act ends with Mimi and Roger having their first kiss, and Joanne revealing that a riot has broken out as Mark and Roger’s building has been padlocked.

As act two begins, Mark and Roger break into their apartment. Mark is offered a position at the tabloid news program Buzzline. He doesn’t accept it. Benny arrives, looking to make peace; Mimi, his ex-girlfriend, has convinced him to see things differently. Though Mimi insists she is not back together with Benny, Roger is not sure, and he is upset. Mimi and Roger reconcile, but Mimi heads to a drug dealer anyway.

The play advances to Valentine’s Day, and we learn that Roger and Mimi are living together. Maureen and Joanne have planned another protest, but during rehearsal, the two get into a fight. They break up. Spring arrives, and Mimi’s drug use becomes more pronounced. It strains her relationship with Roger. Separately, they sing of loneliness. Meanwhile, Collins tends to Angel, whose health is drastically declining due to the AIDS virus.

Near the end of summer, Mark receives ever more lucrative offers from Buzzline. After a consideration of sex in the days of HIV and AIDS, Mimi and Roger and Maureen and Joanne have broken-up.

Then, suddenly, Angel dies.

The friends reunite at Angel’s funeral, though the atmosphere is strained. The former couples engage in arguments, angering Collins who believes Angel would be upset knowing the friends were behaving in such a manner. As a result, Maureen and Joanne reconcile.

Mark accepts the job at Buzzline, and Roger decides to head to Santa Fe, unable to handle Mimi’s decline. Mimi overhears the conversation, and she commits to entering rehab. Collins, unable to pay for Angel’s funeral, is thrown out of the church. Benny, however, steps forward to cover the bill. The two friends then reconcile.

A little while later, Roger and Mark are each separately experiencing creative breakthroughs. Roger writes a song about Mimi, and Mark leaves his corporate job to finish his film. Roger returns to New York but cannot find Mimi to play it for her. In the apartment, Mark is ready to screen his film for his friends, but the power goes out. At that moment, Collins enters with a massive amount of money. He’s reprogrammed a nearby ATM to dispense money to anyone who knows the code. The code, he explains, is “A N G E L.”

Suddenly, Maureen and Joanne enter, carrying Mimi who’s been living on the streets. She is gravely ill and near death. Mimi seems to die, but then sits up with a start. She tells her friends that she saw a white light, and a vision of Angel who directed her to go back home.

The friends decide to make the best of whatever life sends them, and whatever time they have left.

Rent discusses living through the AIDS epidemic, but more broadly, the musical argues for making the best of what life sends your way. Several of the songs encourage the characters and the audience to celebrate living life to its fullest, and to enjoy the love of family and friends.

The musical also makes its case for living a life dedicated to artistic endeavors.

Rent was hugely successfully, earning multiple Tony Awards and Drama Desk Awards. Part of Rent’s allure comes from the tragic death of its writer on the morning of the musical’s debut. (Larson suffered an aortic dissection, not complications from HIV, as is often assumed.)

A film featuring several of the musical’s original cast was released in 2005.