Jonathan Larson


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Rent Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 35-page guide for “Rent” by Jonathan Larson includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 2 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 24 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Brevity, Fragility and Preciousness of Life and Camaraderie from the Shared Experience of Living (and Struggling) in New York City.

Plot Summary

Rent is the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1996 rock musical by Jonathan Larson that follows the lives of a group of bohemians in New York City’s Lower East Side. From the HIV/AIDS crisis to drug addiction, the characters deal with social dilemmas of the day, against the urban backdrop of New York City. Jonathan Larson began working on Rent in 1989 and, at that time, his own life as a starving artist resembled that of the characters in the play: he lived in a fourth-floor, walk-up apartment in downtown Manhattan and waited tables to support himself financially while writing screenplays. Larson has stated that Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème was a major inspiration for Rent and, in fact, the play is intended to be an updated Americanized, modern version of Puccini’s classic opera.

Rent is divided into two acts and features forty-two musical numbers. The story covers a period of one year in the lives of Roger, Mark, and their group of bohemian friends. Beginning on Christmas Eve, Act One opens in Roger and Mark’s apartment, where the heat has been turned off, so they huddle around an illegal wood-burning stove in the center of the loft to stay warm. Their landlord, Benny, threatens them with eviction, due to the fact that they have not paid rent in a year. Roger and Mark, like all their friends, are struggling artists: Roger is an aspiring rock musician, while Mark is a fledgling documentary filmmaker. Tom Collins, another key player in Roger and Mark’s crew, is an eccentric New York University professor who dates Angel Dumott, a busker (and sometimes a drag performer). Another character, Maureen, who is a performance artist and actress, is staging a performance protest piece called “Over the Moon,” which she will perform in the abandoned lot next to Roger and Mark’s apartment building that night. Maureen is protesting a “cyberstudio” that Benny, the landlord of the building, wants to establish on the empty lot. To do so, Benny will need to vacate the camp of homeless people who take refuge in the abandoned lot. The cyberstudio would be a shared work space where, for a rental fee, artists could come together to work on projects.

In the days leading up to Maureen’s protest performance, Roger meets Mimi, a very attractive exotic dancer who also happens to be his downstairs neighbor. There is a romantic spark between them, but Roger is hesitant to act on it because he is wary to reveal the fact that he has AIDS. Benny, who is not only the landlord but also the former roommate of Roger and Mark, asks them if they can put a stop to Maureen’s protest performance that night. If yes, Benny will forgive their outstanding rent debt. Roger and Mark refuse.

The performance of “Over the Moon” is a success, and everyone meets at the Life Cafe to celebrate afterward. Around this time, Roger sees Mimi taking the AIDS medication AZT and realizes that she has the condition, too. With this knowledge, Roger and Mimi become closer as a couple. Maureen and her girlfriend, Joanne, decide to break-up, and Benny padlocks the apartment to keep Roger and Mark from re-entering.

Act Two begins with the song “Seasons of Love,” which poses the philosophical question: “How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?” (88). It is now New Year’s Eve and Roger and Mark’s crew devises a scheme to break back into their padlocked apartment. Once inside, Mark receives a voicemail from Alexi Darling, a producer for a tabloid TV network, who wants to offer Mark a contract for his footage of the riots caused by Maureen’s protest performance. Suddenly, Benny enters the apartment to say that he forgives Roger and Mark for being so delinquent with the rent, and even offers Roger and Mark new keys to their loft. Suspicious that Benny may have ulterior motives, Roger refuses. Benny insinuates that Mimi helped change his mind (through sexual wiles). Mimi ferociously denies this claim. In the process, Roger becomes very jealous, but nonetheless he and Mimi seem to make amends. Though she appears fine, behind Roger’s back, Mimi finds comfort in her old habit of drug abuse.

Valentine’s Day arrives and Roger and Mimi have now moved in together. Angel and Collins’ relationship has also advanced, and they too are now living together. Joanne and Maureen are continuously fighting, and when finally they give each other an ultimatum in the song “Take Me or Leave Me,” in which Maureen says, “take me for what I am/who I was meant to be/and if you give a damn/take me, baby, or leave me” (104). Joanne and Maureen break up, once again. Roger’s jealousy overcomes him, and he and Mimi break-up. Meanwhile, Angel succumbs to AIDS and passes away, which is the trigger that disbands the members of Roger and Mark’s crew. At Angel’s memorial, Collins sings an affirmation of his love for Angel in the song “I’ll Cover You—Reprise.” Outside the memorial, Mark calls Alexi to accept the job offer at Buzzline, a television news station. Despite it being a corporate job (and therefore him accepting would be “selling out”), he needs money. As they leave the church, Mimi discovers that Roger is hastily leaving town and is headed to Santa Fe. Maureen and Joanne are trying, once again, to rekindle their relationship. Each member of the group is in turmoil, romantic or otherwise.

Time passes, and the group begins to reconcile their differences: Roger moves back in with Mark, who has just finished a film. Roger finally finishes the “one great song” he has been working on. Mimi has been missing; Maureen and Joanne find her unresponsive on the street from a drug overdose. Faced with the possibility of losing her forever, Roger sings a song especially for her, which miraculously revives her. Mimi says that, in her unconscious state, it was the spirit of Angel who somehow helped guide her back to life.

Rent explores themes of surrounding the fragility of life and the power of friendship, as it also deals with socialproblems of the 1990s: drug addiction, gentrification, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Still,Rent is primarily a celebration of life: As Mark proclaims in “La Vie Bohème,” “the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation” (85).

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Act One