For myriad reasons, Rent spoke for a generation (and not just because my high school friends and I would sing the score from beginning to end on all road trips). The story resonates deeply with its audience: young people living in New York, trying to maintain their artistic integrity and not sell out despite the lure of a cushier life. The characters encounter love and loss, drug abuse, self-revelation and living with HIV. Rent is a rock opera and the tone of the production both musically and visually was hip and approachable for teens and young adults. At the same time, the show's marketing incorporated a grungier look than what other Broadway shows had, making it visually attractive to its target audience. Rent is a show about coming into one's own and it was gratefully appreciated by millions of people who understood exactly what it was trying to say.
It's kind of amazing that so much can happen in a mere 14 years. Rent is now somewhat of a period piece, and when it's revived down the road it will surely define Generation X (and sometimes Y). The show takes place in Manhattan, specifically in the slums of the East Village. With frantic gentrification, living in the East Village is hardly slumming it anymore, what with a Starbucks on every corner and $2000/month studio apartments. Also, a major theme in the show is the prevalence of AIDS in America. When Rent opened in 1994, the AIDS crisis was a terrifying epidemic. Fourteen years later, it's a wonderful thing to say that the disease is much less of the death sentence it used to be.
Rent has found enormous success throughout the world and will continue to tour (a 2009 tour with original cast members Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp is in the works). The show has been translated into every major language and has been performed on six continents. Here in New York, it closes as the 7th longest running show in Broadway history. From its original off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop to a Broadway run that grossed over $280 million dollars, Rent holds a solid place in musical theatre history. And when it's revived in a few decades I'm going to feel really, really old.