The promise of Rent
Anthony Rapp was
excited to do his first interview with the gay press. I
had written a letter to his manager after reading
Anthony’s actor bio in the program for an
off-off-Broadway play I’d seen. While other guys
thanked God and girlfriends, Anthony thanked his male
“partner for life.” It was 1993, and
coming out was a relatively new phenomenon for U.S.
performers. When I met Anthony for lunch in a NoHo
restaurant, Melissa had been out just a few months.
Ellen, Nathan Lane, and Chad Allen were still years in
the future. So was Rent.
I was excited
too: The tired old fears about actors coming out seemed to
be falling away. Young actors in hot projects, including
Craig Chester (the movie Swoon), John Cameron
Mitchell (onstage in The Destiny of Me), and
Wilson Cruz (soon to star in TV’s My So-called
Life), had no qualms about being honest from the get-go.
A year later
Anthony invited my partner, Christopher, and me to see him
in a New York Theatre Workshop production called
Rent. “As in ‘monthly
rent’?” I asked. “And it’s a
musical?” It was, in its earliest form.
(Anthony is the only cast member from that incarnation to
make it all the way to the movie.) The show was pretty
good—very hip and downtown—but it had a
long way to go still.
It was back a
year or so later, and so were we. This time Rent
really rocked. The now-familiar cast was in place, the
critics swooned, tickets were scarce, and Rent
soon moved from the East Village to Broadway, to the
restored-yet-rustic Nederlander Theater. I returned to
the Nederlander over and over, bringing friends and even my
parents backstage to greet Anthony and mingle with the
celebrities who had also come to pay homage.
In the years that
followed, Christopher and I saw Anthony do Rent
in London and saw Neil Patrick Harris do an excellent
Anthony impersonation in the Los Angeles production
(with Cruz burning up the stage as Angel).
Rent phenomenon faded, I started to notice another
trend fizzling out: Where was the bustling generation
of successful openly gay actors that Rapp and company
portended? In recent years gutsy guys like Chad Allen,
Chris Sieber, John Benjamin Hickey, and Queer as
Folk’s out trio—and gals like Leisha
Hailey—have been the exceptions that proved the
rule: The closet is back. Even gay actors playing
prominent gay roles on TV, onstage, and in the movies
“decline to discuss” their big fat gay
lives. TV journalists? Congressional leaders?
Rent helped a whole generation of young queers to
come out—“Rentheads” who lined up
outside the Nederlander and kids in the hinterlands
who rushed to buy the cast recording in record numbers. They
didn’t love it just because one cast member was
openly gay, but it was Anthony they sought out for
autographs and advice.
The question that
buzzes around the movie version of Rent most
often is, Is it still relevant? It’s a ridiculous
question. Is AIDS still relevant? Is homophobia still
relevant? Are love and death still relevant? The pop
cultural gloss of the moment may not resemble 1996, but
many of the underlying attitudes seem frozen in time. Like
that early ’90s spate of performers’
coming out, Rent onstage was a breakthrough
whose promise remains to be fulfilled; Rent on-screen
may move us one step closer.
As Anthony and
Adam Pascal sing in the movie, “Connection—in
an isolating age / For once the shadows gave way to
light.” Let’s all hope that can happen