Scroll To Top

The promise of Rent

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).

As the 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? Don't ask.

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 again

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories Editors