To Live, Love, Fight on No Day but Today.

Xinyi Wang

The light is shining, and the music is on. A group of youths, in different skin colors and fashion styles, are jumping on and off the bar table, hitting the table with beats, singing “La vie Boheme.”  They are cheering like they are not the ones who are without enough savings to pay their rent, but with AIDs, disdain from the society, and the threats of dying anytime in the future. They are Mark, Roger, Mimi, Collins, Angel, Maureen, and Joanne; they are homosexuals, transexuals, AIDs patients, paupers, nobody in the society. But they are the answers that Jonathan Larson, the playwright of musical Rent, gives to the question: if you are in desperation, or even in threats of dying, what will you do?

            Mimi’s answer is to live devotedly. With enchanting and expectant facial expressions, she dances with music, rotates into Roger’s chest, and asks him to play “out tonight.” As an exotic dancer, Mimi is confident in her body and attractiveness, so when she finds Roger charming, she starts her actions at once. But Roger rejects her, at the time when both of them disclose their HIV positive results to each other. However, Mimi doesn’t quit. Since the moment she was diagnosed with AIDS, she has decided to live her life to the fullest and to leave no regrets. By holding Roger’s hand, looking into his eyes genuinely, and singing “I live this moment as my last. There’s only us. There’s only this. Forget regret, or life is yours to miss. No other road. No other way. No day but today” over and over again, Mimi is conducting her philosophy of life to him. Roger, on the other hand, refuses to open his mind to Mimi by keeping his back to her while holding his head with his hands. Both his shouts of “Control your temper” and fretted body movements show his struggle and depression about the future. The duet is powerful, high-pitched, and verse after verse at first, illustrating the irreconcilable conflicts between the two loved ones. During the latter part of the duet, Roger’s sound gradually falls below Mimi’s, sticking out her urges of “no day but today.”

            Angel’s answer is to love earnestly. She lights up the stage not only with her shiny appearance but also her beautiful qualities. She is often disguised as a woman, wearing heavy makeup, wigs, and colorful uppers, clothes, and skirts, high heels. She is kind, unsophisticated, and warm-hearted, as shown by his first appearance, during which she helps a stranger on the street without asking for any return. It is also her kindness that pushes her to help Collins the other day and lets them get to know each other. As Collins introduces her to his friends, Angel shows up to the accompaniment of the harp, a soothing and elegant melody that is distinctive throughout music on this stage: she is indeed an angel. She spreads positivity wherever he goes. When a lady asks for her help to make her neighbor’s dog disappear, she is happy to help; when she “agreed on a fee, a thousand dollar guarantee, tax-free” with the lady, she shares this exhilarating news with her friends in huge excitement, as demonstrated by her legs kicking up and down. When Collins asks her “Are we a thing?” she answered, “Darling, we are everything.” Sadly, Angel succumbs to her disease during the second act of the show, but her love continues to shine on her friends. When Mimi is close to death, she encounters Angel in front of the white light, telling her to “Turn around, girlfriend, and listen to that boy’s song.” Angel suffers from AIDS and disdain for her abnormal dressing and sexual identity, but she uses the most optimistic and active lifestyle to cherish every emotion that everyone around her gives her, treats everyone with the purest feelings in return. Angel lives to love others and to contribute to others. 

Mark, Roger, Mimi, Collins, Angel, Maureen, Joanne, and more ambitious young people’s answer is to fight fearlessly. They fight for justice and for their dreams.

How do you start a fire

When there’s nothing to burn

And it feels like something’s stuck in your flue

How can you generate heat

When you can’t feel your feet

Drama songs use a lot of parallelisms to ask questions, creating a sense of oppression. They are expected to “start a fire” when “there is nothing to burn”; they are forced to pay the rent of the worst houses in the city when their pockets are empty. These ionic rhetoric questions in a row vividly depict to the audiences a group of people who are suffering from cold and hunger yet is asked to pay for a burden that they cannot afford.

We’re not gonna pay

We’re not gonna pay

We’re not gonna pay

Last year’s rent

This year’s rent

Next year’s rent

Rent rent rent rent rent

We’re not gonna pay rent

Cause everything is rent

This group has repeatedly emphasized that they “are not gonna pay” rent, whether it is the rent of “last year”, “this year” or “next year.” These most frequently repeated phrases can express the resolute attitude of the renters. The word “last year” represents the uptight life these people have experienced in past years. The word “next year” expresses their unwillingness to accept rent anytime in the future, because they will be oppressed more severely on more issues than today, housing, job, sexuality, health — “everything is rent”. The ending sentence of this number has deeper implications. Everything used in the world is bestowed by nature, which never belongs to anyone, as no one has the right to dominate it. A world within which everything is rent should be a fair one, but it treats this group too unfairly. Therefore, they fight. They fight to not pay the rent; they fight to continue the protest party; they fight against the ones who depreciate them. Additionally, the life of these youths can be considered as rent. They are thankful to God for every day they are alive, as Mimi confesses in her song, “I live this moment as my last.” They rent their life from God, and the life will be paid back sooner or later. Like someone suffering from AIDS rents weak life from the god of death and rents hopeless love from the god of love, the young people enjoy what they have now and cherish the current moment to achieve their dreams. One year has passed, Roger successfully accomplishes his much-sought-after song, “Your eyes”, confessing his love to Mimi; Mark makes great progress on his newly completed film; Collins reprograms an ATM at a grocery store to provide money to anybody with the code ‘ANGEL’.                    

These seven youths’ lives perfectly answer the question at the beginning: to live devotedly, to love earnestly, and to fight fearlessly when in a desperate fate. It is no doubt that they will continue to glow in their fictional Alphabet City. 

            In reality, Jonathan Larson creates these characters based on his own experience and his friends around him. He focuses on the exotic dancer, homosexuals, bisexuals, drag queens, drug abusers, AIDS carries — a population whose careers and sexualities are not accepted by the mainstream society. During his seven-year-production, he gradually fulfills every character’s personality and traits with patient and love.

            In addition to the variety of characters, the diversity of music in Rent is also noticeable. Most of the songs in the play area in the style of rock. It is because of rock’s specialty that allows the audiences to truly experience the cries of discriminated groups. For example, the opening song “Rent” not only explains the background of the drama but also establishes the tone of the whole musical. This song depicts a group of disadvantaged groups who have been treated unfairly by society to complain about their experience — most of them are on the verge of death but are forced to pay rent or be swept out. This kind of strong dissatisfaction requires a rough and surging way to vent, so the rock is the most suitable. This is also in line with the original intention of the whole musical: to reflect the lives of disadvantaged groups the most truthfully and to awaken people’s inner care. Jazz is another most used music style in Rent, and it is adopted in many songs, such as “Accept Me or Leave Me”. The song is presented as a duet and is a quarrel between a newly married lesbian, who have conflicts about whether or not they can flirt with others at will after marriage. The inconsistency and the eclectic melodies of Jazz portraits the couple with different ways of doing things and personalities. 

            Larson presented such a rich variety of musical styles for the musical, accomplishing over 100 songs. Unfortunately, he didn’t see his works translated into 16 languages, performed in over 150 cities in 21 countries, and winning dozens of praises like the Tony Award. But what he did will be remembered forever: a legendary musical, a group of ambitious, lovely, kind characters, and the idea of life: to live, love, fight, on no day but today.

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