Arts Review

RENT: The Musical


The Playhouse - QPAC

Tuesday 30th January, 2024


- Confession: I have never attended a musical. After being psychologically scarred as a child by my sister’s repeated viewings of Grease -and her dogged insistence that its CD soundtrack should accompany us on all family road trips- I swore to never again subject myself to the Dantean level of torture that can only be achieved through musical theatre. Until now.


An opportunity provided itself to attend a Brisbane showing of Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award winning rock-musical, Rent, which made its Australian debut in Brisbane at QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre. Written over several years, beginning in the late-1980s, Larson would repeatedly revise and refine what would eventually become Rent, sadly passing away a few months prior to the show’s 1996 Broadway debut. 


Set in Alphabet City, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Rent addresses the interconnected issues of gentrification and its effect on creative communities, drug use, sexuality and the AIDS epidemic. Manhattan’s Lower East Side through the late 1970s to the end of the 1990s was home to some of the most cutting edge creatives. Lured by cheap rent, a sense of community and an element of danger, artists, musicians, filmmakers, poets and playwrights all mingled amongst the sex workers, addicts and transients, turning the area into a hub of avant-garde ideas and unbridled creativity. 


Having previously had little interest in any form of musical theatre, Rent’s Lower East Side setting is what piqued my interest, due, in no small part, to my familiarity with the many artists who at one stage called this former wasteland home; Filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Abel Ferrara, musicians Glenn Branca, Patti Smith and Sonic Youth, writers Jim Carroll and Richard Hell and painters Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. These individuals, to me at least, sum up both the sacred and the profane of this small section of New York City, representing a time and a place that no longer exists, even if the streets still bear the same names.


Despite its location, Rent bears little resemblance to the Lower East Side of my creative heroes,  though it namechecks several locales pivotal to their development, namely CBGB’s and The Pyramid Club. Despite these attempts to wallow in the grit and the grime of Alphabet City, it is a far too wide-eyed and sanitised portrait. This being a neighbourhood that was, at the time, held hostage to crime and a sense of desperation and paranoia resulting from the then-unknown effects of the AIDS virus. Rent’s characters express none of the phobias one would expect and though this could be explained by their creative temperament and general “progressiveness,” in truth, it seems out of step with reality, particularly given its setting at the height of the AIDS epidemic.


It bears reminding that Rent is a musical, intended to entertain and not a documentary, therefore, rather than attack its historical inaccuracy, I would be better advised to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Featuring a predominately young, charismatic and kinetic cast, Rent is entertaining and engaging from the first song to the last and there is much to enjoy in its near two and half hour runtime. 


Notable performers from the extensive cast were Noah Mullins, whose character Mark serves as the show’s unofficial narrator and Martha Berhane as Mimi, who, in a cast of strong singers, possesses a voice that is particularly powerful and moving. Playing to a packed house, the performance’s effect on the audience was obvious, each song received rapturous applause and, at close, a lengthy standing ovation.


As a first time musical attendee I did not know what to expect once the curtain rose, would the constant singing prove to be too much, would it distract me from the show’s plot points and cause confusion? I can safely answer no to these questions and further report that even my individual predilection for pickiness and pretentiousness never prevented me from engaging with material or having a great time. Minor quibbles aside, Rent is a spirited piece of musical theatre delivered by a passionate cast of talented individuals. Whilst it may not have turned me into a dedicated follower of all musicals, it has introduced me to a style of performance I have long ignored, opening my mind, feeding my curiosity and leaving me pondering, what else have I been missing? 


Nick Stephan


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