Before Rent, I was a moderately terrible person. Not horrible, mind you. I was nice to my classmates, polite to adults, and a generally happy person. My main flaw was how I secretly viewed other people. My family, you see, is full of conservatives who have difficulty seeing things from someone else’s point of view, especially if those people aren’t like them, and I was sucked into the same school of thought for the first sixteen years of my life. Like my family, I wasn’t open about the disdain I felt for some people in this world, but I felt it, all the same. Discussions about race and sexuality made me extremely uncomfortable, thanks to my extended family’s influence, so I never associated with the people my family scorned. All of this began to change, however, when one day in my sophomore choir class my teacher showed the first twenty minutes of a musical that would change my life.
I never noticed how conservative my family is until probably eighth or ninth grade. My immediate family sponsored a little girl in Mexico when I was in early elementary school, and one day my sisters and I got to talking about how fun it would be to have an adopted sibling from a foreign country. Our hopes were quickly dashed, however, when our mom told us how furious our grandfather would be if we adopted a child who wasn’t white. While I do admit to having racial prejudices in the past, my views were nowhere near as extreme as my family’s, and I vividly remember how shocked I was by that statement. Over the years, my awareness of my extended family’s character flaws broadened, and I began to notice the jokes that they made about people of color and homosexuals.
All of my beliefs began to shift one day in my sophomore choir class. It was towards the end of the semester, and my teacher decided to give my class a musical theatre education instead of making us sing. The show he chose to play for us was the 2008 DVD recording of Rent, the final performance on Broadway. That day, I was shocked by the characters in the show. I barely even knew what a drag queen was, so Angel was a complete surprise, especially since he is also gay and Hispanic. Mimi was far too risqué, and although I found Roger to be an intriguing character, his past drug use and the fact that he has HIV was just too much for my sheltered little conservative mind to handle. I went home that day minorly scandalized and looked up the show’s synopsis, where I was even more shocked to find that about half of the leading characters have HIV/AIDS, or are gay. I made up my mind that the show sounded way too depressing and scandalizing for me to enjoy, and I resolved to never finish watching it.
This show, however, seemed destined to be life-changing for me. Roger’s song, “One Song Glory,” in which he expresses his need to write one meaningful song before he dies, lodged itself in my head and refused to budge. Roger’s tragic ultimatum, the fact that he was going to die much sooner than he should, made me realize how quickly lives pass and how little time we actually have to do something meaningful. That June I finally succumbed to this earworm and watched the 2005 movie version of Rent with my sisters. I was astonished to find that the show I was determined to hate actually resonated with me. I fell in love with the characters I initially despised. I participate in musical theatre, and Mimi, Maureen, and Joanne, who are the show’s female leads, now make up the core of my dream roles. “Out Tonight” and “Without You” are now two of my go-to audition songs. The songs are both heartbreaking and beautiful, the characters are complex and relatable, and the show truly does a magnificent job of conveying the idea of living each day as if it is your last. The theme of acceptance especially related to the ideas of tolerance that I struggled with and helped me navigate the road to becoming a better person.
As I delved deeper into the world of Rent, I realized that the racial diversity of the cast and the sexualities of their characters didn’t matter – the love that the characters have for each other is the same that every couple experiences, no matter if they are straight or not. Collins and Angel, one of Rent’s gay minority couples, sing about their newfound love for each other in “I’ll Cover You.” Together they sing, “I’ve longed to discover / Something as true as this is.” I realized if I read the lyrics of this song without knowing who sings it, I would think it was a regular love song between two straight people. The more I listened to “I’ll Cover You” and its reprise, which Collins sings after Angel dies, I discovered that “love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love,” as Lin-Manuel Miranda said in his 2016 Tony Awards acceptance speech. The love that a straight couple feels for each other is the same that a homosexual couple experiences, no matter what my homophobic family tried to make me believe.
My extended family has recently decided that, because I don’t fangirl over boys like an airhead or have the confidence to wear revealing clothes, I must be gay. If I had learned they thought this about me before Rent, I would have been mortified and upset beyond belief. But now, with Rent’s message of tolerance and acceptance as my guide, I’ve come to realize that their opinions don’t matter to me. I am straight, but even if I wasn’t, they would be in the wrong for being unwilling to accept me as I am. My family’s views of homosexuals and non-white people made me furious in the past, but now I feel sorry for them for being unable to see past the color of a person’s skin, or the gender of the person they hold hands with, to acknowledge the value of that person as a human being.