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Opinion: Celebrating a Legacy of Love - "Rent" Turns 20

Tags: Opinion

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes… How do you measure, measure a year? Those are the opening lyrics to “Seasons of Love,” the signature song from the Tony award-winning musical “Rent.” The acclaimed Broadway show tells the story of a diverse group of impoverished friends struggling to make it in New York City’s East Village in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the mid 1990s. It’s now been 20 years since “Rent” premiered on Broadway, and it can still be seen on stages across the country still captivating audiences both young and old.

I have seen the play at least five times, and when it was released as a major motion picture in 2005, I saw it in the theater probably another six times. I own a DVD copy of the movie, as well as a DVD version of the last Broadway production. In short, I’m a fan.

When “Rent” premiered in 1996 it was an instant hit and received critical acclaim. It also took home the Tony award for Best Musical. The show was groundbreaking, and its impact on pop culture can’t be denied. It showcased sexuality, relationships and gender expression in a way that many had not seen before. It also launched the careers of Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel, and Jesse L. Martin, all of whom have gone on to star in Broadway plays, major motion pictures and television shows. It is a production that focused on serious topics such as HIV/AIDS, started new conversations about sexuality and gender expression, and still managed to be thoroughly entertaining. Not to mention that the story was a realistic portrayal of who was living in New York City and dealing with HIV at the time. The majority of the cast was and continues to be people of color, and one-half of the characters portrayed identify as queer. A mainstream production focusing on these topics and characters, and actually portraying them honestly and realistically is a feat within itself, and sadly something we don’t get enough of today.

When I think about my passion and desire to work in the HIV community, I realize it is not just one single moment that defines me, but a series of moments in my life that have formulated my passion.

Seeing “Rent” for the first time was one of those moments. The first time I learned anything about “Rent” was my senior year of high school. “Seasons of Love” was chosen as our graduation song. I had never heard of the song or the play. After reading what “Rent” was about, it seemed like something I would be interested in. The following year, when I was in college, I got the opportunity to see the play for the first time. To say I was moved would be an understatement. I was transformed watching that production.

While I have never lived in poverty, been addicted to drugs or lived with HIV, I felt an intense connection to the characters. There was love, loss, hope, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, drag queens, and a lot of great music. It was amazing to see LGBT people, women and people of color portrayed with such depth and dignity. The same-sex couples were real, and they were in love. It was like I had known these people and their struggles all my life, but I was just now fully realizing it. I cried watching that production. Like everyone else, I mourned the loss of a beloved character. But I also cried because I was celebrating my own awakening and the love and hope that “Rent” provided. I was starting to find myself, my community, and my passion. It’s that feeling you get when everything falls into place. You know exactly where you should be and what you should be doing. “Rent” did that for me. It just felt like home.

On the surface, Rent may just seem like a play about people with HIV. But in reality it is so much more. It is about embracing people for who they are and meeting people where they are. It is about realizing that it is not their station in life that brings people together. It is their connection to one another and their love for one another. “Rent” is more than a play. It is something that gets inside of your soul and makes you feel. It makes you experience joy, anger, sadness, hope and love. It taps into the core of the human experience.

Everyone is out here trying to make it and live life the best they can. Whether you are male, female, black, white, gay, straight, or anything in-between, it doesn’t matter. Whether you are HIV-positive or -negative, it doesn’t matter. We are all trying to live the best life possible. And the best way to do that is to lead with love. “Rent” reminds us of that. So ask yourself, how do you measure a year? Happy 20th Anniversary, “Rent,” and thanks for changing my life.

"RENT" 20th Anniversary Tour will launch in Fall 2016.