Rent: Live Reminds Us of the Power of Community

The show offers a meditation on support and grief, and an expert weighs in on how important this message is.

Credit: Ray Mickshaw/FOX
Credit: Ray Mickshaw/FOX

Last night, Fox broadcasted Rent: Live, a barely-live version of the original Rent  — Jonathan Larson’s stirring musical about hustling New York dreamers struggling to pay their rent and, in some cases, struggling to stay alive. It first debuted at New York Theater Workshop in 1996.

Fox’s version is similar to the original theatrical production, and to the film, which was released in 2005. Much of the subsequent online reaction has focused on the show’s lyric “no day but today,” a line from one of the musical’s hit songs, as well as one of its core messages. But it’s actually the show’s meditation on the power of community that is especially noteworthy.

Take the famous “Seasons of Love” scene, for example. It’s Rent’s viral anthem, and instead of performing it with all the actors standing in a straight line, as it has been in other versions, last night’s performance featured the actors standing in a support circle. That particular staging shows them supporting each other in song, rather than singing in isolation. In the circle, hands are intertwined, eyes are closed, and their bodies move with feeling. Their relief, joy, and feeling of community is palpable.

Later in the show, during the character Angel’s funeral (played by James Leyva), Tom Collins (played by Brandon Victor Dixon), Angel’s love interest, performs a soulful rendition of “I’ll Cover You (Reprise),” which, much like the circle in “Seasons of Love,” galvanizes the mourners to their feet. They are singing, arm in arm, as they approach Collins, who stands at the front. Soon, they are next to him, holding him up with their hands as he curls forward in grief. Watching it, it’s heartbreaking and encouraging at once, for it reminds us that even when we are slipping into acute sorrow, when we have a strong community, we are still surrounded by people to pull us out — or even just to rest there with us. It’s a vital reminder that in our most stressful moments, and when we grieve, it is often our friends and loved ones who can get us through, providing us with crucial emotional support.

Robin Goodman, Ph.D., the Executive Director and Program Director at A Caring Hand, a foundation that helps bereaved children and families cope, says that feeling a sense of community can ease the loneliness of someone who’s recently lost a loved one, just as the cast does for Tom Collins. “Community can take various forms. First, there’s a community of others who ‘have been there,’ who can share your grief and understand your pain even though your specific details are personal,” she says. “There’s also the community at large, which can provide acceptance regardless of what you are going through. They can listen to and honor the stories and feelings about the person who died.” That’s what the characters of Rent do for each other: honoring one another’s stories as they watch friends suffer with and die from AIDS and HIV, and providing acceptance as many of them endure intense financial stress (like the titular inability to pay rent). Rent: Live is worth watching for its important reminder to tap into — and acknowledge — our support systems when we’re struggling.

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