By the time it had closed its run on Broadway in 2008, Rent had received a host of accolades. It had played for just over a dozen years—since April 1996. It had helped to rejuvenate the Broadway musical, with its piercing lyrics and beautifully arranged rock scores. It was one of the first musicals in decades to reach a youthful audience. Jonathan Larson, its creator, received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his work. It was nominated for a stunning ten Tony Awards, winning four, including Best Score and Best Musical.
Scholars argue that Rent’s success came from Larson’s ability to capture a precise moment in the lives of his characters. They were young, idealistic, and yearning artists, cast into the world with lots of ambition but less financial security. In addition to the economic issues at the heart of Rent, the word “rent” also means torn apart, and the characters clearly are torn—between love and death, dignity and hardship, idealism and reality, anger and joy, fear and trust. Larson presented audiences with a set of characters who bravely asked complex questions despite knowing that there were few clear answers.
While the characters were captivating, it was also the historical moment depicted in Rent that riveted audiences. Larson wrote during the 1990s, a time when HIV/AIDS had ravaged a generation of New Yorkers. Not only did he and his friends have to deal with desperate financial circumstances as artists struggling just to make rent, but many also faced devastating medical diagnoses for a disease that had no cure.
Considering his life experiences, it was no accident that Larson found inspiration in La Bohème, an opera written by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini nearly one hundred years earlier. While Puccini’s characters struggled to make ends meet while living in Paris, they also suffered from tuberculosis, a harrowing disease with limited treatment options in the late nineteenth century. Although a century separated Larson from the world Puccini had created in La Bohème, he understood how the characters felt as they faced an ambiguous future. Larson created explicit parallels between La Bohème and Rent by adapting character descriptions, borrowing plot elements, and even integrating some melodies into his score. Larson’s take on La Bohème enthralled audiences and critics alike, including one who praised his ability to wrap “a generation of young, ambitious and threatened characters in a musical embrace.”
While Larson deserves all due praise, it is also important to recognize that both Puccini and Larson wrote at powerful historical moments in which audiences faced tremendous ambiguity in their own lives. They connected deeply with the characters in La Bohème and Rent because they saw themselves reflected on stage. Puccini’s audiences were grappling with industrialization, a process that was revolutionizing economies. Massive corporations were replacing small producers, and workers were moving from rural areas to urban centers. For Larson’s audiences, digital technologies were reconfiguring the workplace while shifting international markets were dramatically transforming economic outlooks. The world seemed torn apart and answers nowhere in sight. The characters in La Bohème and Rent resonated with audiences, then, because they defied the pressure to sell out, to abandon their art and “La Vie Boheme.” Instead, they chose to live gracefully in uncertain times—to measure “their lives in love.”
Assistant Professor of History
Sara Egge joined Centre’s faculty in 2012 as an assistant professor of history. She was named a Centre Scholar in 2015, a two-year appointment recognizing teaching excellence, scholarship, and contributions to the Centre community. In 2015, she won a grant from the Kentucky Oral History Commission to interview World War II veterans. That same year, she also received an Enduring Questions grant to explore the question “What is a citizen?” from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Egge’s research interests include gender, ethnicity, and rurality in the American Midwest, historical constructions of political representation and citizenship, and historical intersections of agriculture, food production, hunting, and the environment. Her book, entitled Woman Suffrage and Citizenship in the Midwest, 1870-1920 (2018) and published by the University of Iowa Press, explores the woman suffrage movement in the Midwest.
At Centre, Egge teaches courses in late 19th- and early 20th-century American history, gender and women’s history, food history, and environmental history.
Egge has a B.A. in history and Spanish, and a B.S. in history education from North Dakota State University. She received her M.A. in history and Ph.D. in agricultural history and rural studies from Iowa State University.
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