Jonathan Larson’s Rent was already happily ensconced in the annals of American popular culture—having enjoyed several manifestations as a Broadway musical, CD and book tie-ins, a Bloomingdale’s clothing line, etc.—when the film version survived lackluster reviews to open at No. 5 at last weekend’s box office with $10,016,021. That’s more than double the first-week take for The Phantom of the Opera, which ultimately grossed $50 million domestically, and nearly 100 times more than Evita and Moulin Rouge’s anemic low six-digits openings.
But amid the musical’s latest successful incarnation, few seem to remember Sarah Schulman. At press time, only Slate.com’s June Thomas and the Minneapolis City Pages’ Dylan Hicks, in separate Nov. 23 pieces, and a few small online and gay publications had mentioned the sad tale of the lesbian novelist, playwright and founding member of the historic activist organization ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), who was Rent’s leading critic and—probably—its real writer.
Tragically, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm the day before Rent’s off-Broadway premiere in 1996. When Schulman reviewed that show, she described the rock opera about life in the East Village as “a bit flat,” with shallow, one-dimensional characters that exude a “Bennington-like sheen.” Schulman was one of the few New York critics to give the musical a mediocre review, and with good reason. Not only did Schulman find that the musical grossly misrepresented the history of the AIDS crisis, she also discovered that Larson, who admittedly borrowed a portion of the musical’s narrative structure from Puccini’s La Boheme, seemed also to borrow characters and events from a second, uncredited source: Schulman’s critically acclaimed 1990 novel People in Trouble.
The parallels between the narrative structures of Schulman’s novel and Rent are indeed striking. In the novel, Kate, a performance artist, falls in love with a female social activist just after breaking up with a male artist. Kate’s latest performance piece instigates a riot that brings down a greedy landlord attempting to evict people with AIDS. The novel’s subplot involves an interracial gay male couple, one of whom is a drag queen. The drag queen dies, while his boyfriend, a black man, uses stolen credit cards to buy food for the poor and HIV-infected.
In Rent, Maureen, just out of a relationship with video artist Mark, falls in love with Joanne, a lesbian lawyer/activist. With the help of Joanne and Mark, Maureen stages a performance piece that instigates a riot, eventually changing the mind of a greedy landlord originally attempting to evict people with AIDS. Rent’s cast of characters also includes an interracial gay male couple, Angel (a Puerto Rican drag queen who dies of AIDS) and Tom Collins (a black man who reprograms an ATM machine to buy food for the poor and HIV-infected). Furthermore, Larson’s early ’90s setting for Rentuses thematic tropes (wristwatches beeping every four hours, alerting gay men to take AZT) that are only intelligible in the late 1980s—the milieu of Schulman’s novel. You be the judge.
Unable to afford sufficient legal counsel to sue for copyright infringement, Schulman tried desperately and, ultimately, unsuccessfully to garner significant support from her publisher (Penguin Books) and from prominent theater and cultural critics. Though some pieces appeared in the press at the zenith of the musical’s stage popularity, the major record of the Schulman/Rent incident is Schulman’s own book Stagestruck: Theatre, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, published two years after her original review. In the book, Schulman lists the plot similarities and chronicles her legal struggle with the Larson estate, which at the time was valued at $1 billion.
The Larson family maintains that the similarities between the novel and the musical are purely coincidental and, furthermore, contends that “copyright [law] does not extend to the ‘building block of creative expression,’ which typically include, amongst other things, the work’s theme, plot and stock characters and settings.”
Besides the legal wrangling, Schulman goes on at length in Stagestruckto blast Rent’s misrepresentation of queer life, urban gentrification and the AIDS crisis. She contends that Rent’s only substantial plot difference with People in Trouble subverts and negates her novel’s political implications. Where People in Trouble foregrounds the economic and political concerns of lower-class gays and lesbians, Rentsubordinates the novel’s lesbian and gay characters to the melodramatic love saga of musician Roger and stripper Mimi, two heterosexuals with AIDS (the result of—what else?—infected heroin needles), and Mark, the HIV-negative white heterosexual video artist whose only dilemma is whether he should sell out to MTV. The marginalization of queer and ethnically diverse lives to white, heterosexual ones in Rent makes the play more palatable to mainstream audiences, at the expense of erasing gender, sexual and class differences.
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When I asked the publicist from Revolution Studios to comment on the connection between People in Trouble and Rent, he quickly denied knowing anything about Schulman at all. The insistence of the studio and the Larson family to maintain the Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning “authenticity” of Rent is just business, right?
But for Sarah Schulman, money is not what’s at stake here.
“The real story of the AIDS crisis is the story of a group of despised people who had no rights, who came together, saved each other’s lives and changed the world,” Schulman told Slate’s Thomas. “And that is not the story you find in any of these mainstream depictions.”