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The Real History of ‘RENT,’ from Plagiarism to Its Straight Creator

Jonathan Larson plagiarized RENT from 1990 novel People in Trouble, says author Sarah Schulman.

There’s kind of a fraught backstory behind one the most celebrated Broadway musicals of all time.

Buried towards the bottom of Brooklyn drag legend Charlene Incarnate's recent piece for Out about how "Angel's Gender Identity Is RENT's Most Enduring Mystery" is a short little aside that reads: "queer author Sarah Schulman has suggested with compelling evidence that the characters [of RENT] are plagiarized from her 1990 novel, People in Trouble." Did that line leave you confused? Don't worry. We'll explain.

Let's start at the beginning...

What's RENT?
RENT is a 1996 Broadway musical by the late Jonathan Larson loosely based on Giacomo Puccini's La boheme. It's about artists, love, and shitty landlords all set in New York City's East Village amidst the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s. It ran for 12 years and won a bunch of awards, including the Tony for Best Musical. Five bucks says that there were no fewer than four girls -- or at least three girls and a gay -- in your high school who could've done all eight minutes of "La Vie Boheme A" from start to finish with different voices for every character with very little prompting.

Why are we talking about it?
Because there's a live TV adaptation happening.

When does it air?
Sunday, January 27, on Fox at 8 p.m. eastern time, 7 p.m. central!

Did you get paid to say that?

Then why did you say it?
I am but a husk of a woman, hollowed out by the contents most sponsored around me.

I see. So then who's Sarah Schulman?
Sarah Schulman is a novelist, playwright, journalist, and historian from New York City. She's perhaps best known for writing The Gentrification of the Mind, a memoir connecting HIV/AIDS to gentrification; Conflict Is Not Abuse, a nonfiction work that uses an intimate partner violence framework to explore how people, politicians, and governments themselves might overstate harm to inflict harm on others; a bunch of really good detective noir with lesbian protagonists (The Sophie Horowitz Story, After Delores, Maggie Terry...); and books about alienated girls and gays that draw from her own experiences living, working, making art, and organizing with other LGBTQ+ people in the East Village and elsewhere in the city (Rat Bohemia; People in Trouble; Girls, Visions, and Everything...)

What's she got to do with RENT?
Schulman says that Jonathan Larson lifted a bunch of elements from her 1990 novel, People in Trouble, and incorporated them into RENT. Everything from plot points and subplots to small but crucial scenic details -- even entire characters!

Does she have any evidence?
Schulman makes her case in 1998's Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, a nonfiction work of theatrical criticism that examines which stories New York's theater world was telling at the time, how those stories were being told, and who stood to profit off of all of the above. (It's very juicy! I recommend it highly!) In it, the author debunks a lot of the popular mythology surrounding Larson: that he was gay, that he died of an AIDS-related illness, that he lived in the East Village in the '80s when RENT is set -- none of which appear to be true. She notes the similarities between the Maureen/Joanne/Mark subplot and the love triangle at the heart of People in Trouble and the climactic art-based protests against slumlords and rising rents found in both, arguing that RENT's more of a La boheme/People in Trouble chimera than a straight Puccini reimagining. (Though RENT is definitely straight, Schulman argues.) The smoking gun, writes Schulman, is that of the community-wide AZT alarms set to people's watches meant to remind people living with HIV to take their meds. The detail is found in People in Trouble, and it's based on a real thing Schulman observed that, thanks to advances in HIV medications, were obsolete by the time Larson was writing the book for RENT. So how did it end up in RENT? Simple, says Schulman. Larson stole it from People in Trouble -- a book that a mutual friend of both playwrights definitely remembers Larson talking about while working on RENT, according to a passage in Stagestruck.

That all sounds pretty compelling.
I know! To make matters worse, Schulman was actually trying to get an operatic adaptation of People in Trouble off the ground in the early '90s, but the New York theater scene was super unreceptive to lesbian playwrights making lesbian work. (I mean, this is decades before Fun Home swept the Tonys. It wasn't always like this!) Imagine her frustration as a lesbian playwright making explicitly gay work to realize that a straight man might have plagiarized her gay work to make a gay play about straight people -- i.e., Mark and Roger -- that ends up being so huge and successful with audiences gay and straight that it gets a live TV adaptation 23 years later?

Ugh. Woof. But...what if I still like RENT? Am I not allowed to like it anymore?
I don't know, Melissa. Did you stop using air conditioning after you learned about climate change?

Exactly. Sometimes you do things even when you know they're not great. It's all part of being an adult: being full of contradictions.

RELATED | Angel's Gender Identity Is RENT's Most Enduring Mystery

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