11 Things You Should Know About Rent

Andrew H. Walker // Getty Images
Andrew H. Walker // Getty Images

Fox's live performance of Rent, the Broadway musical that ushered in a new age of pop-rock music on the Great White Way, has finally arrived. The rock opera’s uplifting message still strikes a chord with audiences everywhere. Before you rock out to the live version, study up on these facts about the original play.

1. It's loosely based on the 1896 opera La Boheme.

The story of Rent began with playwright Billy Aronson, who moved to Manhattan's Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in 1983. Homelessness was a huge issue in the city at that time, as was the emergence of AIDS, which would affect 1096 new victims by year's end. One night, Aronson caught a performance of La Boheme. The opera, written by the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, is a four-act masterpiece about a group of penniless, starving artists in 19th-century Paris. The four main characters share a crowded living space which sometimes gets so cold that they must burn their own works for warmth. To make matters worse, their city has fallen prey to a raging tuberculosis epidemic. Still, in their strife, the artists find camaraderie.

"I remember walking home … and noticing the contrast between the luscious world of the opera and the world I lived in," Aronson told Mediander. Soon, he hatched the idea of adapting La Boheme into a musical that would be set in New York during the AIDS crisis. Many plot points in Rent mirror La Boheme, including the relationship between Mimi and Roger (in Puccini’s opera, much of the drama stems from Rodolfo, a poet, and his rocky affair with a poor woman named Mimi, who ultimately dies of tuberculosis) and Angel’s decision to kill an obnoxious dog for money (in La Boheme, one character earns some badly-needed cash by doing away with a pesky parrot).

2. Billy Aronson provided the initial lyrics for three of Rent's most beloved songs.

"I love working with musicals and dance, but I don’t write music," Aronson said. To enlist some help with his La Boheme project, the writer approached some acquaintances at the theater Playwrights Horizons, who put him in touch with composer (and part-time restaurant waiter) Jonathan Larson. Eventually, other projects drove Aronson to leave the show behind. Larson—who felt the show might well become his generation’s answer to Hair—also stopped working on it for a time, but he eventually came back to it, with his ex-collaborator’s blessing. Before the two parted ways, however, Aronson penned the first lyrics to "Santa Fe," "I Should Tell You," and the titular song, "Rent."

Aronson wrote on his website that sometime before the off-Broadway premiere, he asked Larson what was left of his work. Larson responded, “the lyrics for 'Rent' were basically his, the lyrics for 'Santa Fe' were basically mine, and the lyrics for 'I Should Tell You' were half and half.”

3. "Will I?" was inspired by something Jonathan Larson heard at an HIV/AIDS support group meeting.

While working on Rent, Larson regularly attended the meetings of a nonprofit group called Friends In Deed, which was created in 1991 as a support group for New Yorkers with AIDS and other life-threatening ailments. The discussions Larson observed there prompted him to write "Life Support" and "Will I?" According to organization co-founder Cynthia O’Neal, "Jonathan had been sitting in … one night when a young man raised his hand." The man said "I’m not really afraid of dying, and I think I can handle suffering, but the thing I think about all the time is 'Will I lose my dignity?'"

4. To nab a role, Adam Pascal had to break a bad singing habit.

Pascal played Roger Davis, a musician and ex-junkie with HIV. Though he’d never appeared in a musical before trying out for Rent, the performer—like his character—did have an impressive rock and roll background; he’d spent many years in bands, including one that had recently broken up. But things that work well at concerts don’t always cut it on an off-Broadway stage. During the audition, he was asked to sing "Your Eyes," Roger’s tender love ballad. Although the vocalist aced every note, there was one big problem: He couldn’t keep his eyes open. "As a rock singer, I was used to closing my eyes when showing/feeling emotion," Pascal wrote in retrospect. Obviously, that technique was ill-suited for acting. Pascal fixed the issue and landed the role.

5. Producers saw a workshop performance, and offered to fund it before they'd even seen Act II.

An early version of Rent was performed as a staged reading at the New York Theatre Workshop in March 1993. One year later, a new workshop production—complete with a heavily-revised script—was staged. This proto-Rent ran for two weeks; toward the end of its run, producing partners Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum stopped by to see the show. Larson’s musical was still very much a work in progress. "For the first 20 minutes, I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s great energy,’'’ McCollum told Vulture. "Then, 25 minutes in, ‘Light My Candle’ happens." The producers couldn’t believe their ears. "I turned to Jeffrey and said, ‘That’s the best piece of musical-theater storytelling I’ve seen in a long time,’" McCollum recalled. During intermission, the duo found Larson and told him they wanted to do his show. "Well," Larson replied, "do you want to see the second act?"

Seller and McCollum later brought their associate Allen Gordon on board as a third producer. After numerous revisions, Rent was ready for its first official preview.

6. Larson didn't live to see Rent's success.

On January 24, 1996, Rent had its final dress rehearsal at the New York Theatre Workshop, an Off-Broadway venue. By all accounts, the run-through went well, and afterward, Larson sat down for an interview with New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini. When their discussion wrapped up, the composer headed back to his Greenwich Village apartment. The next day, Larson was found dead on the kitchen floor; he had succumbed to a fatal aortic aneurysm. He was only 35 years old.

Rent was set to have its first-ever preview performance that very night. With heavy hearts, the cast decided to take the stage in his memory. It was a performance like no other. The doors were closed to the general public; every available seat was reserved for Larson’s friends and family. Together, the cast decided there’d be no choreography or blocking—instead, everybody would sit down in front of the audience for a full sing-through. But, as the night wore on, the actors grew more energized. "By the time we got to ‘La Vie Boheme,’ we could not contain ourselves," Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who played Angel, said in the documentary No Day But Today—The Story of Rent. For the rest of the evening, the whole company danced and did their blocking with gusto.

7. Rent is in some elite company, awards-wise.

The original Broadway cast of Rent from 1996
The original Broadway cast of Rent in 1996

With the impromptu memorial performance behind them, the cast dove into their first public preview on January 26. That April, Rent made the jump to Broadway, where it would remain for the next 12 years. Altogether, Larson’s passion project nabbed four Tony Awards, including the coveted Best Musical. It also took home the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, something that only eight other musicals (Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello!, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park With George, Next to Normal, and Hamilton) have ever won.

8. It pioneered the Broadway ticket lottery.

For many, it can be tough to catch a show on the Great White Way without breaking the bank—but these days, most Broadway productions offer daily ticket lotteries before a performance, with the winners getting the right to buy choice seats at a bargain price. Rent is credited with inventing this concept.

According to Seller, he and McCollum felt the need to make Rent accessible to those "in their 20s and 30s, artists, Bohemians—the people for whom [Larson] wrote the show." So after the musical moved to Broadway, the producers set up a rush ticket system. At every performance, two rows’ worth of premium seats were sold off for $20 apiece. The process began two hours before the show, and the tickets were distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Soon enough, huge lines of hardcore fans (known as "Rentheads") clamoring for rush seats started forming outside the theater. To beat the frenzy, many diehards even took to pitching tents and camping out on the street. Naturally, this raised some concerns. "We became worried that kids were going to get hurt and get into trouble in the middle of the night with what was still a pretty large contingent of low-lifes around there," Seller said. The show ended up replacing its ticket rush with Broadway’s very first ticket lottery system. Since then, this sort of thing has become an industry standard, although modern shows tend to conduct their lottos digitally.

9. The original cast sang "Seasons of Love" at the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

On day one of the convention—August 26, 1996—the ensemble serenaded First Lady Hillary Clinton and an admiring Chicago crowd with Rent’s most famous number. A year later, the first family celebrated Chelsea Clinton’s 17th birthday by taking her to a Broadway performance of Rent. The 42nd Commander-in-Chief later described the musical as "really powerful. It has a real grip on the people."

10. Martin Scorsese was considered as a possible director for the 2005 movie adaptation.

As Seller, who co-produced the film, told The Washington Post, "Scorsese admired the piece but didn’t know what to do with it." In the end, it was Chris Columbus of Mrs. Doubtfire fame who assumed the director’s chair.

11. The cast of Hamilton celebrated Rent's 20th anniversary with their own rendition of "Seasons of Love."

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first experience with this paradigm-shifting musical came at age 17, when he was taken to see it on his birthday. For the future star, it was a life-changing event. Miranda said that Larson’s music immediately triggered "a revelation—that you could write about now, and you could have musicals that really felt contemporary."

In 2016, the cast of Hamilton celebrated the 20th anniversary of Rent by performing a version of "Season of Love."

An earlier version of this article ran in 2016.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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8 Facts About David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'

Express/Express/Getty Images
Express/Express/Getty Images

On July 20, 1969, astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time. Just a few weeks earlier, another space-age event had rocked the world: David Bowie’s single “Space Oddity” hit airwaves. The song, whose lyrics tell the story of an astronaut’s doomed journey into space, helped propel the artist to icon status, and five decades later, it’s still one of his most popular works. 

1. "Space Oddity" was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners assumed that "Space Oddity" was riffing on the Apollo 11 Moon landing of 1969, but it was actually inspired by a Stanley Kubrick film released a year earlier. Bowie watched 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times when it premiered in theaters in 1968. “It was the sense of isolation I related to,” Bowie told Classic Rock in 2012. “I found the whole thing amazing. I was out of my gourd, very stoned when I went to see it—several times—and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

2. "Space Oddity" was also inspired by heartbreak.

The track was also partly inspired by the more universal experience of heartbreak. Bowie wrote the song after ending his relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. The break inspired several songs, including “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars,” and in “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s post-breakup loneliness and melancholy is especially apparent.

3. "Space Oddity" helped him sign a record deal.

In 1969, a few years into David Bowie’s career, the musician recorded a demo tape with plans to use it to land a deal with Mercury Records. That tape featured an early iteration of “Space Oddity,” and based on the demo, Mercury signed him for a one-album deal. But the song failed to win over one producer. Tony Visconti, who produced Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, thought the song was a cheap attempt to cash in on the Apollo 11 mission, and he tapped someone else to produce that particular single.

4. The BBC played "Space Oddity" during the Moon landing.

"Space Oddity" was released on July 11, 1969—just five days before NASA launched Apollo 11. The song doesn’t exactly sound like promotional material for the mission. It ends on a somber note, with Major Tom "floating in a tin can" through space. But the timing and general subject matter were too perfect for the BBC to resist. The network played the track over footage of the Moon landing. Bowie later remarked upon the situation, saying, "Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great. 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that."

5. David Bowie recorded an Italian version of "Space Oddity."

The same year "Space Oddity" was released, a different version David Bowie recorded with Italian lyrics was played by radio stations in Italy. Instead of directly translating the English words, the Italian songwriter Mogul was hired to write new lyrics practically from scratch. "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl") is a straightforward love song, and Major Tom is never mentioned.

6. Major Tom appeared in future songs.

Major Tom, the fictional astronaut at the center of "Space Oddity," is one of the most iconic characters invented for a pop song. It took a decade for him to resurface in David Bowie’s discography. In his 1980 single "Ashes to Ashes," the artists presents a different version of the character, singing: "We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low." Bowie also references Major Tom in "Hallo Spaceboy" from the 1995 album Outside.

7. "Space Oddity" is featured in Chris Hadfield's ISS music video.

When choosing a song for the first music filmed in space, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield naturally went with David Bowie’s out-of-this-world anthem. The video above was recorded on the International Space Station in 2013, with Hadfield playing guitar and singing from space and other performers providing musical accompaniment from Earth. Some lyrics were tweaked for the cover. Hadfield mentions the "Soyuz hatch" of the capsule that would eventually shuttle him to Earth.

8. "Space Oddity" played on the Tesla that Elon Musk sent to space.

Dummy in Tesla roadster in space with Earth in background.
SpaceX via Getty Images

In 2018, Elon Musk used SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket to launch his Tesla Roadster into space. The car was decked out with pop culture Easter eggs—according to Musk, "Space Oddity" was playing over the car’s radio system during the historic journey. The dummy’s name, Starman, is the name of another space-themed song on Bowie's 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.