20 Years Later, 'Rent' Is Still One of the Most Influential Works in Pop Culture

Source: AP
Source: AP

Picture this: A new musical has New York City whipped into a frenzy after a hugely successful off-Broadway run. The Broadway production is even more successful. The show is an inspiring masterpiece that features an ethnically diverse cast and a story about rebellion against oppression.

Is it Hamilton we're speaking of? No, for this one, you'd have to go back two decades: We're talking about Rent.

Since 1996, Rent has remained in the hearts of those inspired by its story, its music and its legacy. Throughout pop culture, one can find pockets of Rent's influence. Here are just five ways entertainment was changed for good by the late Jonathan Larson's musical.

Idina Menzel's career

Source: YouTube

The original stars of Rent represent some of the brightest Broadway talents: Taye Diggs, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp. Then there's Idina Menzel (Ms. Dazeem, if you're John Travolta), one of the most visible Broadway stars in modern culture. 

Think of a world in which Menzel was not the original (Tony-winning) Elphaba in Wicked. Think of a world in which Elsa from Frozen did not sing "Let It Go" in Menzel's voice. That's a world without Rent, and it's a world where Demi Lovato is Elsa instead. Thankfully for Menzel, she's living in the Rent universe, and she's all the more famous for it.

Spring Awakening

Plenty of shows have taken inspiration from Rent, particularly Miranda's and the Green Day musical American Idiot. Perhaps the clearest descendant of Rent, however, is Spring Awakening, which wrapped a revival production on Broadway in January.

The stories are closely linked in theme: A group of rebellious, free-spirited young people rage out against the oppression of a system. Taken together with their rock-influenced scores and big group numbers (see: "Totally Fucked"), Rent and Spring Awakening share much in common — like theatrical cousins whose parents just don't understand.

Smash season 2

Source: YouTube

After most viewers turned away from Smash in its second season, the show took a turn. It split its focus between the show from season one, a Marilyn Monroe-inspired musical called Bombshell, and an upstart musical called Hit List. The show told the story of star-crossed lovers in the music business and had Rent's very MTV sensibility.

That wasn't the main Rent comparison, however. The in-universe book writer of Hit List, Kyle Bishop (Andy Mientus), died while his show was still in previews — similarly to how Rent creator Jonathan Larson died the morning of Rent's first preview of its off-Broadway run. To further amp up the comparisons, executive producer Josh Safran cast two original Rent cast members (Jesse L. Martin and Daphne Rubin-Vega) in recurring roles.

Rush tickets for Broadway

Have you ever lost the Hamilton lottery? Blame it on Rent. The 1996 show's student rush popularized the last-second-tickets form, a system used by plenty of shows today. Back in Rent's day, the fans' passion led to the need for a more formal rush system. Today, Hamilton has turned their rush — called Ham4Ham — into an actual art form.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's work

Source: YouTube

Miranda has been vocal about how much Rent inspired both Hamilton and his first Broadway show, In the Heights. For the former, the comparison isn't just a textual one (though the themes of rebellion reverberate). The two shows are comparable as cultural phenomenon as well.

It's fitting that the two became massive hits roughly 20 years apart. Hamilton, like Rent before it, is going to change Broadway — and pop culture as a whole.

How likely are you to make Mic your go-to news source?

Kevin O'Keeffe

Kevin is the arts editor at Mic, writing about inclusion and representation in pop culture. He is based in New York and can be reached at kevin@mic.com.

MORE FROM

‘American Horror Story’ creator Ryan Murphy releases a chilling new clue for season 7

It looks like the election won't be the only scary thing in the spotlight next season.

These are the most glowing reviews for 'War for the Planet of the Apes'

It's far from your average summer blockbuster.

The most awkward 2-on-1 dates from 'The Bachelor' and 'The Bachelorette'

We're ready for Rachel Lindsay's two-on-one date with Kenny and Lee.

Will ‘GLOW’ be renewed for season 2? Even the cast doesn’t know what’s going on.

No official word yet on this nostalgia-filled new series.

Beyoncé's BET Awards acceptance speech thanks family, but stays mum on twins

Beyoncé thanked her family during her BET Awards speech but gave no mention of the twins.

We've got a 'Rick and Morty' season 3 update you may or may not like

The show's not canceled, but not much is known about a release date.

‘American Horror Story’ creator Ryan Murphy releases a chilling new clue for season 7

It looks like the election won't be the only scary thing in the spotlight next season.

These are the most glowing reviews for 'War for the Planet of the Apes'

It's far from your average summer blockbuster.

The most awkward 2-on-1 dates from 'The Bachelor' and 'The Bachelorette'

We're ready for Rachel Lindsay's two-on-one date with Kenny and Lee.

Will ‘GLOW’ be renewed for season 2? Even the cast doesn’t know what’s going on.

No official word yet on this nostalgia-filled new series.

Beyoncé's BET Awards acceptance speech thanks family, but stays mum on twins

Beyoncé thanked her family during her BET Awards speech but gave no mention of the twins.

We've got a 'Rick and Morty' season 3 update you may or may not like

The show's not canceled, but not much is known about a release date.