ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Why didn't the people in "Rent" just, like, pay their rent?

The other day, I happened to re-listen to "Rent." The 20th Anniversary Tour is coming to town next month, and I have my ticket in hand, and, excited about the upcoming show, I pulled the original Broadway cast album up on Spotify for a re-listen. The thing about "Rent" is its one of those shows that I find it difficult to be rational about. It has its flaws, but I was in high school the first time that I heard "Rent," and it blew me away then, and it still stays fresh to me. Even when I think it should have aged, I hear the first notes of "One Song Glory," and they get me every time, and by the end of my re-listen I'm sitting in floods of tears on my living room and thinking, ...Huh, this whole musical is about a breach of contract. 

Because it is!

If you don't know the plot, it's loosely a re-telling of "La Boheme" that revolves around a number of young New York artists struggling to survive in an age when AIDS is ravaging their community. The titular "Rent" is the first major song in the musical, and it's a reaction to one of the characters, Benny, going back on a promise he made to the main characters, Mark and Roger. Benny used to be roommates with Mark and Roger but now (with his rich bride's money behind him), he's become their landlord. However, when he bought their building the year before he told Mark and Roger they were "golden". Nonetheless, at the beginning of the play, he shows up and demands all of the previous year's rent, which Mark and Roger allege he led them to believe they didn't have to pay (and which Benny never really refutes). 

There are a lot of critiques of the characters of "Rent" and how annoying it can be to listen to the show as an "adult." Yes, you do find yourself asking why Mark can't just rake in some dough for a little while to pay off the debt. Isn't this what all adults have to do? We all have to go out and get jobs to pay for the roofs over our heads. But Mark and Roger shouldn't have been in the rent-money debt in the first place, because they had an agreement with Benny. Are there issues with the formation of this contract? Yes. It's pretty informally done, after all, because of their friendship. And it probably suffers from a consideration issue, because it seems like a gift from Benny to Mark and Roger (the musical doesn't spend a whole lot of time on the details of the transaction, tbh, but it seems like he made the offer because he was feeling generous toward his friends). But I think it could be saved by promissory estoppel. Benny made that promise to Mark and Roger, and he's got to know them well enough to know they were going to rely on it by not worrying much about a source of income for the year, which in fact Mark and Roger did. And now Benny is demanding an entire year's worth of rent all at once, which would be a lot for anyone to come up with, never mind starving artists with uncertain sources of income. 

So it's not entirely Mark and Roger's fault that they owe a year's rent. They were led to believe they didn't. But, more than that, the more I think about the critiques of "Rent," the more I think that actually that's the point of rent. Mark and Roger are annoying and entitled, yes, not just because they don't want to have to pay rent that their friend told them they wouldn't have to pay, but because they don't want to have pay rent going forward, because the payment of rent pushes them into making compromises regarding their art and the type of life they want to live. When you listen to "Rent" as a sixteen-year-old, it's different than listening to it as a thirty-six-year-old, and that difference is that yes, I grew up, and I realized that suddenly I'm no longer on the side of the artists who want to create and live their lives. And then that makes me think about the fact that I'm on the side of people not following dreams because I grew up and I compromised and I paid my rent. And I don't think it's a failing in "Rent" that it makes me pause to think about that, that there was a teenager in me who believed in La Vie Boheme who became an adult who didn't. I think that's the point. The story takes place in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, when these people are losing friends left and right, and so it makes sense that they don't feel like they have time to pretend to be other than what they are. Maybe the joke's on all of us that we feel like we do have time. 

Because, let's face it, for all of "Rent"'s enduring genius as a musical achievement--and there's a lot of it--"Rent"'s story is also the story of all the music that its composer never got to write. Jonathan Larsen died suddenly and unexpectedly the night before the musical's Off-Broadway premiere. He left far too early and left us with just this one perfect masterpiece, about people with uncertain lives clinging stubbornly to their dreams. It's hard for you to reach the end of "Rent" without an appreciation for how lucky we are that some people live that way and give it their all in their time here on Earth. Jonathan Larsen only wrote the one masterpiece, and that's a tragedy, and he didn't live to see the huge success it became, which is an even bigger tragedy, but at least he got to write one, which meant he got to leave a legacy behind him that you've got to think he'd be pretty happy with. And how lucky we all are that he stuck with his art. 

None of which has anything to do with contracts law, oops. EXCEPT EVERYTHING HAS TO DO WITH CONTRACTS LAW. Including the entire plot of "Rent." The end, back to regularly scheduled cases, here, have a song:  

 

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