Friday, December 3, 2010

RENT as entertainment-education?

Was RENT an early example of entertainment-education in the United States? I argue that RENT worked as a highly successful health entertainment-education piece because of the high-quality of the artistic content made audiences more likely to also be open to its overall educational message.

The musical opened in 1996, after a collaboration between composer Jonathan Larson and playwright Billy Aronson. The play is a reworking of Puccini’s La Boheme. Tuberculosis racks the characters of Puccini’s famous opera but Aronson brought the story into 20th century New York City with characters dealing with the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. After its opening in New York, the play went on to huge success and praise from audiences and critics alike.[1]

The play deals with several of its characters living with and dying of AIDS in a tangle of friendships and love stories. It also deals outright with gay and transgender issues that clouded the AIDS epidemic in the United States for years.

Unlike Jasoos Vijay, there was no funding from governments or non-profits.[2] It was just two friends with hopes of bringing rock opera to the MTV generation. But they wrote about their own lives, and an arts community in New York City that was ravaged by the AIDS/HIV epidemic during those years. The song “Will I” takes place at a fictional Life Support meeting—a support group for those with AIDS. In the song, the characters introduce themselves. In the early years of the Broadway run, the actors would change the names nightly to honor their own real-life friends who were living with or had died of AIDS. HIV-positive friends of Larson’s also encouraged him to include the feelings of anger and resentment that are common among those with the disease into the play. The result became the song “Life Support.”[3]

Our reading this week discusses the difficulties in producing entertainment-education in societies with heavy commercial broadcasting, countries like the United States with very little state or public broadcasting. Broadcast companies are often wary that audience will see the programming as a turn-off and the venture will not be profitable. [4]

I believe RENT is an excellent example of incredibly successful entertainment that not only humanized the face of AIDS during a time of fear and prejudice about the disease in the United States but also dealt with less culturally-accepted topics like homosexuality and transgender identity.

The play had a 12 year run on Broadway and grossed over $280 million, winning four Tony-awards, a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as other awards. In addition, it had numerous tours in the US and abroad. It has been translated into twenty-three languages including: Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, English, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Estonian, Hungarian, Polish, Slovak, Greek, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Hebrew. Finally, it was made into a motion picture in 2005.

As far as I could find, there are no audience studies on the effects of RENT but one could argue that it did help to address the prejudices that existed at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in a way that is similar to the entertainment-education campaigns of today. As well, it makes a strong case that good art can shift social norms, even if only a little.

[1] Victoria Sollectio, “Raising the RENT: Reflections on Community, Sexuality and Musical Theatre |,” blog, Re/Visionist, December 2, 2009,

[2] Lauren B. Frank, Sonal Chaudhuri, Anurudra Bhanot, “Cultural and Normative Elements to Increase the Impact of Drama for Developement: The Case of Jasoos Vijay” (Annenberg School for Communication, University of California).

[3] “Rent (musical) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” Wikipedia, December 2, 2010,

[4] Avrind Singhal, Everett M. Rodgers, “A Theoretical Agenda for Entertainment-Education,” Communication Theory 12, no. 2 (May 2002): 117-135.


  1. Good point, Anna. In terms of education entertainment, messages don't have to come from official sponsors, especially with the advent of so many information and communication technologies that enable average citizens to have an impact, and create a message all their own. Regardless, entertainment education will never be successful if it isn't adapted to an appropriate audience, and using relevant techniques to reach them--much the way RENT did when it emerged in the 1990s. I guess in a way, this argument can be seen a lot like our argument of whether media influences policy, or the other way around. Are these messages effective because entertainment sources have educational messages that reach a certain audience, or does the audience call for action in the form of entertainment?

  2. It's interesting how Rent has been translated into 23 languages. I wonder how popular it has been in other countries, and if its message was as effective. Did anything have to be changed to adapt to different cultures? Are there different versions or is it more or less a direct translation? I've never really thought about glocalization in terms of musicals, but I think it could apply here.

  3. It's funny that I have never seen Rent, but know the songs that are popular from the play. I was watching a commercial the other day and was singing along with the background music which was a song from the play, when my friend said to me "you know what that play was about right?" I had no idea that it focused on HIV/AIDS and other issues of that time period until recently. I think that this must have been a very effective way to, like you said, humanize the issues... they may not necessarily provoke advocacy or action, but make these topics easier to converse about. I would assume that many forms of entertainment: movies, theater and books especially humanize themes that everyday people of the time period are dealing with. So I don't think that this idea is necessarily groundbreaking, but it is interesting to note the effect that entertainment may have on the awareness and action taken towards particular issues.

  4. That is actually a really good point, Anna! And you're right. I was just talking with a friend (gay, does theater) who's college thesis was on this exact subject. Since there was so much dis-information about AIDS, how it was transmitted, who got it and why, theater was one of the only ways people (stereotypically gay men) had to tell their stories. The media wasn't covering the subject in the late 80s/early 90s.

    I think most of all, kind of like the Sesame Street puppet with AIDS in South Africa, that the show humanizes the condition instead of vilifying, like much of mainstream media was doing at the time. I'd personally say that the show had a positive effect (cause the songs really are catchy), but who knows.

    There are, of course, other types of HIV/AIDS stigma/awareness campaigns (even in the edutainment realm) going on around the world, especially in Africa & Thailand, but these face different cultural issues.

    That friend tells me this is a really great book on the subject, if anyone happens to be interested : Also, Rent is awesome, and i'm not just saying that cause I won front row center seats in the ticket lottery...