But there are ways to figure it out, and if you're telling a story, it's important to know. If the storyteller doesn't know, the audience sure as hell isn't gonna know. There are some easy tells. In any good story, the protagonist changes over the course of the story, and he always learns something. Often, though not always, the hero is the first person you meet and the last you hear from.
More than anyone else, Rent is Roger's story. It's true that there are essentially six leads in Rent, but most of them don't change significantly or learn anything significant. Roger and Mimi do, and Mark and Maureen, to a lesser degree. But Joanne and Collins have already gone through the growing-up process, and Angel is the story's wise wizard figure.
Rent is Roger's hero myth. It's easy to get swept up in the joy and rowdiness of this show, the rich musical landscape, the quirky characters, and to miss the skillful, carefully wrought character arc that Larson constructed for Roger. Remember, Rent went through massive rewrites over several years. Though roughness is to some extent Rent's unique style, Larson did a lot of work on the show and put a great deal of time and thought into its construction. (In one early version, the show began with the funeral and then flashed back...)
Once you look closely at Roger's arc, you can see how the whole show is built on that structure.
Roger is in enormous pain when we first meet him. He's been through a terrible tragedy – his girlfriend April gave him AIDS, then killed herself, just six months ago – and as many people do in horrific situations, he shuts down his feelings. He becomes an emotional zombie. He looks like a person on the outside, but he's dead inside. He's learned to function, and how to fake a smile. But he has cut himself off from life. He hasn't seen anyone but Mark in a really long time.
And he's just six months clean from his own heroin addiction. You don't get "cured" of heroin addiction. It's like alcoholism; it's with you for life. You just learn to control it. Maybe.
From the first moments of the show, we're introduced to Roger's "magic amulet" (like the ruby slippers and Luke's light saber), his Fender guitar. It's the only part of him not dead. It's the artist part of him that's hanging on. As long as he has the guitar, as long as his "one great song" isn't finished, he has a reason to get up tomorrow. Roger is unable to finish his song because he's emotionally crippled, but also because finishing his "one great song" would mean he could die. And deep down, that's not really what he wants.
He wants to live again. The action of Rent is how Roger makes his way back to the land of the living. It's about how Roger learns to be one of those "people living with, living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease."
Our reluctant hero resists that call at first, but then he gets a second call to adventure, this time a call to emotional (okay, and sexual and chemical) adventure, when Mimi barges into the loft. Roger resists again. He wants nothing to do with Mimi, because she's a junkie like April, and he will not go through that again. He must protect himself, his heart, his broken soul. Just as he protects himself from his addiction. After Mimi leaves, Roger realizes he likes her. But what does that mean to an emotional zombie?
Might it mean that he's not a zombie after all?
He finally answers Angel's call to adventure, inviting Mimi along. And only then, when he risks, when he opens himself to the adventure, does something of value come back to him. Connection. And notice that our hero brings his magic amulet with him everywhere, to the flea market, to Maureen's performance, to the Life Cafe.
Roger and Mimi's duet "I Should Tell You" is the show's "obligatory moment," the moments toward which everything before it has led, and from which everything after it results. Take out that moment and the whole story collapses. Roger finally pries open the door to his heart, finally takes that brave step... and finds out Mimi also has AIDS. Just like April. Just like him. Part of him is terrified that he's finally letting himself feel again, and that it's going to be exactly like the last time. Pain, pain, and nothing but pain. He knows it'll end the same way. He can't do that. He can't bear that kind of pain again. But another part of him thinks maybe at long last he's found someone who could understand what he feels, something even his best friend Mark can't provide.
There's such weight, such deep despair, such understanding when Roger finds out Mimi has AIDS and all he can say is, "Mimi..." He can't believe it. Once again, he falls for someone who's a junkie and who has AIDS, and once again, he knows, she'll die, leaving him alone again. And he knows he won't survive that. And yet who could better understand what he's been going through?
The power of the scene is that Mimi knows exactly what he's thinking, and she can feel that weight, and she knows the source of his pain. And she knows they could ease each other's pain. If only.
And then he says Fuck it and he chooses. ("Here goes...") The end of Act I of Rent feels a little like the end of Act II of Next to Normal. Guardedly semi-optimistic. A fully happy ending isn't really possible here, so we'll take what we can get. Yes, there will be pain. As Next to Normal tells us, "It's the price we pay to feel." And as the act ends, Roger and Mimi join the others in celebrating life at the Life Cafe.
End of Act I...
Unlike most stories, a big part of Roger's hero's journey is skipped, as we race through most of the year in Act II. We're left to fill in those blanks, assume a progression (and disintegration) of Roger and Mimi's relationship, but Larson does a great job of connecting all the dots for us.
They sing, in "What You Own":
So I own not a notion.
I escape and ape content.
I don't own emotion – I rent.
What was it about that night?
Connection – in an isolating age.
For once the shadows gave way to light,
For once I didn't disengage.
Dying in America
At the end of the millennium.
We're dying in America
To come into our own.
But when you're dying in America
At the end of the millennium,
You're not alone.
I'm not alone.
Or as Sondheim would put it, "No one is alone." Mark and Roger are coming to realize that we all go through trials. We all suffer. We all grieve. And we all know we're not alone. Notice the shift from "living in America" earlier in the song, to "dying in America," to "dying... to come into our own." It's the hero's progression from mere existence, to challenge and danger, to finding your own place in the world.
But Roger has not finished his journey. He has not yet become a man. If he doesn't own his emotion, how can he write a love song?
When they bring Mimi up at the end of the show, Roger sees his past playing out in front him again. It's all happening exactly as before. And then he makes a different choice. Instead of giving in to the grief, as he did with April, here he fights it. He rises up to slay the dragon. Roger's song – or more accurately, the genuine love that his song expresses – is the kiss the Prince gives the Disney Princess that saves her life. He hasn't been able to write the song before now, because he wasn't yet capable of mature love. Now he is. He's growing up.
Now Roger is no longer passive. He has chosen to be active. He has chosen to act to save another. He has become heroic... in a small, urban, Alphabet-City, kind of way. He has grown up, and now he can love someone fully.
But like Matt in The Fantasticks, Roger first had to get beat up by the world.
Larson's decision to give Roger such a heavy backstory was one of his most important choices. The existence of April in the story changes it, and elevates it well beyond both the maudlin, emotional pornography of the opera and the subversive but shallow comedy of the novel on which the musical and the opera are based. April gives Roger weight. In the opera, Rodolfo seeks romance; in the novel, Rudolphe seeks sex.
Roger seeks connection.
At the beginning of the show, Roger's song had to be written before he dies. It's connected with ending. At the end of the show, his new song has to be written to express real love. Now it's connected to beginning. All through the show, as a running joke, Roger keeps trying to write this song, but it always ends up sounding like "Musetta's Waltz" from La Bohème. (How meta of you, Jonathan!) Now that Roger has grown up emotionally – or at least, is growing up – now he can integrate his obstacle into his journey, and now a quote from "Musetta's Waltz" shows up as an integrated instrumental break in the middle of his love song, "Your Eyes." Instead of being stymied by it, he has conquered it.
Also notice that Roger's first big song, "One Song Glory" is all about Roger. He even refers to himself in the song, in the third person. This is a shallow sentiment. He wants glory. He thinks he's capable of "truth like a blazing fire." Not yet he isn't. But by the end of the show, he's grown up and his last big song, "Your Eyes," is all about Mimi. It's about connection.
At the end of Rent, Roger choose to be alive. He takes all that he's learned on his journey and he chooses connection. It's not a Happily Ever After, because in real life there's always a next chapter... until there isn't. But it is a resolution.
Larson took some of his structure from the opera, and took some details and the subversive, comic tone from the novel. But he also departed from both sources significantly. It's such a fascinating, complex character arc Larson created for us, and it's fun watching Evan build Roger.
We're almost done blocking. Then we run, run, run...
Long Live the Musical!