It's Between God and Me.

What does Rent think about God and religion?

Not much.

It occurred to me last night on the way home from rehearsal. The one time religion is really invoked in Rent, early in "La Vie Bohème," it's held up for sustained mockery, including ironic quotes from the Latin mass and the Jewish prayer for the dead. Religion does not serve this community. The one time we see a representative of religion in the show, it's a nasty priest who's giving Collins shit about paying for the funeral. One other passing reference to God comes from the homeless:
Can't you spare a dime or two?
Here but for the grace of God go you.

It's an interesting line, since most of our characters don't seem to think much about God or religion. But with homeless people singing these lines, it reminds me of Bill Maher's contention that it's easier for middle-class and wealthy people to be atheists; it's a luxury of sorts. Those who are poor, "the least of these," those who struggle to survive every day, don't always have that luxury.

Then, midway through "La Vie Bohème," we get this gem:
To sodomy –
It's between God and me.
To S&M!

While some folks might see the suggestions of a belief in God here, it's such a confrontational, aggressive statement that we can't take it at face value. These kids are telling us they think the rules of Leviticus and the rest of the Bible are silly and anachronistic. There's not even a hint of respect for those rules or their source here.

But aside from these few references, God and religion are mostly absent in this world. Take a look at the lyric of "Another Day":
There's only us,
There's only this.
Forget regret
Or life is yours to miss.
No other road,
No other way,
No day but today.

Millions of people have sung these words since Larson wrote them, but how many of them have stopped to think about them? Since we're the storytellers here, we have to do that. I always heard that lyric as just a reminder to live for the present, especially for these characters who have an uncertain future. But the more I think about it, the more there seems to be there. This lyric is saying a hell of a lot more than "Live in the present." This isn't a Hallmark poster with a kitten on it. This lyric does two jobs, both giving the community some context, in the form of the support group, and also doing some important character work between Mimi and Roger.
There's only us.
There's only this.

Could that be the show's –  or Larson's – rejection of organized religion and "revealed word," rejection of a "merciful" God who brings AIDS down on his people, of various, conflicting codes of morality, of the moral cluelessness of a 2,000-year-old religion? There is no God, this lyric is telling us; there's only us. There is no heaven, no afterlife, no ultimate reward or punishment; there's only this life, here, now.

Or as John Lennon put it:
Imagine there's no heaven;
It's easy if you try.
No hell below us,
Above us only sky.
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

I can feel some Rent fans recoiling from this reading, but the AIDS pandemic led a lot of people to question the existence of God. As Larson watched so many of his friends killed by the disease, as he saw "Christians" reject and condemn the gay community, as he heard the Religious Right claim AIDS was God's just punishment on gays, what must that have done to his ideas about God and religion? Or did he ever have any?
Forget regret,
Or life is yours to miss.

Is that a call to reject notions of sin and divine punishment? After all, by definition, the act of repentance for sins is backward-looking. Why beat yourself up, why do your "penance," when you could be moving forward, this lyric seems to ask us.
No other road,
No other way,
No day but today.

Could this mean that the only way to truth, to happiness, to enlightenment is to live fully in the reality of today, not in the mythologies of thousands of years ago, not in the spiritual bamboozles of new mythologies (I'm lookin' at you, Scientology!), but instead in the divinity of plain old human connection, love, sex, generosity, forgiveness, kindness, joy, music.

If there is spirituality in Rent, it's in the obviously named Angel. She brings out what is divine in Collins and the others. She shows us the road, this road that we're on, the one in front of us. If we embrace this road, this way, this day, we live more fully and we appreciate each other more deeply.

The song goes on, and Mimi and the support group sing:
I can't control
My destiny.
I trust my soul.
My only goal
Is just to be.

Mimi may be a heroin addict, but she's also something of a philosopher. She has self-awareness, and perhaps that's her great tragedy. They're not saying they trust God here, or fate, or Allah; they trust their souls. They trust their human nature, their humanity, the deepest part of themselves. They don't strive to be sinless or righteous or morally upright, but "just to be," just to live life, to keep moving forward, to play out their own individual hero myth stories, each on his own individual road.
There's only now,
There's only here.
Give into love
Or live in fear.

There is no eternity, the lyric seems to argue; there's only now. There is no heaven, hell, or other plane of existence; there's only here. You can choose to live in love and joy and sunlight, or you can choose to live in fear and distrust and darkness. You can work to better the lives of your fellow humans, or you can live in fear of them and what they'll take from you. (Remind you of any political parties...?)
No other path,
No other way,
No day but today.

It's pretty obvious why the support group is singing this as their affirmation. They have to find peace in living with AIDS. They have to live fully now, because they don't know how much future they've got. For Angel and Collins, that's freeing, and maybe it allows them to be themselves and accept themselves in a way they might not have otherwise. Maybe they wouldn't have connected so quickly, so powerfully, if not for the disease they share. And maybe the same is true for Roger and Mimi. They're sickness is their bond.

So why is Mimi singing this to Roger? Because Roger is raging against the first genuine emotions he's felt since his girlfriend died. He hasn't been able to "give into love" thus far, so he has "live[d] in fear." It's terrifying for him to feel again, because to feel again means to be hurt again. But Mimi has been hurt too. She really does understand what he feels. She knows that she can live in that pain or she can give into love, and she knows the same is true for Roger.

Mimi the addict-philosopher urges Roger not to think about what might happen, who might get hurt, where it all might end, and instead just focusing on being with her here, now, for as long as they've got. They don't really have a choice, other than to retreat into themselves. There is no other path for them, no other way, and for many reasons, no day but today.

We've finished blocking Act I, and this material is even richer than we all thought. What a privilege it is to work on this beautiful piece of storytelling. The journey continues...

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

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