The concept of the American Dream in "Rent" - or - American Youngsters in the 1990's

Pre-University Paper, 2004

14 Pages, Grade: 1+

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I. Introduction
a. The Concept of the American Dream
b. Summary of the Musical Rent

II. Main Part
a. "One Blaze of Glory" – Endeavoring Success and the Striving for Attention
b. "Living with and not Dying from Desease" – Coping with AIDS and still Enjoying Life
c. "Anything Taboo" – Being Open for Alternative Lifestyles
d. "I Used to be a Junkie" – Seeking Happiness through Drugs
e. "Hating Dear Old Mom and Dad" – Trying to Find Oneself outside the Norm
f. "What Happened to the Ideals he once Pursued" – Dream versus Reality

III. Conclusion
a. "It's what We Used to Dream about"

IV. Works cited


The concept of the American Dream is a concept constantly changing. Through this research paper I am trying to find out how the American Dream is defined by young people in the 1990s. The musical Rent (1997, Jonathan Larson) serves as a base for this paper. Through its characters it is to be determined how youngsters living a life full of disaster strive for their dreams.

In the introduction part I am first going to take a closer look at the concept of the American Dream. It is warrantable to equalize the American Dream with the pursuit of happiness for eventually it is all about seeking a way to becoming happy. In the second part of my introduction I am going to summarize the story of the musical Rent which is necessary in order to understand the following implementation.

In the main part I will talk about different aspects of the American Dream and the pursuit of happiness as they can be seen in the different story lines of the musical. Eventually all those story lines lead to the American Dream for all the characters strive for happiness in America today.

Finally the conclusion part of this paper is going to bring all aspects of the concept of the American Dream in the musical Rent together.

All used quotes are going to be briefly cited as footnotes at the bottom of each page and are going to be completely cited in the Works Cited part of this paper.


a. The Concept of the American Dream

The American Dream has always been about happiness and satisfaction. When the Pilgrims settled on the east coast all they needed to fulfill their dream was a piece of land, enough food and a life in peace and prosperity.

Nowadays the perception of the American Dream underlies radical changes depending on one's age, social status, race and especially one's perspective on life. However, the goal always remains the same: happiness, though the methods toward it's fulfillment could not be any more different.

Asking an English teacher at a public high school in California what she thinks the American Dream today would have to be defined as she answered:

Everyone has different theories for why the concept of the American dream changes and how. Despite the fact that intellectuals have repeatedly questioned the validity of the concept(The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman, An American Tune) the concept persists to this day. It just boggles the mind. If you ask a class of American students (as I do every year) they will tell you the American dream is to be rich with a family, nice house, nice car, great job. It is a horrifically materialistic value. Oddly, all the kids will acknowledge that materialism is "bad", but they do not recognize the voluptious materialism and consumerism of their "dream".[1]

Considering this statement it would be a realistic conclusion that people living inside the main stream follow a very materialistic American Dream. However, David G. Myers, psychologist and teacher at Michigan's hope college says that "when we have basic human rights, secure food and shelter, meaningful activity, and enriching relationships, our happiness is unaffected by whether we drive a BMW or […] walk or ride a bus."[2] Therefore, no matter how materialistic people's own definitions of the American Dream and the dream of happiness are, the only way to fulfill them is to live a meaningful and enriched life.

In the words of the Native American author Vine Deloria „The American Dream is in the past, understanding who you are instead of looking in the future"[3]. This is the way the American Dream has to be seen in today. It is all about finding out who you are and what makes you happy. The American Dream is about what one can make out of one's life and how to deal with the challenges one has to take on in one's lifetime. In an age "where strangers, landlords, lovers, / your own blood cells betray"[4] it is all about the struggle to survive and to live a content and happy life in a time of constant changes.

b. Summary of the Musical Rent

Jonathan Larson's musical Rent is about living life to the fullest and not dwelling in the past or counting on the future. Larson himself said about the musical:

Rent is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century.[5]

It is about artists searching for great ideas and about a couple not being able to get together because they both suffer from AIDS and cannot stand looking at each others ruin. Rent is about "young people who follow a dream of art in a cold time for spirit and body."[6]

The musical begins on Christmas Eve in an old warehouse, the home of the two main characters Mark and Roger. Mark, the storyteller, is a filmmaker just starting a new project: documenting the lives of his friends. His roommate Roger, who is "just coming back from half a year of withdrawal"[7], is a young musician trying to write one great song before he dies of AIDS.

During this first scenario their former roommate Benny (now married to a rich lady from Westport), who bought the warehouse, stops by to tell them that, against their agreement, they would have to pay last year's rent instantly unless they could convince Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen to cancel her protest against Benny and his plans to tear off the warehouse and build a cyber-arts-studio.

Whilst those last hours before the protest the audience gets to know the main characters and their problems. Mark has to help Maureen's girlfriend Joanne with setting up her equipment and they get to talk about Maureen's many faults. Tom Collins, another former roommate of Mark and Roger and a teacher at NYU, is robbed on the streets and coherently meets Angel, a transvestite who gives Collins a new coat and a Band-Aid for his knee. This is the beginning of a very happy and content relationship. Together with Mark they go to a "Life Support" meeting where various people suffering from AIDS try to cope with life.

Later, down in the lot, all the characters watch Maureen perform her "Over the moon"[8] protest, which is the trigger for the following riot which Mark catches on film. Later they party down at the "Life Café" where they bump into Benny who proclaims that his "Bohemian life"[9] is over.

The second Act beings on New Year's Eve right after Benny locked the friends out of the warehouse and they try to break back in. During the following year Mark gets to sign a contract with a broadcasting company, Maureen and Joanne break up due to their different personalities, Angel dies of AIDS, and Roger and Mimi break up because Roger cannot deal with his girlfriend getting weaker and weaker, therefore he leaves New York for Santa Fe.

Around Christmas time they all get back together and tell about their year. Roger found his "one song", Maureen and Joanne got back together and Collins helps needing people through rewiring "the ATM at the Food Emporium / To provide an honorarium to anyone with a code"[10]. On Christmas Eve Joanne finds Mimi who has been living in the streets and is close to death. At the last minute things turn around, Mimi survives and the characters realize that they have to "forget regret or life is [theirs] to miss"[11] and it is the moment that counts for they cannot control their destiny.

II.main Part

a „One Blaze of Glory" - Endeavoring Success and the Striving for


In Rent the characters Mark and Roger try to reach happiness through the success as an artist. Especially Roger tries to fulfill his American Dream of success through writing one great song before he dies in order to have the satisfaction of having reached at least one goal in his life. He wants to be remembered although or maybe because he knows that his life is going to be short. In the song „One Song Glory"[12] Roger sings about his wish of becoming famous through this one song. He feels like he „wasted opportunity"[13] and „before the sun sets [...] on another empty life"[14] he wants to give a meaning to his life.

As you can see the one dream deeply routed in the American Dream, the dream of success as a way of reaching social recognition, is nothing but the striving for attention, the try to make sense to one's life and give it some meaning. The characters in Rent live lives full of desaster, desease and the struggle for survival. Looking for the „one blaze of glory"[15] is Roger's and Mark's way of dealing with the difficulties in their lives and forgetting the reality for just a short moment.

While Roger tries to write one great song because he is running out of time, Mark has other reasons for being an artist.

Roger: But who, Mark, are you?

'Mark has got his work'

They say 'Mark lives for his work'

And 'Mark's in love with his work'

Mark hides in his work [...]

From facing your failure, facing your loneliness

[...]you pretend to create and observe

when you really detach from feeling alive[16]

Mark is the only one of his close friends who does not suffer from AIDS and he knows that he is going to be the one to survive. In the end he will be alone and because Mark knows that he is trying to detach from them in a way that he sees himself only as a witness but not really as a part of their lives. The audience hardly ever gets to see Mark without a camera and he sees his friends through the lense of it most of the time.

Mark tries to create art while hiding in his own world. He does not see that he is trying to get attention because he is the only "normal" person in his group of friends and feels overseen most of the time. He does not actually have a chance to talk about his problems because they seem to be so small compared to what his friends have to go through.

II.b "Living with and not Dying from Desease" – Coping with AIDS and still Enjoying Life

An epidemic which grew dramatically during the 1990s is the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrom - AIDS. Especially homosexuals and drug abusers are likely to catch the deadly desease.[17] Various characters of the musical Rent suffer from it. The transvestite Angel has got AIDS as well as his boyfriend Collins, Roger and his affair Mimi. Each of them has a different way of coping with the illness. Angel and Collins try to live "no day but today"[18]. To them the only thing that counts is enjoying life as it is. Meeting with a group of people called "Life Support"[19] they learn that not medical documents but the feeling and the attitude toward life can decide over life and death.[20]

Roger is well aware of the fact that his life is going to end any time soon, too and he tries with all his might to write one last song to set himself a memorial. He tries to make peace with himself through fulfilling all his dreams in the short time which he still has.

Mimi's view of life seems to be a mixture of Angel's and Roger's point of view. She wants to enjoy life and live "no day but today"[21] but at the same time she knows that she is running out of time and she wants to experience as much as possible. She does not see a point in working hard for something she will never be able to enjoy, e.g. she does not think that finishing school would be able to bring her any further for she will not live long enough to go to college or work in a higher qualified job.

Mark, who does not suffer from AIDS himself, has to cope with the desease, too, since most of his friends do. He knows that he is "the one to survive"[22]. In the end he is going to be alone and all his loved ones are going to be dead. Living with this knowledge and still hanging around with these people is enormously hard to do. For him the only way to live with this burden is to not connect with his friends too emotionely and more or less be a witness rather than a victim.[23]

Eventually, at the end of the second Act the characters lean toward Angel's and Collins' point of view and they agree that the best way to deal with the burden in one's life is to "forget regret - or life is yours to miss"[24]. It is not possible to change the past or to dictate the future so the only possibility to survive and live a happy life is to enjoy the day. This brings us back to the American Dream since this attitude towards life presents an opportunity for reaching happiness.

II.c "Anything Taboo" – Being Open for Alternative Lifestyles

One of the definitions of the American Dream is self-fulfillment, being one with one's true personality. For some people this means that they have to fight against a lot of prejudices. Although almost everybody would agree that the right to self-fulfillment is a right deeply rooted in the human and civil rights those same people might also agree that homosexuality is unethical and that some biases against other races might have a true core.

In Rent the openmindedness of it's characters is one of the great examples of the 1990's generations. The drug abuse and the number of AIDS patients might have risen a lot during that time but the openmindedness toward alternative lifestyles like homosexuality or transvestivity or just toward people of different races has risen, too. It might be just a phenomenon of every new generation at the edge between being a child and an adult that they think of themselves as being just a lot more liberal and openminded than their parents' generation but it shows very much in this musical that people can relate even though they might have not a lot in common.

In Rent a lot of people belong to a social minority but that never even is an issue in the story. Nobody ever talks about Angel being a transvestite or Maureen being gay or Collins being black. People are only judged by their characters,.The fact that Benny is very much disliked by the others does not have anything to do with him being black, in fact in some productions he was even played by a white male, but it is rather because of his radical actions against friends. Eventually, when he changes during the second act the other characters are even open to him again, right away.

II.d "I Used to be a Junkie" – Seeking Happiness through Drugs

A rather different way of pursuing happiness and the fulfillment of the American Dream is the usage of illegal substances. Various characters of the show are seeking happiness in drugs. To them this seems to be the least complicated way of living one's life without having to face any problems and conflicts.

At the beginning the audience learns that Roger "is just coming back from half a year of withdrawal"[25]. He used to inject himself heroine which is also the most plausible cause for him having caught the deadly HIV virus. Just before he went into a rehabilitation center "his girlfriend April left a note saying "we've got AIDS", before slitting her wrists in the bathroom."[26]. During this first scene the musical already sets a clear statement against drugs, especially heroine, as a transmitter of the HIV virus and just as a illegal substance which is eventually going to destroy the lives of all people who abuse it.

Later Roger meets Mimi and even their first duett is all about Mimi needing Roger to light her candle so that she can heat her "stash"[27]. Although she tries to hide her addiction from Roger he knows what her "shivering" and "sweat"[28] really say about her physical state of health. After a while she admitts that "now and then I like to feel good"[29], saying out loud what most people think. Though the ways of achieving this good feeling everyone needs once in a while are completely different, Mimi's might not seem too out-of-the-way once you take into account that this 19-year-old girl never finished high school, she ran away from her poor family and now lives in New York on the streets and earns her money as a sado-maso dancer at a stripclub. This teenager has to face so many difficulties that it might even be understandable that she wants to "feel good"[30]. She never learned that there are other ways of becoming and staying happy. All she does is struggling for survival with methods most other youngsters do not even know about.

Eventually Mimi realizes that she needs to do something about her addiction or otherwise her life will be even shorter than it is already going to be due to AIDS. She allows Tom Collins to bring her to a rehabilitation center for which he is willing to pay. Although the audience never learns whether Mimi is still an addict at the end of the musical it has to be assumed so because she disappears for almost a year and when Joanne finds her she is close to death.

Although it is unclear whether Mimi started to use drugs before or after she got infected with HIV it is quite possible that the drugs came first which underlines the intention of the musical; Mimi used drugs because she wanted to get rid of her problems and instead she ended up with even more problems which are eventually going to kill her.

Therefore drugs are the worst method to fulfill a dream or the striving for happiness.

II.e. "Hating Dear Old Mom and Dad" - Trying to Find Oneself Outside the Norm

Every new generation tries to distance itself from the parents and their way of living. So do the characters in Rent. By denying their elders and the lifestyle of those they try to find themselves. Mark gets a lot of phone calls from his mother but he never calls her back. She sends him a christmas present but he does not thank her. Neither Joanne nor Mark ever talk to their parents in person, they only listen to them on their answering machines or talk to them on the phone.

The various parents have different impacts on the lives of their children. Mark's mother is very concerned about her son and she takes on the role of the caring, happy parent. She tells him that they miss and love him, "I just called to say I love you and we'll miss you tomorrow"[31].

Although she seems like quite a nice person it becomes clear that she does not actually care about her son's life. Apparently she heard about Maureen splitting up with him because of Joanne but she does not really feel sorry for him. All she has to say is: "we're sorry to hear that Maureen dumped you / I say C'est la vie / There are other fishies in the sea / Love mom"[32]. This statement shows one reason why children cannot get along with their parents and try to find themselves outside everything that is accepted by their parents. Mark's mom obviously does care about her son but she is not able to communicate with Mark because topics like homosexuality do not have a place in her world. When listening to the soundtrack of the show it gets even clearer that she is a very loving but also very simple woman, because her usage of language and her slang show her very simple lifestyle.

Joanne, a lawyer from a "socially prominent family"[33], gets a call from her parents who tell her that her "mother's confirmation hearing"[34] is soon and that Joanne is expected to be there, without Maureen. During this phone call it gets clear that they wanted another life for her daughter. Even though she is a lawyer, which obviously correlates her parents' wishes, she is too rebellious for them in some ways. Joanne is a very feminist woman who does not like to follow orders: "and no doc martens this time. and honey wear a dress [...] and a bra"[35], her father has to dun her. She is a lesbian, which goes against her parents' approach, and she rather helps her friends than "those unwed mothers in Harlem"[36] although she works at Legal Aid.

All in all the characters in Rent, especially Mark and Joanne try hard not to become like their parents and orientate their dreams, although this might happen subconscious, at the total opposite of what their parents' expectations are.

II.f. "What Happened to the Ideals he once Pursued" - Dream versus Reality

At the beginning of the musical especially Mark behaves naive and holds the childish hope that eventually everything will be fine. His ideals are very much against materialism and convention. He wants to be an artist because he wants to be able to express himself through his work. Mark does not try to make money out of it because the way he understands it art should be made for the sake of art. However, toward the end of the play he realizes that he does need to make money with his art if he still wants to pursue his dream of being an artist. All the way through the second act Alexi Darling tries to convince Mark to sign a contract with her broadcasting company because of the footage he shot of the riot after Maureen's protest. She might even know about Mark's inhibitions because in one phone call she says "Mark, sell us your soul / Just kidding!"[37], which expresses his concerns about making money with art very well. He does not want to be told what to do. Eventually he does sign the contract and it ends up to be a good decision since this brings in some money.

Joanne represents the opposite position of Mark. Although she does fight for her opinions she knows very well how important a secure middle path between giving up one's ideals and daydreaming is. She works as a lawyer at Legal Aid and pursues her goal of helping other people.

Benny, who used to be Mark's, Collins' and Roger's a roommate, gave up his ideals of making art and living a Bohemian life. He decided to marry Allisson, a rich girl from westport, and live a life full of wealth but without his friends. They cannot understand his decision although or maybe because he still wants to make art with them in the cyber-arts-studio he plans to build after tearing down the old warehouse. His ideals changed and wealth became a very important part of his life. His view on life got very realistic and materialistic. He knows how mighty money can be and how to use it to his advantage. However, he does not get through with his lifestyle either. Before the musical begins he has had an affair with Mimi and never told his wife Allison. During the second act somebody tells her about it and she breaks up with her husband. Eventually Benny ends up in exactly the position he was in before he got married to Allison which just shows that whatever you do for the wrong reason will not pay off.

This aspect of the musical shows that whichever American Dream one pursues is not going to become reality just the way one wants it to. Everybody has to make compromises and has to try to find a middle path where effectivity and one's own happiness can go hand in hand.

III.a It's what We Used to Dream about

The musical Rent shows various aspects of the modern American Dream. Although its characters could hardly be any more different they are all united by their "struggle for their art"[38] and "a willingness to fight for love"[39]. They are all striving for happiness. Jonathan Larson tried to create characters which are easy to relate to, he did not want an abstract musical but more of a mirror held in front of the modern day society. He knew that "real people don't deal with polemics, they deal with feeding themselves and falling in love. They deal with surviving and trying to do the best that they can."[40] That is exactly what the characters of his story do. They try to do the best they can to become happy and live a content life. They do not strive for the impossible or amazingly high goals, they just want to cash in the check they got when the declaration of independence guaranteed them the right to personal happiness.

In Rent the American Dream respectively the pursuit of happiness is defined as something deeply human. Everybody is always struggling for a bit of the American Dream. However, the true message of the musical is that life is not worth being wasted to the hope for a better life. One is supposed to "live no day but today"[41] in order to be happy and not make any plans. All the characters of the show try to become happy through forcing themselves to do something. Mark and Roger try to become famous, without any success. Mimi seeks her happiness in drugs with the result of getting infected with the deadly HIV virus. Maureen keeps on cheating on her momentary girlfriend/boyfriend to get herself confirmed. The only truely happy person in the show is Angel who just lives for the day. He is a bohemian through and through just like the others but he actually lives his ideals. He earns his money through helping other people and playing the drums on the streets and he just lives to do whatever pleases him in this particular moment. He knows that his life is going to be short due to AIDS but he accepts his destiny.

After researching the questioning of this research paper in depth it is warrantable to say that the musical Rent fills the concept of the American Dream[42] with life. The American Dream is the dream of living a happy and content life and Rent offers options of how to do so. Eventually it is all about "Living no day but today"[43] and accepting one's fate.

IV. Works Cited

American Heritage Dictionary 15 March 2004

Fight AIDS at home. 16 March 2004

Freese, Peter, ed. Viewfinder Topics: The American Dream – Humankind's Second

Chance? München: Langenscheidt-Longman GmbH, 1996

Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Hanbook for Writers of Research Papers. 1977. New York:

The Modern Language Association, 2002

Hogan, Jennifer. Letter to the author. 4 February 2004.

Kiel, Kate, ed. Rent by Jonathan Larson. New York: Rob Weisbach Books, 1997

Kroll, Jack. Love among the Ruins. Newsweek 13 May 1996.

14 March 2004.

Lipsky, David, ed. The Creation of Rent. Brodock Press

Myers, David G. The Pursuit of Happiness. 1992. Quill, 2002


[1] Jennifer Hogan, letter to the author, 4 February 2004

[2] David G. Myers, The pursuit of happiness 38

[3] Peter Freese, ed., Viewfinder – The American Dream, Humankind's Second Chance? 6

[4] Kate Giel, Rent by Jonathan Larson 73

[5] David Lipsky, The Creation of Rent

[6] Jack Kroll, Love Among the Ruins

[7] Giel, Rent by Jonathan Larson 66

[8] Giel, Rent by Jonathan Larson 96

[9] ibid. 98

[10] ibid. 121

[11] ibid. 124

[12] ibid. 76

[13] ibid. 76

[14] ibid. 76

[15] Giel, Rent by Jonathan Larson 76

[16] ibid. 117

[17] c.f. fight AIDS @ home -

[18] Giel, Rent by Jonathan Larson 84

[19] ibid. 84

[20] c.f. ibid. 84

[21] ibid. 84

[22] ibid. 117

[23] c.f. Chapter II.a.

[24] ibid. 84

[25] Giel, Rent by Jonathan Larson 66

[26] ibid. 75

[27] ibid. 79

[28] ibid. 79

[29] ibid. 79

[30] ibid. 79

[31] Giel, Rent by Jonathan Larson 66

[32] ibid. 66

[33] Giel, Rent by Jonathan Larson 25

[34] ibid. 80

[35] ibid. 80

[36] ibid. 80

[37] ibid. 111

[38] Giel, Rent by Jonathan Larson 25

[39] ibid. 25

[40] ibid. 31

[41] ibid. 84

[42] c.f. Chapter I.a.

[43] Giel, Rent by Jonathan Larson 84

14 of 14 pages


The concept of the American Dream in "Rent" - or - American Youngsters in the 1990's
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Marianne Schürheck (Author), 2004, The concept of the American Dream in "Rent" - or - American Youngsters in the 1990's, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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