When the rock musical RENT burst onto the stage in 1996, it instantly became a smash hit that had people returning over and over again.

Described as “the best show in years, if not decades” (Variety) when it opened, RENT follows a group of artists struggling and striving to follow their dreams in New York City against a backdrop of poverty, looming gentrification and the AIDS crisis of the 1990s.

At once raw, raucous and full of passion, RENT showcased communities born of friendship and authentic relationships, and diversity in many forms. For those who saw themselves on the RENT stage, including those in the queer community, this show broke boundaries. 


It had hit songs, deep emotions and humour, but what really helped RENT become such a musical phenomenon – it was credited with helping to reinvent the American musical genre – is that it reflected the time, place and people around it.

RENT put the people of the east Village, and others like them, on its stage and it shone a loving spotlight on people who weren’t normally front and centre in society. Its heroes were outsiders; artists refusing to toe the line of convention, members of the gay community, trans people, people of colour, people living with and dying from AIDS, and those who lived on the economic margins.

More than 25 years on, and having been postponed in 2020 due to Covid, RENT will take the stage at Christchurch’s Court Theatre this summer for two months.

Actors Bailey Dunnage (aka Aubrey Haive) and Cameron Clayton, and Shane Anthony, the Movement Director of the show, shared how RENT came into their consciousness and why it has made such an impact on audiences.

As a kid from small-town Timaru, RENT was one of the first musicals Dunnage (playing Angel Schunard) discovered. “I wasn’t out at the time but I was drawn to it as a queer kid. I think it helped me come to terms with my sexuality. It brought me to musical theatre and I’ve come full circle to be doing it here. I now also do drag as well now, so playing this character his extra special to me, it just makes sense.”

Clayton played Angel in an earlier production of RENT, even featuring in character on the cover of Gay Express in 2010! This time round, he plays Tom Collins, who becomes Angel’s partner in the show. Whilst playing in RENT in 2009/10, Cameron fell in love with the show. “When I did my research I found out how monumental it was as a musical. I just love the show, the music, the story, everything that happens. It is proof that life throws you hard things but you can get through it.”

Anthony says he became familiar with the ‘mythology’ around the whilst in Sydney. He lived in New York in 2013/14 and says the east village was indeed becoming gentrified – one of the main fears of the characters of RENT – yet it was still the hotspot of creativity of expression the show presented.

RENT really is a celebration, and it’s amazing how relevant it still is,” says Dunnage. “People in the 1990s were discovering diversity then; now the whole world can do that together as kids are so much more connected with social media.”

RENT also gave prominence to the ‘Aids crisis’ of the 1980s and 1990s, and to those who had fought so hard for visibility, help and support, and against stigma and discrimination. Anthony points out even public health campaigns at that time were counter-productive and led to a lot of violence against the gay community.

Whilst AIDS may no longer be a death sentence, the stigma associated with HIV, and even being gay, is still there today, says Clayton. “That hasn’t gone anywhere; it’s still within us as a community, but seeing the show is a great eye-opener to what and where we are today.”

Whilst RENT can stand as a mirror and a conversation starter, what has seen its popularity last and grow for over 25 years is its heart and its universality.

“The representation is amazing but the topics are so relatable to everyone” says Anthony. “It’s a celebration of people living with each other. It’s about survival and love and those things are universal.”

Celebrating love and friendships that are brave in the face of danger, loving when confronted by hate and hopeful against all odds, RENT is a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony award winner.

See it on stage at The Court Theatre (Christchurch) from 19 November – 21 January 2023.