Did a straight man rip off ‘RENT’ from a lesbian’s 1990 novel?

Rent, Sarah Schulman, Valentina, Jonathan Larson, People in Trouble
Drag performer Valentina playing Angel in the 2019 FOX broadcast of RENT.

Last night, Fox aired a not-so-very-live version of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 stage musical Rent, a show about poor young New York City artists being pushed out of the East Village by gentrification. FOX’s production got mixed reviews, but during the showing, a handful of queer women on Twitter claimed that Larson actually stole Rent‘s plot from People in Trouble, a 1990 novel about AIDS in New York written by lesbian author Sarah Schulman.

“Now wait a second,” you might be saying. “Isn’t Rent based on La Bohème, the 1895 opera composed by Italian Giacomo Puccini?”

And yes, that’s correct. But in her 1998 book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, Schulman explained the many ways that Rent seemed to “borrow” from her book.

Before we get to Schulman’s work, let’s briefly compare Rent to La Bohème.

Separated by nearly 100 years, Rent and La Bohème both cover artists struggling with city romance. In both works, a sweet “girl next door” named Mimi falls in love with her neighbor when she comes over asking him to literally light her candle. In both works, Mimi has a potentially fatal disease — in La Bohème it’s tuberculosis, in Rent it’s HIV — and her male lover falls in love with her despite it.

Both Rent/La Bohème feature similar characters: There’s Roger the songwriter/Rodolfo the poet; Mark the filmmaker/Marcello the painter; their ex-girlfriend Musetta/Maurine; the philosophers Collins/Colline; and Angel/Schaunard a happy-go-lucky musician who appears bearing gifts but later dies.

La Bohème has Mark and Maurine end up together, but that doesn’t happen in Rent. Rent also has Mimi survive, whereas La Bohème has her tragically succumbing to tuberculosis. So, yes, Rent was definitely inspired by La Bohème.

Pucinni, La Bohème
A scene from Pucinni’s La Bohème, performed during summer 2015 at the UK’s Royal Opera House.

But Schulman’s People in Trouble may have provided the inspiration for Schulman to modernize the story into the modern context of gentrification and HIV activism.

Though Schulman’s book was about a romantic relationship Schulman had with a married woman in the East Village during the ’90s HIV epidemic, The Chicago Tribune explains explains the similarities of both Rent and People in Trouble:

A self-involved East Village performance artist dumps her male lover for a lesbian social activist, leaving the guy in a funk, and creates a performance piece that targets an avaricious landlord and causes a riot. All around them, people are dying of AIDS and neglect. Their best buds, a gay male couple in which one of the guys is HIV positive, is eventually consumed by the disease. His death adds new meaning to the lives of the survivors, who are redeemed by love….

In both works, the male lover and the lesbian interloper meet by accident and end up liking each other and chatting about their common lover.

Both works also involve artists organizing and leading a fiery rebellion against the landlord threatening to evict them. They also both have a friend dying of HIV who inspires them to fight.

Related: Valentina on honoring the past of her role as the saintly Angel in “Rent”

In a 2005 interview, Schulman said, “[In Rent, Larson] has the same triangle between the married couple and the woman’s lover, but he made the straight man the protagonist, whereas in my version he was the secondary character.”

Schulman also claims that the revealing scene in which two characters realize they’re both HIV-positive because of a watch alarm reminding one of them to take medication was taken directly from her book.

Rent, Sarah Schulman, Valentina, Jonathan Larson, People in Trouble
Sarah Schulman

The Chicago Tribune says Michael Korie—an opera librettist who worked with Schulman on a stage treatment of People in Trouble—asked Larson if he’d ever read Schulman’s book after he described the plot to Korie:

“I asked Jonathan Larson, `Did you ever hear of People in Trouble?’ and he responded with surprise and said, `It’s funny you should mention that—I didn’t think too many people were familiar with it.’ He said it had influenced his ideas on his own show. I don’t remember the exact words. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it.”

Schulman said she had hoped to turn People in Trouble into a stage production, but she had no luck because theatre producers weren’t receptive to her as a lesbian author with a markedly queer work. However, the Tribune also drops this telling detail:

Schulman didn’t hear about Larson or Rent until 1996, when she went to review the show as a critic for The New York Press, a cultural newsweekly. But, amazingly, Schulman didn’t see the similarities with her own work until it was pointed out to her by a friend.

Another account of Schulman’s Stagestruck says, “the author debunks a lot of the popular mythology surrounding Larson: that he was gay, that he died of an AIDS-related illness, that he lived in the East Village in the ‘80s when Rent is set.”

Schulman never filed a plagiarism lawsuit against Larson, but the question of Rent’s true author apparently rages on.