Sarah Schulman is a lesbian writer and social activist who noticed in 1996 that the musical Rent seemed to borrow characters and situations from her novel People in Trouble. In her 1998 book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, Schulman lists the similarities between the two works, describes the process of confronting Rent author Jonathan Larson's estate, and explains why she didn't sue for copyright infringement.
In mid-October, a month before the movie version of Rent opened, I spoke with Schulman about her objections to the musical at a diner on New York's 42nd Street.
Slate: Rent is partly based Puccini's La Bohème. Can you talk about what was taken from your novel?
Schulman: I [published] a novel in 1990 called People in Trouble, which was based on a love relationship I had with a married woman in the East Village during the advent of the AIDS crisis. The gay part of Rent is basically the plot of my novel, but with a slight shift. [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. But there are scenes in Rent, and events in Rent, that come right out of my actual life, via the novel.
Slate: What was most annoying about Larson's borrowing your characters and situations?
Schulman: At base, it's the issue of taking authentic material made by people who don't have rights, twisting it so they are secondary in their own life story, and thereby bringing it center stage in a mainstream piece that does not advocate for them. That's an insidious but very American process. It's gone on for many, many years, [for instance with] black music, and with all kinds of fashion. So, being part of that is annoying, as you put it.
Not making any money from it was also quite annoying, since Rent has earned an enormous amount, certainly enough for me to get an apartment with an elevator. But the larger issue has to do with the representation of AIDS, gay people, and urban gentrification. These three areas have been massively misrepresented in mainstream entertainment and media, and Rent is the epitome of that misrepresentation.
It's true not only with Rent, but with all the iconic works about AIDS. The political movement of AIDS activism—which is an integral, organic part of the history of the crisis—has been removed from most of the mainstream storytelling around AIDS. [In these pieces,] gay people are always alone and self-oppressed, and have no community, and are dependent on some kind of other—a benevolent straight person, a homophobic lawyer, or even, in some cases, a woman—to take care of them, because they're so self-hating that they cannot take care of themselves.
That's the official story. The real story of the AIDS crisis is the story of a group of despised people who had no rights, who came together, saved each other's lives, and changed the world. And that is not the story you find in any of these mainstream depictions.
Slate: Let me play devil's advocate. Isn't Rent progressive? It revolves around people with AIDS. It shows men kissing, women kissing …
Schulman: That's a retrograde point of view. In a time when people denied the existence of gays and lesbians, work that asserted that gays and lesbians existed with some minimum of human integrity could be coded as progressive. But since the AIDS crisis, most Americans personally know people who are openly gay. At this point, to simply represent or acknowledge that gay people exist is no longer inherently progressive, and to depict gay people as people who have no agency is retrogressive.
Slate: You've also claimed, in reference to three of the characters from Rent, that it's inaccurate to show an upper-middle-class Ivy-League-educated African-American lesbian "having no difference in perspective or reality" than a white heterosexual male or a Puerto Rican HIV-positive homeless gay man. Isn't it positive to show people from different communities and backgrounds working and playing together without barriers?
Schulman: One of the consequences of our advertising culture is that we market a false equality that is not reflected in the economic or legal reality for most people today. In this historic moment, the lack of legal equality for gays and lesbians, for example, is starker than it was 25 years ago. Then, to be anti-gay was to be normative in an environment of silence. Today it is a proactive choice that requires a lot more malice and cruelty. Yet those forces are not only powerful, they're dominant. Let's not forget that political systems reflect attitudes. To look at a moment in which gay people do not have rights and to say that attitudes have changed is a contradiction. The reason we don't have rights is because of attitudes.
Slate: In Stagestruck you mention that one of the journalists you spoke to warned you that if you kept pursuing your charge of plagiarism, you'd be blacklisted in the theater world. That was 10-15 years ago. … Has it happened?
In a country in which there's no lesbian play in the repertoire—which is the case—to tell me that I'm going to be blacklisted is not really much of a threat. Because the only way to overturn the status quo and allow this work be seen is to fight like hell. If you sit back, it's blacklist accompli.