I should warn you that as a rule, I really hate musicals, so you can't expect an impartial review. From all the hype and immense popularity, though, I was expecting to particularly dislike Rent and it lived up to my expectations.
Rent aspires to be an updated version of the Puccini opera La Bohéme, even going so far as to use character names and repeat part of Musetta's Waltz as a running theme. AIDS replaces tuberculosis as the disease of note, but Rent adds an idiotic "surprise ending" which mirrors the deathbed scene at the end of the opera only to have the character inexplicably wake up and recover.
Perhaps if the characters had any real compassion, they would try to get homes for these people instead of fighting to let them remain homeless.
The "modernization" of the opera (which could have easily been performed with the "search and replace" function of any word processor) is quite obviously geared to appeal to "slackers," with trendy themes of homelessness, AIDS, lesbianism, cyber-arts, and heroin addiction, as well as repeated references to Doc Martens. The modern version of the story revolves around two guys who live in an industrial loft owned by a former roommate named Benny. Benny wants to build a "cyber-studio" (whatever that is) on the lot next door which is currently occupied by homeless people, and this is the compelling conflict which drives the whole plot. It's really quite silly if you think about it--why is it so bad if homeless people have to move to another vacant lot? Perhaps if the characters had any real compassion, they would try to get homes for these people instead of fighting to let them remain homeless.
One of the few interesting parts of the play was a minor sub-plot involving an underplayed relationship between a man and a drag queen named Angel. Angel dies of AIDS, and that scene was really quite touching.
Aside from three other characters (that we know of) with AIDS, several of the characters are addicted to drugs or are former addicts, which leads to plenty of silly songs about relationships, heroin and death. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against these themes, but these songs are just silly. Of course, this is the problem I have with all musicals--it's hard to take these people seriously when they dance around and sing every five minutes. In addition, many of these songs seemed to be directly inspired by the Andrew Lloyd Weber songbook.
The basic problem with Rent is that the whole play seems completely and utterly derivative, with very, very few original ideas. Hip buzz words and trendiness abound in this land of recycled concepts. Sadly, that's all a play or movie needs to be popular these days, so I'm sure we're going to see much, much more of it in the future.