The first act of Rent is set on Christmas Eve in the year 1989. In Manhattan, a filmmaker named Mark and his rock musician friend Roger shiver in cold inside their apartment. Their friend is on his way to their apartment when he gets mugged. Meanwhile, the landlord cuts off Mark and Roger’s electricity because they haven’t paid their rent yet. Collins is helped by a cross-dressing drummer named Angel. The two immediately become comfortable with each other upon learning that they are both HIV positive. While Mark goes out to look for Collins, a neighbor named Mimi and who makes a living as an exotic dancer crashes the apartment and meets Roger, who turns to be also HIV positive.
Collins arrive with Angel in the apartment. Benny, the landlord, also comes in complaining about Mark’s lawyer girlfriend who’s trying to prevent him from evicting the homeless people staying in a lot where he intends to build a studio. Benny tries to strike a deal with Mark and Roger asking Mark to persuade his girlfriend in canceling the protest she’s planning. However, the two men refuse. Mark then proceeds to fixing the sound equipment that will be used during the protest. After encountering his old girlfriend, Mark supports his friends in making a film about HIV. Roger is left alone in the apartment where Mimi tries to seduce him but to no avail.
Before the protest, Collins and Angels reveal that they love each other while Roger tries to make it up to Mimi by inviting her to the protest. As all kinds of people flock together to the protest, Maureen comes in and commences the show prepared for her by Joanne. Benny on the other hand, highly criticizes the protest and the people who attended it. Mimi and Roger also discover that they both have HIV and this give them courage to be together. Afterwards, Joann comes in to tell Mark and Roger that their apartment building has been locked down and a riot has just begun.
During act two, Mark receives a job offer at a tabloid newspaper because of his coverage of the riot. The rest of his friends try to break into their apartment but Benny arrives. Benny tries to get back with his former girlfriend, Mimi. Even though Mimi refuses, this enrages Roger causing her to seek her dealer for some drugs.
Afterwards, Roger and Mimi start living together while Maureen and Joanne plan another protest. However, conflict arises because the two women can’t stand each other’s behavior. Roger and Mimi’s relationship becomes worse as Roger constantly gets jealous of Benny and Mimi continues taking drugs. Angel’s health also starts to decline and Collins takes care of him. It is not long before Roger and Mimi break up and Angel dies from AIDS. During his funeral, the group meet with each other and remember the good times that they had in the past. Mark decides to accept a job offered to him when he realizes that he will be all alone after all of his friends die because of AIDS. After quite a while, the group start arguing among themselves again. Collins arrives and tells his friends to behave properly since it is Angel’s funeral. When Collins is kicked out of the church because he can’t afford Angel’s funeral, Benny foots the bill.
After some months, both Mark and Roger decide to pursue their passions in film making and writing songs. Benny is kicked out by his wife and Collins manages to extort money from a reprogrammed ATM. Maureen and Joanne appear with the now sick and dying Mimi. They all think that Mimi is about to die but she revives and claims that Angel told her that she must live.