When it first opened in New York in 1996, it caused quite a stir, addressing subject matter far from the usual Broadway fare: addiction, racism, police brutality, homophobia.
Now, almost 25 years later, “Rent” is touring the country with themes that still resonate. The 20th-anniversary tour of the rock musical will come to the Schuster Center Jan. 21 through Jan. 26 as part of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Premiere Health Broadway Series.
“That isn’t our music uptown on Broadway; those aren’t our characters … our stories,” said Jonathan Larson, the little- known playwright who gave voice to those who didn’t have a voice onstage at the time. Revolutionary in its day, “Rent” is credited with attracting new and diverse audiences, especially young people. It’s often compared to “Hair” and “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”
After a world premiere off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop, “Rent” transferred to Broadway, winning both the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It also earned three more Tony awards, six Drama Desk awards and two Theatre World awards.
The story follows a year in the lives of seven idealistic artists who come to New York’s East Village in the 1990s and struggle to follow their dreams without selling out. If the story sounds familiar to opera fans, it’s because it’s a re-imagining of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” staged by the Dayton Opera in November.
“The amazing genius who composed this brilliant musical died the night before the off-Broadway opening night of the show he had been working on for the last seven years of his life,” wrote one “Rent” fan on YouTube. “It was 25th January 1996 and I wasn’t even born, but ‘Rent’ has touched and changed my life in a way that I couldn’t imagine it was possible. It taught me to live every day to the fullest and to measure my life with the only unit of measure that means something: love. For these, and for other 525,600 reasons I can say: thank you, Jonathan Larson!”
The number “525,600” is a reference to lyrics in the show’s iconic song, “Seasons of Love” which remains a successful pop song.
One of the Dayton performances of “Rent” will take place on the anniversary of Larson’s death, Jan. 25.
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Members of the Broadway show’s original creative team were enlisted to stage the current tour, including choreographer Marlies Yearby, costume designer Angela Wendt and music supervisor Tim Weil. Directing the musical is Evan Ensign, who has been involved with “Rent” for decades — both on Broadway and for national and international tours.
From the first time he saw the show with the original Broadway cast 20 years ago, Ensign loved it. “Fluffy musicals are great, I enjoy working on them, but ‘Rent’ speaks to something more in the soul,” he says. “It’s a play about love, a play about finding family. I really loved that it was talking to — and about — young people, talking in positive ways about people who don’t get talked about very often — people who are struggling, people trying to find themselves. It was also a time when people certainly weren’t talking about AIDS in a musical.”
Ensign says in the time frame of the musical the only thing keeping AIDS patients alive was AZT, the drug being used to delay development of the disease. “There was no cure and you just hoped the medication would give you six more months,” Ensign recalls. “We were still in the midst of losing people, but Jonathan talked about them in a positive way; he talked about people ‘living with’ and not ‘dying from’ disease.”
He says the adaptation differs from the classic opera because the opera is a tragedy. “Jonathan had a lot of hope and a lot of belief in love,” he explains. “The show may have different kinds of relevance today but its themes are still universal — how we fit into the world, how we find love.”
Just as cell phones were new at the time the play takes place, Ensign says we can still relate to the ways in which technology — like social media — can interrupt life and change relationships. “Sometimes they make it better, sometimes worse.”
Ensign says today’s young people often seem to feel the show was written for them. “I did a talk-back in Orlando and one woman said she was a ‘Rent-head’ who had brought her 16-year-old daughter to see the show. The woman said her daughter was moved by completely different things than she was. And she, herself, was moved by different things than when she was 16.”
Meet Kelsee Sweigard
Because the show centers on a group of young people, many in the current cast were not alive when the musical premiered on Broadway.
Kelsee Sweigard, who comes to Dayton in the role of Maureen, was 2 years old when the show first opened. She believes the musical is significant because it gave representation to many people who had not seen themselves on stage before.
“My character is a politically driven performance artist; her big number is a protest about the gentrification in housing,” says the actor, who today lives in New York’s East Village where the story takes place.
“The main character in the show is the narrator, Mark, who has had a serious relationship with Maureen,” Sweigard explains. “My character has left Mark for a woman. She’s in a same-sex relationship with a woman who is very strict and orderly by the book. Maureen, in contrast, is a fly-by-the-seat-of-her pants kind of wild child.”
When the tour was in Vancouver, Sweigard had a chance to meet Jesse L. Martin, who played Tom Collins in the original production. “He hosted us at a house party, and came to see the show,” she says. “It was awesome; he was so warm and loving. We call it a big ‘Rent’ family because of how revolutionary the show was and the fact that we have same creative team. Everyone cares about it a whole lot.”
Sweigard’s favorite song in the play? “No Day But Today.”
“The lyrics are sung multiple times throughout the show and they say nothing is guaranteed for any of us,” Sweigard explains. “It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young, sick or healthy. Anything can happen to anyone at any time. It’s about living and loving for today using the resources and the loved ones we have around us. And that’s very contemporary.”
Sweigard hopes audience members will come to the theater with open minds. “The show talks about some difficult subject matter but it’s important to remember it’s a show about love,” she says. ” We hope to invite all audience members into that world of love and acceptance.”