What It's Like To See 'Rent' Again 20 Years Later, 20 Years Older
by Jay Barmann
Originally published on SFist
It was a hot August Saturday in 1996 when two college friends and I camped out on West 41st Street to score $20 rush tickets to see Rent, the original Broadway cast still intact just four months after sweeping the Tony Awards and creating a national sensation the likes of which would not be repeated until the arrival of Hamilton in 2015. We ended up with standing room spots but we didn't care, and the show mostly lived up to my expectations and brought us to tears, though I'm pretty sure that even then I thought it was a little heavy handed with the AIDS stuff. (It would be another eight years before Matt Stone and Trey Parker would get to debut their spoof number from Lease the musical in Team America, "Everyone Has AIDS.") Now that it's been touring the country in a 20th anniversary production, this makes me feel old, but seeing it last night at SHN's Golden Gate Theater a few things struck me about the show and how well it's aged. Also, it struck me just how giddy and enthusiastic the audience was, filled as it clearly was with hundreds of die-hard fans who know the soundtrack backwards and forwards, likely via a younger moment in their own lives, and they cheered at the mere opening notes of more than a half dozen of its songs.
For whatever reason I never have seen the Rent movie all the way through, but I've caught clips of it in bars over the years, thinking to myself that Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp and the gang really didn't pass for twentysomethings anymore which made it kind of odd. The touring cast is, of course, appropriately aged like the original cast was, and they were just toddlers back when composer and creator Jonathan Larson conceived of his ode to the East Village in the early '90s, as seen through the lens of Puccini and the AIDS crisis, as relentless waves of gentrification loomed but you still found needles in the gutters along Avenue B.
The show holds up despite some anachronisms, and despite the discomfort of having a majority of characters on stage who are HIV-positive and facing imminent death, largely because of Larson's beautiful score, filled with hymn-like ensemble harmonies, genius poetry, and an astonishing variety of styles. I do remember from seeing the original that, as with Hamilton, it felt as though I was witnessing a new model for others to work from, the first time since Hair that rock, R&B and dance music was being used with such great fluidity on a Broadway stage.
The fugue-like song "Will I?", sung by most of the cast and centered on attendees at an HIV support group, remains as haunting and moving as when I first heard it, as does the anthemic "Seasons of Love." The cast of the current tour is also anchored by several incredibly talented singers, most notably Jasmine Easler as Joanne, Kaleb Wells as Roger, Katie Lamark as Maureen, Aaron Harrington as Tom Collins, and swing vocalist Alexis Louise Young.
The staging by director Evan Ensign is lively and inventive with some great, high-energy choreography by Marlies Yearby — and probably a more deft group of dancers in the touring cast than the show has ever had. And the set design by Paul Clay includes a pretty web of string lights mounted amongst what looks like recycled trash.
Little items like the frequent use of payphones and answering machines, and use of the term "cyber studio," give away the age of the piece, not to mention the major fact that the show was written at a time when AIDS was still a certain death sentence, and it hit Broadway just about a year before the wide use of the drug "cocktails" that turned a fatal virus into a chronic but manageable condition — AZT was the only treatment at the time, and was not entirely effective. You can hear in much of the show Larson's dire call for attention to the crisis, going so far as to afflict four main characters and multiple supporting ones with the virus, as well as highlighting the problem of heroin abuse among the young bohemians he presumably had in his social circle at the time.
Still, these anachronisms don't diminish the power of the show given the universality of its themes — idealistic youth, love, change, the fight to combat gentrification and respect the poor, and the struggle to make one's life matter in a limited amount of time. The same can't really be said of another recent revival from the late '90s, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which now seems like a confused early stab at trans acceptance that still kind of makes a joke out of it. (I did note that there's some weirdness in Act 2 of Rent around how to gender the character Angel, who's referred to as a "cross-dresser" at one point, a "drag queen" at another, and alternately as both "he" and "she".)
All told I was surprised at how much I loved hearing these songs again and seeing this show, and surprised at the fact that it could still feel as fresh as it does, even if some of its main plot points (or a quick reference to Newt Gingrich's lesbian sister) don't hold as much power as they once did. It bears remembering that there was a time when people still squatted in warehouses in Manhattan, ate meatless balls at the Life Cafe, and watched friend after friend disappear at a very young age. Larson himself is entirely entwined in this show's history and its resonance, having tragically and shockingly died of an aortic dissection, at the age of 35 the night before the show had its off-Broadway premiere, four months before it would move to Broadway and create national news. As Anthony Rapp said in an interview with Playbill marking the show's anniversary last year, "The thing I always remember feeling [when the show took off] is that everything felt so appropriate. It felt earned. It felt right because yes, this story — all of this needs to be talked about... because something really important and vital and incredible is happening, and Jonathan is not here, so yes, we will do anything… We need to have his story be told."