When the musical Rent first opened in 1996, it – according to press boasts – “single-handedly reinvigorated Broadway.” The show garnered a Tony award for Best Musical the year of its inception, as well as a Pulitzer for Drama – a lot of prestige for a theatrical number about a gritty group of friends struggling to make ends meet in New York’s Lower East Side.
In many ways, the show’s impact was a matter of timing. It hit stages just a year after AIDS-related mortality peaked in the U.S. More than 60,000 people were diagnosed with the disease that year, according to international HIV-and-AIDS charity AVERT.
Mirroring the crisis that was terrorizing urban populations at the time, Rent‘s cast included four HIV-infected characters. And, true (though not inclusive) to the disease’s scope, the stricken roles included a gay man, a straight man, a transvestite, and a drug-addicted woman.
Add to the realness of the story a catchy soundtrack and arty East Village scenery, and it’s easy to see how Rent‘s popularity could surpass the likes of Fiddler on the Roof and A Chorus Line.
But now, a decade later, is this much-lauded show still relevant?
A crash course in recent history
“The AIDS theme isn’t the most important [part] of Rent,” declares Jed Resnick, who plays the character of Mark in the Nederlander touring production of the show. “The most important [themes are] community and family, and how love can break down barriers.
“AIDS,” he adds, “was a circumstance.”
The story opens on Christmas Eve with filmmaker Mark sharing a loft with Roger, who hasn’t left the apartment for six months. Meanwhile, their friend Collins meets flamboyant Angel, while performance artist JoAnne helps musician Maureen set up for a protest concert. The final two characters are Benny, the landlord, and Mimi, a tenant who lives below Mark and Roger.
The bittersweet tale of how these eight lives intertwine unfolds over the course of a year, as each person struggles to create art, deal with relationship woes and somehow pay – say it with me – the rent. (After all, as William Blake wrote, “Where any view of money exists, art cannot be carried on.”)
“I’ve always felt an affinity with Mark,” says Resnick. Like a true fan, he bubbles, “I’ve known the role for a long time and have loved [that] character since I first listened to the [soundtrack] in middle school.”
That’s right – the actor wasn’t even a teen when Rent first hit the stage, though he claims the touring production’s directors briefed the young cast (they range in age from 17 to 27; Resnick himself is taking time out from his undergrad studies at Brown to play this role) on the AIDS crisis, along with ‘80s and early-‘90s culture.
Like Judy Garland on heroin
Resnick is hardly alone in his adoration of the show. The fan base is large enough to justify last year’s release of a movie by the same name. And, despite critics’ panning of the film (“It seemed to be what a modern Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical would turn into if the characters were hooked on heroin and AZT,” one grumbled), staged productions are still selling out.
Of the silver-screen version, Michael Harney, an educator with Western North Carolina AIDS Project, says, “For [younger] people, it was a little glitzy, so I’m not sure they understand what was going on.” He surmises that the generation born after the initial crushing blows of AIDS in America aren’t fully able to grasp the scope of the disease, both at home and abroad.
“Having been around long enough to know what the movie refers to, it was very powerful to me,” Harney says.
What it refers to, in local numbers, is 23,000 North Carolinians living with HIV or AIDS. Sixteen-hundred new cases were reported in the state last year. According to Harney, the national average is currently about 40,000 new diagnoses annually, which breaks down to about 800 per state. “The way I look at it, [North Carolina] did two states’ worth,” he says.
The coveted $20 seat
But, as Resnick happily points out, Rent purports to be about more than illness. “Above all, there’s just the message in the show,” the actor insists. That “message” is the stuff of singable tunes, a la the Godspell-esque trailer for the movie, “Measure Your Life in Love …”
And then there’s the intriguing La Bohème parallel. Rent is loosely based on the famed Puccini opera in which a group of Bohemian artists attempt to make ends meet in 19th-century Paris. Some of the characters’ names even match up: La Bohème‘s Marcello becomes Rent‘s Mark, Colline morphs into Collins, Benoit is Benny and Mimi stays, well, Mimi. Only Puccini wrote that tragic female role as a seamstress suffering from tuberculosis – the big killer of the day.
Because Rent is about artists – Bohemians, if you will – it’s in the unique position of being a show unaffordable to its perceived target audience. “The original writer [Jonathan Larson] thought it was weird to do a show about Bohemia and charge $80 a seat,” Resnick notes. “So there’s a tradition with the Broadway show, and now the traveling show, where $20 seats are always made available.”
It’s a nice touch, and it furthers the actor’s contention that the production is, indeed, all about breaking down barriers. Of course, those $20 seats don’t last long. Money may well be the enemy of art, but it seems there are plenty of Bohemians lining up, Andrew Jacksons in hand.
Nederlander’s “Broadway in Asheville” brings Rent to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Thursday, Feb. 16. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $22-$55. Info at 259-5544. To learn more about the Western North Carolina AIDS Project, visit www.wncap.org.