Striving and thriving in bohemian Alphabet City

"Five-hundred twenty-five thousand / six-hundred minutes / How do you measure, measure a year? In daylight, in sunsets, in midnights / in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles / in laughter, in strife."

A stirring tale set in a community of young artists: "Our best healing can come from emotional healing," says "Rock" Eblen, the show's producer, who thinks the show will move people to tears.

If that sounds familiar to you, chances are you've at least heard the "Seasons of Love" hit song from the popular Broadway musical, RENT.

If you know the lyrics to all the songs from that same show, then you're a RENThead. You will probably be hanging out at Diana Wortham Theatre at least one hour before one of the April shows begins, hoping to grab one of the select front-row seats that go on sale at that time — a tradition that goes back to the original 1996 Broadway opening in New York.

And if 1996 sounds like a long time ago, you're right. However, RENT is still going strong. Since the musical (which incorporates dance-pop, salsa, R&B and rock 'n roll) premiered in 1996, it has been translated into 15 languages in 25 countries, bringing in audiences from all over the world. The Broadway production with its original cast closed in 2008, after a 12-year run with 5,124 performances, making it the seventh longest-running Broadway show ever. Over the past few years, RENT has played to satisfied audiences throughout North America. It has become a global phenomenon, packing houses in England, Japan, Australia and Germany, among other countries.

"RENT is an extremely emotional show," said Rock Eblen, director and producer for BioFlyer Productions. "With all of the terror and fear going on in the world right now our best healing can come through emotional healing. This show can — and will — get you crying. That's a kind of emotional release everyone needs."

Eblen is no stranger to Asheville's performance arena. He successfully produced and directed Jesus Christ Superstar in 2008, and The Who's Tommy in 2009, both at the Diana Wortham Theatre in downtown Asheville. When Eblen learned performance rights to RENT were about to be released, he jumped at the opportunity, and became North Carolina's first community group that will perform the musical with Chuck Taft as music director.

The production is a fundraiser for the Eblen Charitable Group and Western North Carolina AIDS Project, and features local performers of all ages and backgrounds.

One reason Eblen wanted to produce RENT is because of the story it tells. Set in New York's East Village, it's an intensely stirring tale of a community of young artists struggling to live and celebrate life. Several of the characters are dealing with the fact they have AIDS. Each character is diverse and complex, some struggling to accept and/or discover their own sexuality. They engage the audience with their moving, and ultimately, uplifting tales.

"[RENT] will probably ruffle a few feathers, but a few feathers should be ruffled," said Eblen. "People are still dealing with the same issues today as they did in 1996 — heartache, disease, loneliness, poverty, homelessness, trying to find a place where they fit in, and generally just trying to make it through it each day — one day at a time."

That RENT still seems immediate and relevant more than a decade after its debut signifies the enduring truth of writer Jonathan Larson's emotionally powerful story.

RENT came to be because a young, Yale-trained playwright named Billy Aronson wanted to write a musical updating of the classic opera La Boheme. He wanted the show to be about people like himself — struggling to make art under lousy conditions. Some theatrical acquaintances suggested he work with Larson. In 1989, they met and exchanged ideas. Larson came up with the title: RENT. He didn't like Aronson's proposed Upper West Side setting; Larson lived a bohemian life in downtown New York and rented a scruffy loft that had a bathtub in the kitchen. He dated a dancer for four years who sometimes left him for other men and finally left him for another woman.

Larson wanted to write about his experience. In 1991, he called Aronson and asked if he could make RENT his own. Aronson said yes. To borrow a cliché: The rest, as they say, is history.

One sad part of RENT history is that Larson never made it to opening night. He was sick the night of the final dress rehearsal. He watched the show and gave an interview to the New York Times. Afterwards, he was told to "take it easy and sleep." Larson died an hour later. His death gave the cast a much deeper, more powerful understanding of the play, helping to make RENT a hit from the beginning.

As Eblen puts it, "RENT is about America, representing unity, diversity and just letting people be who they are."

[Tracy D. Hyorth can be reached at outnaboutwnc@bellsouth.net.]

who: Asheville-based Bioflyer Productions
what: RENT
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Thursday, April 22 to Saturday, April 24 at 8 p.m. ($20 and $15 for students w/ID. dwtheatre.com and 257-4530)

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