“How do you document real life when real life’s getting more like fiction each day?”
Mark Cohen – Rent
I feel that line could have been written this morning! Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent is a politically-motivated masterpiece that is as relevant today as when it premiered in 1996.
Jonathan’s tragic death 21 years ago may have brought attention to the first production of Rent at the New York Theatre Workshop, but it was the brilliance of the piece that made it a landmark in musical theatre history. Like Hair before it, Rent was a turning point for the way we conceive and write musicals. Jonathan wove a rich tapestry enriched by relatable, multi-ethnic characters and a vast array of musical styles. Theatre had never seen anything quite like it. As a result, the Pulitzer Prize committee included Rent among an elite group of musicals that has won its prize for drama.
While Rent is set at the height of the AIDS epidemic, it is not a piece about AIDS. The disease is one of many issues that the characters in Rent face in the daily challenges of what it is like to live in New York City. Hard. Uncompromising. Exciting. That’s the New York I know. But beneath its tough and ironic exterior beats a hopeful heart and an indomitable spirit that is everything I love about America – you feel that anything is possible.
In preparation for this production, I took several trips to New York City on a sort of pilgrimage to find the essence of what made this musical so special to so many people around the world. I discovered how Jonathan drew inspiration for the songs and the people featured in the show from the people he knew and observed. I was given a guided tour of the Lower East and Lower West sides of Manhattan by one of Jonathan’s friends. I visited the phone booth featured in the opening of the show, the support group building, the Alphabet City, the lot where Maureen would have performed, where the tent cities for the homeless would have been, the street where the vendors would have sold their goods, the church where Angel may have ended up. This trip gave me a sense of the reality depicted in Jonathan’s piece. Being in those places and walking the streets that served as Jonathan’s inspiration has informed this production on so many levels.
Rent depicts the world Jonathan lived in, but it feels to me like it could have been written yesterday. It is an incredible reflection of our time. While technology has evolved, the social and political climate has actually changed very little. So many of the themes found in Rent – growing up, sexual orientation, gender identity, drug use, poverty, homelessness, fear of dying, dignity in death, solitude, political rebellion – are still relevant today. Even though the treatment of HIV and AIDS has developed considerably since Jonathan wrote his masterpiece, the World Health Organisation estimates that 1.1 million people around the world died of AIDS-related illnesses as recently as 2015.
It is a great privilege for me to direct this new production of Rent. Lee Proud, Phil Cornwell and I agreed that we wanted to create this production as if Jonathan were in the room with us, with the book, music and lyrics as our only map. We have treated it as if it were a new musical and assembled a cast of incredible performers who give each and every performance their all. They have been given licence to create these iconic characters anew.
At its heart, Rent is about family, love and hope in the most difficult of circumstances. It deals with choices about how we live our lives, how we see the world and what is most important to us. Rather than despairing about how little time we have, we should live each moment as if it were our last.
Wales Millennium Centre
April 3 – April 8