The Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical “Rent" has suffered a lot of ridicule over the years, from comics to pop culture lampooning something that became a bit of a cultural phenomenon.
But if you were like me and other artists in 1996, when “Rent” would debut on stage, it was a beautiful, white hot spotlight revealing the lives of folks who for far too long had been overlooked by society. In short, this Broadway stage was filled (again) with people who felt like people I knew in the city and whose real crime was that they were trying to break through to something new.
The musical is loosely based on the Puccini's opera “La Bohème” and is a modern rock opera packed with powerful vocal performances about the lives of young artists hoping to survive in a city rebounding from the brink of economic disaster.
Set in New York City's East Village during the dark days after Reagan — who botched the AIDS crisis in America — this face-paced musical is built around the rage, confusion and heart of a forgotten generation all trying to find themselves while navigating their emerging adult life and its meaning in a time of disease with no real cure in sight. (Note: The drug AZT is featured in “Rent,” but during the time this musical is set, it was a problematic prescriptive because of its high toxicity.)
“Rent” is traveling across the nation as part of a special 20th anniversary tour of the show and will only be on stage locally for three days, so be sure to get your tickets soon.
Jonathan Larson, creator of “Rent,” would never live to see his most popular work go on to dominate the Tony Awards in 1996, much less see it open on Broadway, because the artist would die the night before previews were to begin.
But his life would be measured by theatre-goers via the love he sparked as thousands of outcasts, artists and boot strappers adopted this musical as a rally cry of a generation. And much like the opera it is based upon, “La Bohème,” this contemporary musical, which deals with real world problems in the wake of a plague, would go on to win a generation of new theatre-goers’ hearts, thus ushering in a new era of modern musicals.
I know this story’s powerfully honest message all too well because just a little over a month after returning from NY to see it live with the original cast in1996, my then partner would pass away from AIDS. Art does mimic life in remarkably painful ways.
“Measure your life in love.” - J. Larson.
"Rent" is part of Broadway Grand Rapids 2016 - 2017 season. To see what they have lined up for 2017 - 2018, including "Wicked," "Les Miserables," and the return of Deborah Cox to GR in "The Bodyguard," please visit their site.