What a difference 13,140,000 minutes makes—for those unfamiliar with the Broadway musical, movie, or live NYC finale broadcast of Rent, that's a quarter of a century in minutes as defined by the play's lyrical measurement of a year (leap years not included). Ironically, the late Jonathan Larson's opus that single-handedly revived Broadway by giving voice to a generation (Gen X, if you were wondering) has finally reached the approximate age of most of its characters. So, billed as the "25th Anniversary Farewell Tour," begs the question, has the show grown up or grown old?
Larson loosely based his 1996 modern-day rock opera on Giacomo Puccini's 1896 classic opera, La bohème. He even throws in not-so-subtle easter eggs like repeated guitar rifts evoking "Musetta's Waltz" (replaced by "The Tango: Maureen" in the update) and the first-act show stopper, "La Vie Bohéme." Rent follows interwoven relationships among friends, mostly penniless performance artists, set over a year in the late-1990s. The Alphabet City East Village locale takes place at a time when the world was reeling with anxieties about AIDS and societal fears included everything from homophobia to gentrification, as well as the rapidly-approaching millennium (Y2K anyone?). The Life Café hangout seems like a brilliant metaphor, but it was, in fact, a real eatery in the East Village (a really good one, at that), and no less a metaphor.
Rent swaps the nineteenth century's millennium-ending disease of Consumption—commonly known today as Tuberculosis (TB)—for the twentieth century's Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), but the overarching plot is intact: an ensemble of starving artists' desperately grasping to their passion, friendships, love, and poverty even as an unaccepting society maneuvers around them—all while trying to survive an unimaginable disease with no cure. But the songs, sets, characters, and staging has evolved little since its debut.
The show's web of emotional relationships are so entangled, even the show's program provides a flowchart in the inside cover for those new to the plot. So, quickly:
-Mark (Cody Jenkins), a filmmaker, and Roger (Coleman Cummings), an aspiring songwriter, are roommates in a non-residential factory in the East Village. Roger is also a recovering addict mourning the suicide of his fiancé when they learned they had contracted AIDS.
-Their former roommate, Benny (Jared Bedgood) left when he married an heiress, and bought the block to gentrify it, which will displace the homeless. Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen is holding a protest performance to stop his plans.
-Mimi (Aiyana Smash) is an wild-child exotic dancer who is also a heroin addict that lives upstairs and falls for the emotionally unavailable Roger. She is also having an affair with Benny.
-Maureen (Lyndie Moe) is a flirtatious self-centered performance artist who recently broke up with Mark to date buttoned-up attorney Joanne (Rayla Garske), ala "opposites attract."
-Tom (Shafiq Hicks) is another ex-roommate who has AIDS that returns form a teaching stint and falls for drag queen Angel, who also has AIDS, and that's where things really get interesting!
Got it? Okay, moving on...
Born in the era of MTV's Real World, the all-too-real feel of Rent in New York City continues to deliver on the high drama of the complications when love, friendship, life, and death collide. Endless seasons of reality TV has diluted the intensity this play originally brought to the stage, but its impact is no less important. And Angel (Javon King) is the catalyst and the heart of the story, giving audiences an introduction to people living (and often dying) with a lifestyle many did not understand at the time it debuted—before 9-11, smart phones, Facebook, social media, and before COVID.
While the cast's voices and acting were strong, standouts in the production include Aiyana Smash's Mimi and Lyndie Moe's Maureen.
Smash brings the same intensity, compassion, and eerily similar voice as Daphne Rubin-Vega, who originated the part.
Moe, however, wisely makes no attempt to imitate the then-unknown Idina Menzel, who defined the role of Maureen for many, including the film version. Instead, she bravely makes the role her own, and adding mischievous smiles and slightly over-the-top reactions worthy of Maureen, owning "Over the Moon" and dominating "Take Me or Leave Me."
The musical that revived New York's theatre scene 25 years ago was a passion project by Larson who used his art in an effort to give humanity and compassion to his friends, at the time prevalently gay men, often in the performing arts, who were dying from AIDS at terrifying rates. More importantly, by effectively updating Puccini's masterwork, Rent reinforces the idea that although the music may change, the struggles of life, death (and even names) seem to remain largely the same; the human experience transcending the centuries remaining largely similar. That point is not lost across time, whether it's 100 years or only 25.
Before the world changes yet again, and new concerns eclipsed the old,
So, with respect to it growing up, this tour is more of a rite of passage for the play, with the "Farewell Tour" referencing the final time director Michael Greif's original Broadway staging will travel North America. Time for the reinterpretations and fresh creative breath to invigorate Rent, making it more approachable for all the post-Millennial generations. Baby steps, though. People take it personal when you mess with a classic. So, this tour is an opportunity for one last long look over audiences' shoulders, knowing the more things change, the more they stay the same.
And can a work of art, so universally relevant that the plot points span over 100 years, ever get old? Not in this millennium.
RENT: The 25th Anniversary Farewell Season of Love is playing at the Saenger Theatre through Sunday, November 28. Buy Tickets: saengernola.com/shows/rent2021