Original production photo from the official Rent website.
After taking Broadway by storm back in 1996, Rent was immediately slapped with the “Hair for the ’90s” moniker. It was hailed as a musical that would bring a new audience to the theatre, channelling as it did the anxiety and moral ambiguity of life in America at the end of the millennium—a sort of Nevermind with choreography. Yet the label never fit Jonathan Larson’s musical particularly well—not then, and certainly not now. Rent, which is back in Toronto for a two-week run featuring original cast members Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, has aged remarkably well for a musical so specifically rooted in time. Indeed, the title song’s final, emphatic incantation will resonate just as strongly next year when Rent turns fifteen.
The show, of course, is essentially unfinished. Larson died on the eve of its final dress rehearsal, a tragedy made all the more poignant in light of the musical’s subject matter. The real-life drama surrounding its creator propelled Rent to fame, and it eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Much of the show’s spirit is down to Larson and to the alchemy among the original cast. (In addition to Rapp and Pascal, this latest Toronto run will also feature Gwen Stewart, whose memorable solo punctuates the musical’s best-known number, “Seasons of Love.”) But a lot of it also comes from the fans—called “Rentheads,” for apparent lack of a better name, but who’ve nurtured Rent like their tie-dyed namesakes once did the Grateful Dead. In Toronto, for instance, where Rent originally ran for eight months in 1996/97 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, it was normal to see groups of Rentheads camped along King Street West while “doing the line” for twenty-dollar tickets—then sitting in the front two rows mimicking the actors on stage. As the original Rentheads grew up, a kind of echo generation sprung up to replace them that responded to the material as vociferously as its predecessors.
One of Rent‘s greatest initial successes was convincing a generation of suburban teenagers of their affinity with the junkies, drag queens, and starving artists who populate New York’s East Village. Yet as the show continued to run—it eventually lasted more than twelve years on Broadway—it became clear that Rent owed less to Hair and more to another long-running musical: A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett’s legendary hallmark to Broadway’s “gypsy” dancers that evolves into a celebration of shared humanity. Similarly, in Rent, when Collins reprises “I’ll Cover You” at his lover’s funeral (which isn’t just Rent‘s emotional high point but a viable contender for the most stunning moment in modern musical theatre), it really doesn’t matter when you were born: you will be moved. Nor does it matter that “I’ll Cover You,” in its original permutation, is a love song between a black man and a Latino transvestite.
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20, and it’s easy to forget how utterly revolutionary Rent seemed when it first came along. Over time, however, what was once shocking (or at least minorly titillating) now seems positively universal. Despite pointed references to “living in America at the end of the millennium,” Rent isn’t so much a musical about a specifc place and time as a story of everyday people. That’s an ironic twist for a musical that celebrates “being an ‘us’ instead of a ‘them,'” but it’s one that would have Jonathan Larson, were he still alive, positively beaming with joy.
Rent runs at the Canon Theatre through January 24. For information and tickets go to Mirvish.com.