“The first time I read RENT, the first stage direction was that there was a full Broadway orchestra in the pit, and there’s a Rock band on the stage. I always think that perfectly defines who [Jonathan Larson] was. He was someone who as much wanted to be a part of a musical theater tradition, as well as blow it up and change it, and reinvent it.” – James C. Nicola of the New York Theater Workshop
Why choose RENT as OU’s annual fall musical? Perhaps Director Shawn Churchman can answer that. “The youthful actors, and their discoveries with the show will make the play feel fresh and new,” he says. The 4 Tony Awards, multiple Drama Desk Awards, Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and loyal following (lovingly called “RENT-heads) spotlights the influence Broadway has on America and the world. The power of the show, however, lies within its heart and soul. Through attention grabbing songs and compelling story-telling elements, RENT continues a legacy of educating theater goers that life comes with hardships, but a more fulfilled life comes from enduring and surviving those hardships through love, friendships, and family whomever they may be.
Growing up near Broadway, Jonathan Larson envisioned an appealing new kind of musical for the generation of “rockers” and “MTV” viewers. Like Nicola says however, he loved “traditional musical.” One of the—if not—the most well known operas, La Boehme, serves as RENT’s source material. Similarities are apparent to those who know the opera, such as characters living as starving artists, and living with illness.
“La Boehme” source inspiration may be visible, but what is not so transparent, and possibly the gripping sources of inspiration of RENT was the life of its author and composer. Jonathan Larson spent years trying to launch a show, but with no avail. He related to New Yorkers in the life of the starving artist, however the more poignant experiences he wrote into the show was dealing with the loss of friends to AIDS. Director Michael Grief explains that Larson’s musical is about celebration, but it’s also about “surviving great loss and great devastation.” Larson not only suffered the loss of friends, but he lost his own life due to an un-diagnosed heart disease the night before the first public preview. His death only resounds the message of not falling ill to the virus of hate, regret, and negativity that much more eloquent.
When audience members first see the set, it may seem simple. Its simplicity beautifies the message that everyone in someway lives a “rustic” and “rough” life with his or her own personal struggles. How one lives and embraces the situation, measures one’s life.
So much of the music’s message lives beyond just the words. Whenever Collins mourns the loss of Angel in the “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” he’s saying, “even though you’re gone… I’ll forever be yours ‘for all my life.’ ” The couple found love through trial, and in the face of judgment (Collins no longer works for M.I.T thanks to the “actual reality” he has AIDS), and they’ll thrive in it as long they can.
Perhaps one of the lyrics that expresses RENT’s “carpe diem” message is in “Finale B.” Mark and Roger sing, “There is no future, there is no past. Thank God this moment’s not our last.” In life the past can only teach us for the future. For life must be lived without regret in order to thrive in the present, and impact the future.
Not only do the cast’s full and powerful voices empower the story, but Churchman’s direction, the cast’s performance, and band’s musicality carried Larson’s message of living for the moment successfully.
Chris Rice as Mark Cohen comfortingly guides the audience through this compelling journey as the narrator. Even when he speaks directly to the audience, his tone, pacing of the lines, and interpretation really connected the emotions to the character. Rice makes the lonely character of Cohen feel not only family to his “Alphabet City” family, but he made the audience feel like his family as well.
Throughout both the Principal and Supporting cast… elements like Skyler Adams’s poignant intreptation of “Your Eyes,” and Jamal Richardson’s belting of the “I’ll Cover You” (Reprise) expressed that Chruchman related the story to not only the characters’ lives, but to the lives of the young actors portraying the story.
One of difficult things to control, yet worked in Churchman’s favor was his overall pacing of the show. The kick off after “RENT,” really takes audience on a full throttle ride in ACT ONE—sending the message, pay attention or else it’s going to pass you by—your life is going to pass you by. Which really reiterates the fact that one must “forget regret or life is yours to miss.” RENT is no longer on Broadway, but thankfully the OU theater community experienced the phenomenon that is RENT.