When the musical Rent premiered on Broadway in 1996, it was an immediate cultural phenomenon and critical success. With four Tony awards—including Best Musical—and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Rent changed the theater world forever with its brash, honest, rock–based music, as well as its complex and sympathetic portrayal of those living with HIV/AIDS. Loosely based on Puccini's opera La Bohème, Rent—written by Jonathan Larsen—follows a group of impoverished young artists in 1990s New York City’s East Village, trying to live the bohemian life while grappling with homelessness, addiction, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
In 2016, Rent kicked off its 20th anniversary tour, and finally reached Philadelphia in March of 2019. This fall, the tour returned to Merriam Theater on Oct. 18–20 for a bold, beautiful reminder of not only the joy of bohemia, but also the power of live musicals. Through Harnwell College House’s Arts House, I was able to attend the performance with a group of Penn students. And although I had seen the film adaptation of Rent before, I was unprepared for the wealth of emotions that this live tour would bring. Through a two–act format as well as passionate, surprising performances, the Rent 20th anniversary tour captures both the beauty and tragedies of a generation dreaming freely under the shadow of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The musical opens on filmmaker Mark (Cody Jenkins) and rock musician Roger (Coleman Cummings), who cannot pay rent when their former friend and new landlord, Benny (Juan Luis Espinal), reneges on a promise not to collect last year’s rent. From then on, Act I constructs a wild and vibrant rumination on the rule–free life at the height of bohemian Alphabet City in that East Village. The musical number, “One Song Glory,” is filled with great passion as Roger—who is HIV positive—desperately wishes to write one song to be remembered by before he dies. There is also the playful, vivid “Today 4 U” by Angel (Joshua Tavares), dressed in the iconic, full–drag Santa outfit and singing about how she got paid $1000 for luring a yappy dog off a balcony with her drum–playing (in Rent, Angel is addressed as female when in drag, and male when out of drag). Act I ends with the defiantly outrageous and lively group performance “La Vie Bohème,” which celebrates their life with a catchy tune.
However, the harsh and dangerous reality of this life also simmers throughout Act I, and Act II fully delves into it. It opens with the famous and touching “Seasons of Love,” reaffirming what Rent presents as protection against fear and danger—love. In some beautiful stage direction, the three couples within the musical appear on stage at the same time, moving through their own conflicts and songs against the backdrop of each other. In the number “Contact,” a haunting dance performed under white cover represent all the couples' sex lives. But at the end, Angel emerges in all white and leaves—having passed away due to AIDS. Angel's boyfriend, Tom Collins (Shafiq Hicks), gives a heartbreaking reprisal of “I’ll Cover You”—the song Angel and he sang together in Act I to confess their love.
Rent ends with the rendition of “Your Eyes/Finale.” “Your Eyes” is the song Roger wrote for Mimi (Aiyana Smash)—an HIV–positive erotic dancer and drug addict who develops a relationship with Roger throughout the play. Mimi becomes homeless in Act II after Roger and her break up but reunites with Roger in the finale. Mimi seems to pass away after Roger’s song—surrounded by their friends—only to abruptly awaken, claiming that Angel appeared and told her to go back. In a musical that mixes defiant hope with bleak reality, this happy ending may be unrealistic. Yet, it reminds us what Rent ultimately champions—the importance of love in a harsh world. As the group decides in “Finale” to enjoy whatever time they have left with each other—singing that there is "no day but today”—it was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever witnessed.
As a live musical, Rent is full of exposed, emotional energy—from the mess of scaffolding and welded metal in the set, to the orchestra situated in a corner on stage, to the passionate performers themselves. Aiyana Smash, playing Mimi Marquez, is hugely memorable, with impressive vocals and a spectacular stage presence. She was able to capture Mimi’s untamed thirst for life in the solo number, “Out Tonight,” but also true vulnerability in songs like “I Should Tell You” and “Goodbye, Love.”
With a show as diverse and complex as Rent, students walk away with different, resonating insights. Noni Unobagha (C ‘21), who attended the Arts House trip, finds her favorite song in “One Song Glory.” “It just has so much raw passion and emotion,” she described. Kelly Lopez (E ‘22), also on the Arts House trip, has seen both Rent’s film adaptation and a previous show of the 20th anniversary tour in L.A. When asked about the difference between the film and live stage versions, she described a more connected relationship between the audience and the show. “When there was a song just now, I turned to my neighbor, and we just both said, ‘I got chills,’ at the same time,” she said. “That’s really something you can’t get in a movie.” The song Kelly described was Collins’ reprisal of “I’ll Cover You” after Angel’s death.
In a beautiful, meta moment during “Finale,” footage of the cast and crew—having fun together, rehearsing for the musical—is projected onto the backdrop. The moment pays tribute to the sense of community that Rent depicts, but also acknowledges the community formed by the cast, crew, and audience themselves. Live musicals today have the power to immerse us in shared narratives and energy for a few hours. And with tours rotating through Philly, as well as a robust local theater scene, it’s time to explore beyond Cinemark, and take advantage of opportunities available through college houses, clubs, classes, or just good old student discounts.