Conservatives in the literary world may claim to prefer their plays unadulterated, but without the occasional update to a classic work we would be missing so much. One would shudder to imagine theater without West Side Story, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and we’d all be much poorer off without The Muppet Christmas Carol. Rent, an adaptation of Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme by Jonathan Larson, is in that same boat, and it’s one of the glowingest examples of how setting a classic in the modern era can so greatly improve upon it. (Let’s keep Madama Butterfly intact forever, though.)
Rent tells the story of a handful of bohemians who are simultaneously trying to understand beauty, create art, cope with mortality, find love, and regularly come up with the titular sum of money. Although with age I’ve come to sympathize best with Benny, the demanding landlord character, Rent’s timeless message of love and inspiration strikes through even the stodgiest theater goer’s reservations. We’re all running out the clock, trying to make sense of things as we also ensure our never ending supply of groceries and happiness. Rent is a microcosm of that shared burden.
From the moment the curtain rises, Rent at once begins to establish itself as one of the world’s great musicals. “Seasons of Love,” a song I’ll never be able to sing because it requires memorization of a number greater than 12, never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. “Light My Candle” is a catchy tune at face value, but if you analyze it as closely as I have you’ll notice there is a subtle romantic undercurrent running throughout it. “I Should Tell You” is just beautifully sad, ”One Song Glory” perfectly encapsulates the urge to leave something meaningful behind that everyone feels, and whatever “Today 4 U” means, I love it. It’s the best song sung by a drag queen (if that’s what the character Angel, who sings it, is — I was never clear on that) since Divine covered “Walk Like a Man.”
How do you even begin to put on a production as spectacular as Rent? The answer is simple — you have Evan Ensign direct it. The American-born theatrician has worked on masterpieces including Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Avenue Q, as well as some lighter hearted fare such as Elf and Shrek. Whether the hero of one of Mr. Ensign’s productions is Prisoner 24601 or a curmudgeonly ogre, however, he gets right to the heart of things.
“In any show you’re doing, you’re going after the truth,” said Evan. “We all experience a gamut of thought and emotion throughout our lives, so we can find some aspect of ourselves in most anything that we watch take place on stage. In Rent, we see a number of people suffering from AIDS, a disease that’s bringing them to the ends of their lives. We see homelessness, and we see problematic relationships. Even if you haven’t dealt with those dark issues personally, you’ll understand that, at their heart, they’re about differences in the community — a hodgepodge of identities struggling to form one, single whole. In the end, friend groups form out of mutual kindness. That’s the grandness of theater and a show like Rent — they speak to universal truths.”
The 20th anniversary tour of Rent will be presented by Hennepin Theatre Trust at the Orpheum Theatre August 14th through 18th. You may purchase tickets to the show at the State Theatre Box Office at 805 Hennepin Ave in Minneapolis, or online at hennepintheatretrust.org.
By David Scheller