For those not in the know, Generation X's rock opera Rent is coming to town. It has been eight years since its last visit, and it could have been longer if it weren't for the efforts of NewSpace Entertainment.
Rent debuted in 1996 to immediate fanfare. Over the last 12 years, it has garnered dozens of awards and accolades. On June 1, its doors on Broadway will finally close.
Its meteoric rise has been attributed to a confluence of events, primarily the death of its 35 year-old author, Jonathan Larson, the very night of its final dress rehearsal due to an aneurysm. Rent is a musical of many themes, but its dominant theme is the beauty of life in the face of death. For its author to die tragically on the eve of its opening, Rent seemed fated to become emblematic of the very themes it discusses.
When the character Angel dies in the musical, fans pause to grieve not only the character but the author who created Angel. The original cast has remarked that attending Angel's funeral during the show so soon after Larson's death compounded both the grief they experienced at that time and the bond they shared with each other from that day forward.
If Larson had survived, his play would have still been successful. But would it have been as celebrated as it is today? Probably not. He would have continued to grow as an artist, and Rent would have been pushed aside for Larson's later musicals. Instead, it became his greatest remaining artifact, and one can hardly encounter it without becoming enmeshed in the enthusiasm and kinship which its company and its fans alike share.
Rent tells the story of several young adults who attempt to negotiate the challenges of their bohemian lifestyles. Some of them have HIV, including the aforementioned Angel. The first act takes place during a single day, Christmas Eve, and the second act takes place roughly over the course of the following year. The action of the play follows the shifting relationships between each of these characters, and their struggles to place their friends above themselves.
In 1996 the musical was nominated for 10 Tony awards and won four, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Score. In that same year it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, six Drama Desk awards, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, the Drama League Award for Best Musical, and three Obie Awards. It has toured internationally and has been performed in over a dozen languages. Of the musicals on Broadway today, only Phantom of the Opera has had a longer run.
Rent was also one of the first, if not the first, Broadway musical to offer "rush" tickets, which are cheap tickets for great seats and are sold only on the day of the show. Rent itself generated such a devoted fan base that the people who would camp out in line for hours, sometimes weeks, for these tickets became known as Rent-heads.
Rush tickets continue to allow students and other theatergoers strapped for cash to attend live performances, although some theaters opt for a lottery rather than a line.
Rent has been criticized as brassy and naive, and was famously lampooned by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in their Team America: World Police as Lease, featuring the song "Everyone Has AIDS." Critics received Rent's own film adaptation with mixed reviews.
The harshest criticism comes from those who object to its content. The musical features two gay and several interracial couples, as well as frank discussion of sex and drug use. During the second act, there is also an "orgy" sequence, over which much hullabaloo has been made.
When Rent came to Tulsa eight years ago, a few people walked out on it. Though these people were in the minority, Rent did not return for eight long years, despite its international success, its long local absence, and its imminent Broadway closure.
According to Kristin Dotson at Celebrity Attractions, which presents Broadway shows in Tulsa, "The upcoming engagement for Rent was never offered to (CA)."
She went on to note that the company's "Broadway plate is very full this spring," with one eight-show musical, Annie, a week prior to Rent's opening and another show, Phantom of the Opera, in June.
Fortunately NewSpace Entertainment rose to the occasion. NewSpace has presented theater and other live events for 25 years. John Ballard, Steve Boulay and Bruce Granath have worked for NewSpace Entertainment as partners in the company since 1987. It is based out of Salt Lake City, but they present shows to a wide variety of cities, from Anchorage to Albuquerque. Thanks to them, Tulsa will have the honor of hosting one of Rent's final shows.
In a brief interview, NewSpace Entertainment president Boulay said, "I have presented Rent ever since the show went on the road and have never failed to be impressed by its ability to inspire audiences... There is definitely an audience for this in Tulsa and we believe they will come out for (it)."
Indeed, the kind of criticism that keeps production companies and theatergoers shy of Rent's objectionable content seems to ignore the moral core of the play, which stresses Angel's philosophy of forgiveness, generosity and harmony.
It also seems to ignore that Larson based Rent on the opera La Bohéme, which also describes the lives of several bohemians dying not of AIDS but of tuberculosis, and contains a few risqué themes of its own.
Due to the large number of young theater students who have expressed desire to perform the musical over the years, a "school edition" of Rent was released in 2007, which omits the sex and foul language from the script.
As for Rent's starry-eyed naïveté, there is no genuine defense. After all, for a musical that countenances real issues in such a frank manner, it is not abashed about Roger bringing his sleeping princess Mimi back to life with a song. But does that really matter? Audiences have succumbed to that spell for twelve years. The show's success has not suffered for all its cheesiness. On the contrary, one can argue that there is relief in putting aside one's cynicism for an evening, in recognizing that despite the tragedy that underlies life there is still beauty to be had, and in abundance.
Rent will play in the Chapman Music Hall of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center on March 11 and 12, at 7:30pm. For ticket information, visit www.tulsapac.com.
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