A Review by Andrea Carpenter
Show reviewed 27 Mar 2007.
When Rent opened on the New York theatre scene just over a decade ago it was instantly credited as the musical of its generation, capturing the spirit and horror of living in New York during the HIV/AIDs epidemic.
The musical married controversial topics with the usually conservative music genre resulting in a rock musical that took gay, lesbian and bisexual characters in its stride.
Writer Jonathan Larson was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize (he died from a ruptured aorta during dress rehearsals) for this retelling of Pucciniï¿½s La Boheme which saw HIV/AIDs replacing tuberculosis as the spectre hanging over a group of friends.
The musical is set in New Yorkï¿½s Alphabet City in the East Village where the creative community of artists and musicians squat in empty industrial buildings alongside the homeless. Two resident squatters are shocked when a former friend demands back rent when he buys their building. This results in the eclectic community coming together for a Christmas protest after which we follow their lives for the next year.
That Rent still plays to packed houses almost eleven years on is now less to do with the original shock value of its storylines and rests more with the energy and emotion emanating from Larsonï¿½s score. Times have moved on; popular culture from soaps to teen dramas now embrace gay, lesbian and bisexual relationships while medical advances and education have help curtail the threat and spread of HIV/AIDs (in the western world at least.)
Rent endures instead as a celebration of community and the ready acceptance of non-traditional families. Blood relatives are sidelined to leaving voicemail messages while friends, lovers and exes bond in drug use, illness as well as love and friendship.
The fact that Rent today is presented in a timeless manner - the costumes and the industrial apartment - donï¿½t signal the early 1990s means that the full devastating grip that HIV/AIDs had on this generation is somewhat lost. The first act is alive with music and energy it is only in the second act that the individual and collective loss that HIV/AIDs was causing comes through. Then it does kick in with the poignancy of Seasons of Love ï¿½ a memorable uplifting anthem ï¿½ heading a much more emotional second act.
It is clear from Playbill that Rent has also become musical where up and coming stars showcase their talents; seven members of the current cast are making their Broadway debut. This works for the energy required from a demanding show but they present such a clean cut group - more reminiscent of the Pop-Idol generation than a mixed-group of intellectuals and artists struggling to survive in gritty times. This shouldnï¿½t detract from the talent of the cast. Antonique Smith was particularly good as Mimi, bringing an emotional maturity to the drug-addicted, HIV positive Mimi. However, in general the cast did work better as an ensemble (La Vie Boheme, particularly) with a tendency to overplay their parts in solo sections.
Rent has come to be labelled as a New York institution. It is true that the home setting does bring a good reason for the story to continue to be told here but it is more than that. It remains fresh for new audiences through its sheer exuberance and its longer running themes of tolerance and understanding.