Sur­viv­ing Rent’

20 years lat­er: Broad­way Philadel­phia presents Jonathan Larson’s Rent’

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"Viva. La Vie. Boheme!" The cast of the 20th-anniversary Broadway tour of ‘RENT.’ (Photo by Carol Rosegg.)
"Viva. La Vie. Boheme!" The cast of the 20th-anniversary Broadway tour of ‘RENT.’ (Photo by Carol Rosegg.)

I was probably fresh out of college when I first saw Jonathan Larson’s Rent, and the brrrriiinging land lines, answering-machine beeps, and voice messages from parents didn’t seem dated. Fast-forward to the Philly stop on Rent’s 20th-anniversary tour.

Anyone who takes more than an hour to answer your text obviously never cared about you, but if someone does call, it’s a butt dial. Your mom posts videos on your Facebook timeline every week, and Dad texts you to troubleshoot his Instagram. What could Tom Collins possibly know about computer-age philosophy?

Breaking news on AIDS

Just this week, the New York Times reports that a second HIV patient “appears to have been cured.” It’s not something that can benefit patients on a broad scale yet, but this discovery is still stunning news that would’ve been hard to imagine in the 1990s.

If you’re seeing Rent this week, a companion visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art is also worthwhile—Pamela Forsythe reviews Long Light, surveying groundbreaking photographer David Lebe (a Philly resident from 1966 to 1993), who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, and whose work deals with his experience.

“It’s an important perspective,” Forsythe writes of the artist, who is now 70. “Lebe came of age before AIDS and has witnessed its transformation from fatal to survivable chronic illness.” Rent characters Roger, Mimi, Tom, and Angel are on the cusp of this revolution, though for them, there’s “no day but today.”

Rent lives

Here at BSR, we took a look at how Rent has aged, through the eyes of Generation X writer Stephen Silver. He thinks the ‘90s “slacker” archetype, embodied by Roger and Mark, has no parallel among today’s overworked, debt-burdened millennials, many of whom (including me) graduated from college just in time for the economic crash of 2008.

Mark dodges calls from media executives who want to hand him a lucrative career in his chosen industry; we’re thankful for any job we can get, and many of us gig on the side (from assembling IKEA furniture to ride-share driving) to pay down our student loans.

Millennials are blamed (or credited) for killing just about every respectable 20th-century industry, but we haven’t killed Rent. The Merriam Theater’s opening-night line stretched at least half a block as a sold-out house rushed the lobby. (One hard-pressed usher shouted at the crowd not to shove—“I guarantee you someone will end up in the ER!”—while someone else flashed the lobby lights, making the crowd push even more.)

If you love the original Rent, you’re in good hands with this tour. It’s based on Michael Greif’s original staging, with fellow original Broadway designers providing choreography (Marlies Yearby), costumes (Angela Wendt), and sound (Keith Caggiano). Scenic designer Matthew E. Maraffi adapts Paul Clay’s set.

The Philly audience almost beat Maureen (a magnetic Lyndie Moe) to her own moos, and sniffled copiously when Angel (an acrobatic Javon King) died. The powerhouse vocal ensemble got a standing ovation from the opening-night crowd.

The line to see ‘Rent’ on opening night at the Merriam. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
The line to see ‘Rent’ on opening night at the Merriam. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

Do you know where your children are?

For me, what’s changed is that suddenly the cast is a bunch of kids. Logan Marks’s Mark Cohen has the vocal chops, but looks like a college student wrapped in a striped scarf (indeed, he graduated from high school in Mansfield, Massachusetts, about five years ago). Understudy Cody Jenkins replaced Joshua Bess for a satisfyingly angsty Roger on Philly’s opening night (in all the plaid and zippers), also looking like an escapee from the dorm.

Or maybe it was just the ensemble’s spot-on carpenter jeans and JNCOs (with enough denim for two tent cities) giving me high-school flashbacks.

Bodies then and now

Rent has plenty of 21st-century detractors. I can think of a dozen kick-ass, big-assed fat activists who could eviscerate Roger when he sings, “Let’s get fat—it’s the one vice left when you’re dead meat” (especially from the seats of the historic Merriam, apparently made for people who are five feet tall and weigh 106 pounds).

But today’s body-positive bloggers might be proud when Angel introduces herself to Tom Collins (the heartfelt Devinre Adams) by unflinchingly saying her body “provides a comfortable home for the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.” Other now-canonical Larson lyrics like “living with, not dying from, disease” presage seismic shifts in language.

We’re moving away from phrases such as “suffering from” to “living with.” People aren’t “wheelchair-bound”; they’re “wheelchair users.” Responsible journalists write “people experiencing poverty” instead of passive, dehumanizing descriptors such as “the poor.”

Before the opening-night curtain, representatives from the Kimmel campus and season sponsor TD Bank came onstage to gift $6,500 to AIDS Fund Philly—not for a “victim” of AIDS, but for “a survivor in need.”

Rent’s current Philly run is already sold out (check the Kimmel online for info on a daily ticket lottery), but will return October 18 through 20, 2019.

What, When, Where

Rent, by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Evan Ensign. Through March 10, 2019, at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.

The Merriam Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue with an ADA-compliant restroom accessible by elevator. On Friday, March 8, at 8pm, there will be a performance of Rent with ASL interpretation and audio description.

For more information about the accessibility of Kimmel campus venues, call Patron Services at (215) 893-1999 / (215) 875-7633 TTY or email [email protected].

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