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Twenty-five years ago, when I was a struggling, aspiring writer who waited on tables to pay my rent, I scraped up enough tip money to get a ticket in the upper balconies with one of my fellow creative friends to see the first touring production of Jonathan Larson’s musical theater phenomenon, Rent. When I learned that the Rent 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour was coming to the Kimmel Cultural Campus, I knew I had to take my teenager—but would she relate?
The energy in the theater at that first touring production was magical—audience members clapping, screaming, dancing along with the cast. It was the late 1990s, and for my generation, who had grown up with the Broadway stage dominated by Andrew Lloyd Webber, this theater experience felt revolutionary. For me personally, it was the first time that I had seen a life on stage filled with young, creative aspirations and angst—like the life my friends and I had.
Space for lives in transition
Even more importantly, Rent bravely showed the world what it looked like to experience the grief of the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, when so many creative lives were cut short.
When I saw Rent for the first time, I had recently lost my most influential theater teacher (and several other mentors and friends) to AIDS. Watching Larson’s beautiful story of friends attending an HIV support group and then losing their beloved Angel gave my grief a space. My friend and I held hands during the funeral scene and cried together.
When I saw Rent that first time, my life was in transition. I had just been accepted to graduate school and was figuring out how to both nurture my creative life and better earn a living. Shortly after that, I met Fred, the person who became my life partner, and we decided to create a family together. Our life became a different one than what I had been living the decade before with my Bohemian friends, but a life in which I grew as a writer and also a parent. We have raised our kids, now both teenagers, in a home that values the arts and encourages their creative expression.
Miranda and Larson
My 16-year-old June is an incredible singer and actor with a passion for musical theater. June first learned about the Hamilton soundtrack from friends in fifth grade, and like most theater fans in her generation, got hooked on everything Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’ve memorized the Hamilton soundtrack because of all the road trips we’ve taken when June’s requested Hamilton. I’ve lost track of how many times we watched the filmed performance during the pandemic together.
When the Netflix film Tick, Tick…Boom! was released last fall, I used it as an opportunity to introduce June to Larson and to Rent. The semi-autobiographical musical drama based on Larson’s work was directed by Miranda, so I had an in. My kid loved it, and from there we watched the 2005 film version of Rent.
Rent at the Merriam
My fears that the 90s look and sound might feel dated to my kid were unfounded. She loved the music, the characters, the vibe. We jumped at the opportunity to see the show together last week at the Merriam Theater. Entering the theater, we were both mesmerized by the stage. I had forgotten, from seeing the show a quarter of a century ago, how the set is designed to bring the audience right into the loft that friends Mark and Roger share and the streets surrounding it. As we watched the musicians enter the stage and tune guitars, my kid was intrigued. One of Larson’s innovations was to integrate the rock band who accompanies the performers right into the stage design, rather than hide them away in the orchestra pit.
Rayla Garske as Joanne, Aiyana Smash as Mimi, and Javon King as Angel shine in the excellent ensemble cast. But it is the Philadelphia-born-and-bred Shafiq Hicks in the role of Tom Collins who stands out most, energizing the entire production whenever he’s on stage. Maybe it was Philly bias, but my kid agreed—we could both feel the energy rise in the theater whenever Hicks sang, especially his soulful rendition of the plaintive song “Sante Fe,” in which Collins imagines leaving the world of New York’s Alphabet City behind for a more peaceful place.
For those in the audience who came with a nostalgia for Rent’s now-iconic theatrical moments, this cast does not disappoint. Highlights include King’s dazzling dance and drumming in Angel’s “Today 4 U,” J.T. Wood (Mark) and Garske’s excellent take on “Tango: Maureen,” and the show-stopping performance art of Maureen herself (Lyndie Moe).
Who would Mark be in 2022?
The Merriam audience was a mix of ages—it appeared that many Gen X folks had also brought their Gen Z kids. Similar to my first Rent experience, this production is participatory theater that really works, from audience members mooing along with Maureen to the shared silence that swept across the theater in the moment that Angel leaves the earth.
Rent is definitely now a period piece. Our world is so different from that particular moment of creative energy and loss. Rent also captures the life-changing start of our ability to document ourselves on hand-held personal devices. If Mark, who frames the show with his vision to document his friends’ lives, were living in 2022, he might be an aspiring TikTok or YouTube star. Whether his art would remain authentic or sell out to get views and followers is a question that my kid and I asked as we discussed the show, and the creative parameters of the world we find ourselves in now.
That conversation alone shows me that Rent still resonates.
Don’t miss the BSR podcast conversation about Rent between host Darnelle Radford, writer Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, and her teenager June.
What, When, Where
The Rent 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour. By Jonathan Larson. Directed by Evan Ensign, after original direction by Michael Greif. March 4 through 6, 2022, at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’s Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org.
The tour continues in different cities through the end of April. Tickets and information available on the national tour website.
All audience members aged 5 years or older must show proof of full Covid-19 vaccination to enter the Kimmel Cultural Campus. Children younger than 5 years must provide a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of a scheduled event.
The Kimmel Cultural Campus is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.
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