The Enduring Appeal of RENT
On April 29, 1996, a musical opened on Broadway that looked and sounded unlike anything that had come before it. It told a powerful, moving, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting story of young, impoverished New York artists who were seeking to make their way in the world, longing to connect, and trying to survive the looming specter of AIDS.
The actors were black, white and brown; the characters were straight, gay, bisexual and transgender. Although the show was famously inspired by Puccini’s opera, La Bohème, it was also a reflection of the life of its creator, Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics. His score brilliantly melded Broadway savvy with contemporary rock, and the show captured the zeitgeist of a particular place at a particular moment in time.
The show, of course, was RENT, and it became a phenomenon. A few weeks before the musical’s Broadway premiere, Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm the night before RENT was scheduled to open Off-Broadway, was posthumously awarded the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The show would go on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical, and run for over 12 years. It also attracted legions of fiercely devoted young theatergoers affectionately known as RENTheads, who returned to the show again and again because it spoke to them so personally.
To celebrate the musical’s 20th anniversary, key members of the original creative team have reunited for a national tour of RENT, enabling a new generation to discover why the show is so special – and why it continues to have a profound effect on audiences.
For Kevin McCollum, one of the original producers of RENT, the show’s greatest legacy is its boundless humanity. “How do you measure a life?” he says, alluding to the lyrics of the show’s most famous song, “Seasons of Love.” “How do you measure a year? Attention must be paid to how you treat people and how you build family. Touch people, change people by loving each other against all odds. Live no day but today, and keep your artist’s heart. This is a musical about living with, not dying from disease, introduced at a time when people thought AIDS was a death sentence. And I think RENT helped take the patina off the idea that these people weren’t us. Straight, gay; sexuality was a character trait, but it wasn’t what the show was about. It’s about young people finding their voice against all odds. It’s a celebration of diversity, and how young people always change the world.”
RENT 20th ANNIVERSARY TOUR is now playing at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre through February 19. For more information and tickets, please visit shnsf.com.