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RENT’s powerful message for now: love and hope, 25 years on

The distinctively 90s musical has retained its relevance 25 years on. Lenny Ann Low discusses the latest incarnation of RENT with its just-announced cast and crew.

Lenny Ann Low

Nearly 30 years ago, in a scruffy fifth floor apartment in Manhattan, composer Jonathan Larson began writing a rock musical that would define his generation.

Loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème, it centred on a makeshift family of outsiders - fringe artists, drag queens, HIV-infected drug-users - navigating a world of poverty, gentrification and HIV-Aids in the seedy East Village of Lower Manhattan in the 1990s.

He called it RENT and, populating it with characters that reflected himself, his misfit friends and fellow artists, and their struggle against addiction, homelessness and disease, created a gritty, glorious and uplifting exploration of youthful optimism and love against the odds.

Described by Larson as theatre for the MTV generation, RENT became a cultural phenomenon, spawning a feature film and winning four Tony Awards, including best musical, and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

At its heart, RENT, which marks its 25th anniversary with this Sydney Opera House season, is a story of love, loss and pursuing life to the fullest.

Callum Francis (Collins) and Seann Miley Moore (Angel)
Monique Sallé (Maureen) and Elenoa Rokobaro (Joanne) Photography: Daniel Boud

RENT’s producers, Gus Murray and Lauren Peters, both passionate fans of the rock musical for decades, believe this message, highlighted in the famous lyric, “No day but today”, is as relevant today as it was 25 years ago.

“The wonderful thing about RENT is that it is almost timeless,” Peters says. “When it was first written, during the HIV epidemic in New York in the 1990s, these people are alone, they're scared, they don't know what to do. They’re screaming out for help and they're doing it through their art.

“That’s what needs to happen now, in this coronavirus world, this post-pandemic time we’re going through.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic differs from the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the parallels of fear, loss, uncertainty and disconnection are profound. Murray says the lyric, “Connection, in an isolating age”, from the song What You Own, became a focal point for the show after a year of lockdown, loneliness and our yearning to connect with each other.

“And that's what the kids in RENT are doing,” Murray says. “I think it’s really joyful to watch that. It’s joyous and uplifting and hopeful and full of love. It's a great antidote to what we've all just been through.”

The history of RENT, and its visionary creator Jonathan Larson, is one of triumph and tragedy. Two months after opening at the tiny New York Theater Workshop in February 1996, it transferred to Broadway’s Nederlander Theater on a wave of sold-out houses and critical acclaim, with the New York Times’ exalting its “extraordinary spirit of hopeful defiance and humanity”. 

It’s joyous and uplifting and hopeful and full of love. It's a great antidote to what we've all just been through.

With original cast members such as Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel, the production ran for 12 years, the ninth-longest-running show in Broadway history, reaching a record 5,123 performances.

But Larson never saw his most famous work’s phenomenal success, or its groundbreaking influence on musical theatre. Aged 36, he died of an aortic aneurysm the night before the show’s first dress run in January. Cast members began each show by dedicating it to Larson.

Peters, who co-produced and designed a production of RENT at Hayes Theatre in 2015, says Larson’s legacy, and his passion to portray his friends’ lives in Lower Manhattan permeates the musical.

“The story of Jonathan Lawson, his love for the show, writing this piece as an active protest and then his unfortunate death on the first preview,” she says. “RENT has such a huge history, and continues to, while also staying very true to itself. With its wonderful, clever songs, that is the main thing I love.”

Mia Morrissey (Mimi) Photography: Daniel Boud
Robert Tripolino (Roger) Photography: Daniel Boud

Murray agrees citing the sung-through nature of this rock musical.

“It makes you laugh, then it punches you in the gut with emotion,” he says. “It keeps you riding on a constant wave of emotion and laughs and surprise and fun, and it doesn't let you down.”

Mia Morrissey, who plays Mimi in the Sydney Opera House season, says the significance of mounting RENT in these times has humbled the show’s cast and crew.

“That we’re doing this extraordinary thing in this extraordinary building creates a constant sense of excitement and gratitude.

RENT is about a world full of people trying to figure out how to connect with each other when they didn't understand what their bodies were doing and what their world was doing. At a time when they didn't quite understand how to form relationships anymore.

“And, here we are, sitting in a rehearsal room going, ‘How do we do this again? How do we theatre? How do we perform?’ To be part of RENT, a show I have loved since I was ten, and one of the first productions to be back in the theatre, is a privilege and a blessing and a joy.

“We’re all going to be vulnerable together, share something beautiful and this is our gift to you. You watching is your gift to us.” 

Find more about Dance at the Opera House