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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.

 

Left: Callum Francis (Collins) and Seann Miley Moore (Angel) 
Right: 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.”

 

Left: Mia Morrissey (Mimi) 
Right: 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.” 

Meet the full cast

Callum Francis playing the role of Collins

Callum Francis
Collins

Award winning British actor Callum Francis is best known for his portrayal as Lola in the hit musical Kinky Boots for Broadway, the UK and Australia. Callum opened in the Australian tour of Kinky Boots direct from the original London production at the Adelphi Theatre where he understudied the role. He subsequently won the 2017 Helpmann Award for Best Male Actor in a Musical.

Callum's West End credits include Cameron Mackintosh's London revival of Miss Saigon, Disney's The Lion King & Ghost. Callum has toured with HAIR The Musical and opened the Shanghai Culture Square with Ultimate Broadway.

Callum dedicates his performance to his friends around the globe in the theatre industry who cannot perform during this time. 
IG: callumf

Monique Sallé playing the role of Maureen

Monique Sallé
Maureen

Monique's stage credits include the Helpmann Award winning production of A Chorus Line (Bebe), Mamma Mia! The Musical (Ali), Ghost The Musical (Ensemble), the 50th Anniversary Tour of HAIR (Ensemble) and Shrek The Musical (Little Red Riding Hood). 

Monique's Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre credits include Triassic Parq (T-Rex 1), Carrie: The Musical (Norma), Sondheim on Sondheim (Cast, Choreographer), Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson (Ensemble, Choreographer), [Title of Show] (Choreographer), Good Omens (Choreographer) and The Dismissal (Tirath Khemlani/Billy Snedden). Her Hayes Theatre Co credits include Catch Me If You Can, RENT, and The Drowsy Chaperone. Monique's television credits include Splashdance (ABC), and Deadly Women (Foxtel).

Mia Morrissey playing the role of Mimi

Mia Morrissey
Mimi

At sixteen, Mia starred in the short film Bat Eyes which played at the Venice Film Festival. A lead role followed in Network 7's children's series In Your Dreams. Other screen credits include a recurring role on Home & Away, mini series Molly and opposite Ioan Gruffudd in Harrow.

Mia’s theatre debut was The Voices Project: Out Of Place with ATYP. She recently appeared in Alice In Slasherland at the Old Fitz. An accomplished singer/songwriter, Mia co-wrote and performed two songs for In Your Dreams and was on season three of The Voice, in Ricky Martin’s team. 

After graduating WAAPA, Mia also trained with Atlantic Theatre School.

Mat Verevis playing the role of Mark

Mat Verevis
Mark

Mat is a singer/actor/songwriter best known for his performance as Barry Mann in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical which earned him a 2018 Helpmann Award for Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical. He will soon be appearing in Victorian Opera’s production of The Who’s Tommy playing the title role of Tommy. Most recently he was seen in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music as Henrik Egerman (Victorian Opera) and the Australian premiere of Lazarus by David Bowie as Zach (Production Company). 

At the end of 2019 Mat toured with Lea Salonga as a feature vocalist and in early 2021 will be releasing his debut self titled EP.

Callum Francis playing the role of Collins

Seann Miley Moore
Angel

Seann graduated from WAAPA with a BA in Music Theatre. Prior to his London move in 2015, Seann appeared in Helpmann award-winning productions The King & I (Opera Australia), and Sweet Charity (Hayes Theatre). Seann was a finalist in X Factor UK, mentored by BBC Radio 1 presenter Nick Grimshaw. After his X Factor success, Seann appeared at London’s 02 Arena, headlining the UK/European Gay Pride Circuit, including London Pride. He also featured at the closing ceremony for the 2018 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. Last year he appeared in In The Willows (Metta Theatre) at London’s New Wimbledon Theatre. His debut EP ‘4 track bitch’ is available on Spotify.
www.seannmileymoore.com

Elenoa Rokobaro playing the role of Joanne

Elenoa Rokobaro
Joanne

Elenoa’s credits include: The Things I Could Never Tell Steven (NToP), Betty Blokk-Buster Follies Reimagined (Redline Productions), The Book of Mormon (GFO), Dusty (TPC), Side Show (One Eyed Man Productions), Ghost (ATG), Violet (Blue Saint Productions), Legally Blonde (GFO), Hairspray (DCE/David Atkins), Fame (GFO), High School Musical Onstage (Disney) and Respect (GFour Productions). Elenoa was also featured in the Baz Lurhmann film The Great Gatsby.

In 2019 Elenoa was seen as Caroline Thibodeaux in the acclaimed Caroline, Or Change (Hayes Theatre Company) for which she was awarded Best Female Actor in a Leading Role for both the Sydney Theatre Awards and the GLUG Awards.

Robert Tripolino playing the role of Roger

Robert Tripolino
Roger

Robert most recently played Jesus in the Regents Park Open Air production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Barbican Centre, London.

Stage: Sal Russo in RAGS (Manchester Hope Mill Theatre); Omar in Aladdin (Disney Australia Tour); Chino in West Side Story (State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne); Jean-Michel in La Cage Aux Folles (Arts Centre Melbourne); Jamie in Third World Blues (Gas Works Theatre, Melbourne); The Addams Family (Capitol Theatre, Sydney) Gaybies (Melbourne Theatre Company); A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne).

Film and Television: Anthony Caleo in Holding The Man (HTM Productions); BJ in Upper Middle Bogan (ABC); Jim Morrison in Mr and Mrs Murder (Network 10). 

Tim Omaji playing the role of Benny

Tim Omaji
Benny

Tim’s main stage theatre credits include the lead role of Tyrone Jackson in Fame The Musical, Sam Onatou in MADIBA The Musical, Monty in Saturday Night Fever and Benny in the Hayes production of In The Heights.

Tim rose to fame as a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance Australia and Australia’s Got Talent, then signing with Sony Music and as ‘Timomatic’, is a four time platinum recording artist. He continues to write, produce, record and perform.

Tim will next be seen in the Feature Film Ruby’s Choice alongside Jane Seymour and the Netflix/NBCU TV Series, Clickbait.

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RENT

An iconic city. One life-changing year. This legendary rock musical. Celebrate the 25th anniversary of this global musical phenomenon with a never more prevalent message: “no day but today”. Get tickets for RENT now.

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