Monday, April 03, 2017

20 Years On: "Rent"

My story of how I came to "Rent" is one of those stories that of course involved things that no longer work like that.  Anyway, I was in Borders (remember Borders) and wandering the listening stations (remember when store listening stations was the only way to try music without buying it or listening to it on the radio) and I just was blown away.  Since it was a double CD (remember CD's, okay I'll stop now) I think I had to wait and buy it on another trip but I did.  I listened, I read the liner notes, I sang along, I cut out a quote and stuck it on my wall, and so on.  So when there was finally a touring cast, I went to see it with some friends, some who were also familiar with it, and one who had no idea was just willing to come along for a show.  My recollection is that the program contained a map explaining to the uninitiated the various (well most of them) connections between the characters. 
It was amazing.  As is often the case, no matter how thorough the liner notes and cast album are, there are nuances that are clearer seeing it live.  Plus the enjoyment of seeing it live.  I went again a few years later when the touring cast came back through and brought a friend who had never been to see it.  She was blown away.  She bought us tickets for a performance a few months later in Philadelphia (near where she lived) so we could see it again. It was so great to watch someone else fall in love with the experience and be ready to talk through all their favorite bits. 
I saw the movie when it came out. I went to BroadwayCon and saw the reunion panel.  Let's just say, I'm a bit of a fan. 
So I tried to set realistic expectations for myself when I saw the reunion cast was coming to Baltimore. (They later added a DC stop, after I already had tickets.) 
"Rent" is fascinating in that it was incredibly groundbreaking when it debuted, and there are ways that it is both more and less unusual this many years later.  I find I still have the following conversation with people, well, why don't they just pay their rent, haha.  (The show explains the answer. And well, either you accept that or you don't.) 
We have better HIV drugs.  The Alphabet City gentrification referenced is pretty much complete now.  But it also seems even more likely that Mark's footage of a riot would lead to job opportunities.  And some things, like seeking a community that accepts you, finding the balance between maintaining the ideals you have and paying the bills, are timeless. 
So, the 20th anniversary tour.  Overall it was fun.  The woman next to me was a longtime fan who had never seen it live, and she had the time of her life.  It was actually clear there were both longtime fans, who chuckled more at things that were funny about the performances, and newbies (one person let out a cheer at the end of "Contact" while the longtime fans knew it ends with sadness.
The staging had the full cast on stage a bit more often than I recall from other versions allowing for quick transitions, and occasional cuts meant to jar.  A reunion tour always has the challenge of trying to both satisfy old fans and still be relevant to current audiences. The direction to the actors seemed to be to prioritize emotion over word clarity, meaning there were moments of anger or sadness, where conveying that was more important than clarity in the lyrics.
In costuming, Benny still had a blue puffy coat, but now it had neon accents, Mark's plaid had sheepskin trim making him look a little lumbersexual, and Joanne had a coat I am lusting after. Reading the bio's in the Playbill, it was sort of amusing to realize many of these actors were perhaps toddlers when the original "Rent" opened, but of course, the original cast had a lot of people for whom this was their first big job, and that's how it should be for a piece about twenty somethings trying to make their dreams come true.  
The choreography in "Today 4 U" leaned a little more towards panty (or legging crotch) flashing than drumming. Tom Collins is in some ways a gimme role for an actor with any bit of talent, since he's a loving friend and partner pretty much every moment he's on stage, and but Aaron Harrington's deep voice more than lived up to expectations.  
It was great to see, and fun to see how my views of each character have shifted over the years, although I still love and hate all of them a little. But mostly love. 

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