The production of “Rent” that opens tomorrow in L.A. may be the 20th anniversary tour of the Broadway hit, but the rock musical, which changed the face of HIV awareness two decades ago, arrives at the Pantages Theater at a political moment that could see the show take on new resonance.
“If you’re not insured, if you don’t have access to health care, if you’ve just been thrown off your insurance by this Republican administration, trust me, it may as well be 1996,” said Tom Viola, the longtime executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “That is a very scary proposition. I think seeing ‘Rent’ today will allow folks to come together to push back on that.”
Set in the pre-gentrification East Village and following the lives and loves of one building’s youthful squatters (including multiple characters living with HIV), “Rent” became a clarion call for tolerance, inclusion, compassion and love, not only for those with HIV but for anyone marginalized by disease, sexuality, race or class. Over the course of its 12-year Broadway run, “Rent” grossed almost $275 million in New York alone, raising $3,249,450 for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS along the way. The show’s two previous national tours raised an additional $977,268 for BC/EFA.
“Rent” also became one of Broadway’s signature smash-hits. Twenty years before “Hamilton” fever ripped across the universe, “Rent” enthusiasts were camping outside the Nederlander Theater box office for tickets, belting out the anthem “Seasons of Love” and clamoring for a chance to meet original cast members – who included Idina Menzel, Jesse L. Martin and Taye Diggs.
Evan Ensign, the director of the tour (following in the footsteps of original Broadway director Michael Greif), has been involved in “Rent” for 19 years. He deems the show just as relevant today as it was in 1996, when AIDS was a scourge that generally came with an automatic death sentence.
“I always say that AIDS is actually just a circumstance in the show,” he said. “It’s about figuring out how we fit in, about how we create family, about acceptance. Putting the tour together now with this young cast, we focused on understanding the mortality of the time — how you approach life with that death sentence hanging above your head? Because what these young actors know of AIDS now is about cocktails, pills, and it’s not an immediate death sentence. But we talked about a lot of other things that they know about in their world, things that don’t necessarily equate with the show straight through, but that help them understand it.”
“Rent” has endured 20 years, but the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, famously never experienced the rock musical’s huge success. On the night of the musical’s dress rehearsal at Off Broadway’s New York Theater Workshop (where “Rent” premiered prior to its Broadway transfer), Larson died at age 35 of an aortic aneurism (later linked to Marfan syndrome).
Julie Larson, Jonathan’s sister, said the show’s success still brings mixed emotions. “When people tell us something wonderful about how [“Rent”] profoundly changed their lives, it’s joyful and it’s gratifying and it’s horrible — all in one,” she said. “We, as a family, never get to have a clean emotion. But I don’t think [Jonathan] felt absolutely confident that other people were going to see ‘Rent’ and understand it. That would have blown him away.”