I’ll never forget seeing “Rent” for the first time. My mom used to bring me to shows in New York, so I was used to “Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats,” which are great, but hadn’t really hit home as an artist. “Rent” was the most inspiring musical I had ever seen.
When I was 16 or 17 I was on a trip to New York with my girlfriend at the time and her mother, who was a really devout, reads the bible every day Christian woman. I knew nothing about “Rent” and I was in charge of picking the play. It is obviously a show about AIDS and a gay relationship, and especially at that time, it was a barrier — something that people didn’t really talk about. I brought this woman, and she was terrified, and I was like, “Oh no, what have I done!?” But for me, it was an eye-opener. I was immediately drawn to the storytelling and the music and the songwriting, and I wanted to know the story behind it.
I didn’t even really know I wanted to play music at that time, but something about the songwriting struck a chord in me. I remember crying when Collins was singing “I’ll Cover You.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get out of Texas. I need to go to New York or LA and experience life.” I hadn’t traveled much, and that was when I knew I needed to explore that part of my life.
I realized, “This is what music can do. Holy s—, I want to do that for somebody else.” I had never felt that before; I had listened to punk rock and rap and metal, and eventually I started getting into Dave Matthews right around that time period, and after seeing “Rent,” the variety of the music of what I was listening to completely changed. And I got into songwriting right after because I was obsessed with what a song can do.
Before I even knew I was going to be a singer, I started pretending I was Roger in my house. I used to play “One Song Glory” on repeat on the guitar. Later, I went back to New York to open up for an artist named Howie Day and it was my first real out of town show, and I was like, “I’ve got to go see ‘Rent’ again!” I went to see it by myself to experience it without somebody who was judging the whole time. I looked up Jonathan Larson and I read his story, and that was super inspiring to me, too. Jonathan Larson was so ahead of his time.
Every time I was in New York after, I went to see “Rent.” I ended up seeing it 56 times. Eventually they asked me to do a six-month stint on Broadway, and I was on tour at the time, but also I was so in love with it that I didn’t want to mess it up. I didn’t do it, and I don’t dwell, but it would have been fun and different. If I could tell my younger self anything it’s to try and be willing to fail — because if not, then you never know.
As you get older you start to realize how precious the time is that we have. A song like “Seasons of Love,” the whole message is love, and I think that will always be relevant, and people are growing and realizing, “Why are you wasting time on worrying about what other people are doing instead of focusing on yourself?” That’s the message of the entire play and should strike a chord with people as it did with me.
“Rent” is as relevant today if not more than it was in 1994. Everybody’s a lot more open now to being themselves and being accepted, but there’s still a lot of work for the world to do — there’s still a lot of stuff going on in schools that’s not OK. So I think stories like this can hopefully do what it did for me for more people now.
Fox is airing a live televised version of “Rent” on Jan. 27 at 8 p.m.
Ryan Cabrera recently co-wrote “Tell Me It’s Over” with Avril Lavigne, which was the second single on her “Head Above Water” album. Hitting the 15th anniversary of his first album, “Take It All Away,” he is also touring with O-Town and working on a new “Ryan Cabrera & Friends” style album for the end of 2019.