Four words immediately pop up when I replay the thrill of opening night of the 20th anniversary tour of “Rent” at the Durham Performing Arts Center: energy, love, hope and community.
I’d never seen the show on stage before I went to the DPAC on Oct. 11. It’s a shame, actually, since it became one of Broadway’s longest-running shows after 12 years, or 5,123 performances.
Interest peaks now because through my work with Shaw University, I learned Shaw alum and Durham native Aaron Harrington, 23, is cast in a lead supporting role as Tom Collins through the June 2017 tour run.
“Rent” is Jonathan Larson’s mega-hit rock-musical Broadway show that takes audiences into the lives of young artists struggling to survive 1990s politics, culture and social issues as they create community and art in Manhattan’s East Village, New York’s Alphabet City.
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In 1996, the year of its world premiere, the show won four Tony Awards – best musical among them – and a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera “La Boheme,” set in Paris in the era of the plague, “Rent” is about “the least of these.” A racially and sexually diverse group of sick, poor, outcast and rejected, their lives mirror realities of AIDS, poverty, sex and homosexuality, homelessness, and transgender people – realities too many would rather wish away.
The main characters: Mark, an aspiring Jewish-American filmmaker; his songwriter, ex-addict, HIV-positive roommate Roger; Mimi, a Hispanic-American club dancer; Collins, an anarchist professor who dreams of opening a restaurant in Santa Fe; Angel, a kind, generous, HIV-positive young transgender woman who is a street drummer; Maureen, a flirty performer; Joanne, a public-interest lawyer born into a legacy of political power; and Benny, an apartment landlord who wants to demolish the building and adjacent lot that is home to the homeless.
As they live and love on their own terms, hoping society will embrace and value their worth and contribution, Mark queries the missing mainstream and toasts, “to being an us for once, instead of a them.”
Perhaps that’s what makes “Rent” not only intelligent and smart, gritty and witty, but also universally powerful two decades later. It brings loud, sure messages of the importance of counterculture, following our passions, expressing our beliefs, being ourselves and loving our neighbors.
Or, as is poured from the show-stopping tune “Seasons of Love,” we must learn that when measuring our lives, nothing matters more than love.
That’s certainly what the world needs now.
The DPAC production, which benefits behind the scenes from the work of many who worked on the Broadway original, reminds us to find our voice, fall in love and live life to the fullest because there’s “no day but today.”
Harrington isn’t the only North Carolina actor on stage. Fayetteville native and East Carolina University graduate Timothy McNeill plays Paul and the ensemble cast.
The show comes to life with undeniably the best rock ’n’ roll tunes, played right on stage, amid a packed set that draws audiences in to each scene with lighting that reminds us to find comfort and understanding, not in the black and white of life and issues, but instead in the gray areas.
The DPAC’s production is a must see, especially, as Larson reportedly said shortly before his death at 35:
“In these dangerous times, where it seems the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can all learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day and ... reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life.”