After exploding onto the New York theater scene in 1996 and a 12-year run on Broadway, the rock musical "Rent" is finally available for performances by community theater groups. The Springfield Theatre Centre will bring the Alphabet City avant-garde to the stage at the Hoogland Center for the Arts this weekend.
Works of art have a way of changing over time.
Of course the brushstrokes, film frames and letters on a page stay the same. But the inevitable march of time has a way of shifting interpretation.
That’s what happened to several cast members in the first local production of “Rent,” the rock musical about struggling artists living in New York in the 1980s. The show opens Friday at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.
Lindsey Ninmer and Grant Estes — she plays a variety of roles as a member of the chorus; he’s the sassy, bucket-drumming, drag queen Angel — first saw “Rent” together as teenagers, when a national tour of the show stopped at Sangamon Auditorium.
“I was 18 and you were 15, 14?” Ninmer said to Estes. “Didn’t understand anything.”
A lot of the sexual innuendo, they said, went over their heads. But that interpretation changed with age.
Ninmer said she has seen productions of “Rent” before, during and after cancer took the life of a roommate — late local theater stalwart Nathan Cooke — and had a different experience every time.
“It’s interesting how different the show can look, and how many layers can be stripped away by the events in your life,” Ninmer said.
Mary Kate Smith, playing performance artist Maureen, experienced the same phenomenon.
“The first time I saw it, I was living in Chicago and really sort of living this crazy bohemian (life),” Smith said. “A bunch of friends and I lived in a three-flat, and the doors were always open. If somebody paid their cable bill, then we were all watching cable there. And if somebody paid their power bill, we were all plugged in, putting food in that fridge.
“When I saw (‘Rent’) then, it was sort of like this romantic, ‘Oh my God, these people are so true to themselves and Benny is this monster who is trying to get everyone to sell out,’” Smith said.
“And I go back and see it now ... as a mom and somebody who has moved back to Springfield and is back in school — I’m kind of like, ‘Way to save your friends, Benny. Way to be an adult.’”
“Rent” loosely follows the story of the opera “La Boheme,” with singers, filmmakers and performance artists replacing Puccini’s poets, painters and actors. (There are textual and musical references to Puccini for the opera geeks in the audience.)
In “Rent,” various cast members suffer from heroin addiction and AIDS rather than tuberculosis.
Benny, the character Smith has come to sympathize with as she’s gotten older, was once roommates with Mark and Roger, the filmmaker and rock singer. But he married into a wealthy family and bought the building where the artists live, with an eye toward turning it into a production studio and gentrifying the neighborhood.
The musical begins on the evening of Dec. 24 and follows the bohemian friends over the course of a year, as they fight back and struggle with personal problems from infidelity to illness.
Director Carly Shank said she was in college in the fall of 1995, in a year of intensive musical theater training, when she first heard of “Rent.”
Her department chair — he was always up on the latest developments, she said — had been talking about a new musical that would really change Broadway.
“It was kind of going back to the Broadway roots of popular music being the mode of music that was used,” Shank said.
Indeed, “Rent” made a big splash when it opened off-Broadway in February 1996. The New York Times gave it a rave review, and composer Jonathan Larson would go on to win two Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for the work. But he would never have the opportunity to enjoy the accolades.
In January 1996, hours before the first preview performance, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm, a result of undiagnosed Marfan syndrome.
Just as the drug abuse and HIV-positive status of several characters hangs over every performance of “Rent,” so Larson’s death has become inseparable from the lore of the show.
The musical is an unapologetic celebration of youth — of naive refusal to compromise one’s art for financial security. And it mourns the senseless death of promising young people suffering from AIDS or drug addition.
Likewise, fans of “Rent” can only imagine what Larson might have accomplished had he lived to continue composing.
Nevertheless, with a career consisting of just two shows (“Rent” and the autobiographical “tick, tick … BOOM,” staged in summer 2008 at the Hoogland Center for the Arts), Larson has secured a place among Broadway’s greats.
The show itself has become very familiar to its legions of fans, from the early days off-Broadway to national tours and a Hollywood movie version.
Because of that, Shank said, she knew she had to tread carefully.
“Unlike some other shows I’ve directed, where we decide on a new bent or a new way to spruce up an old show, it felt to us that there was not much broken about ‘Rent,’ and we’re still at this era where people who want to come see it want to come see the ‘Rent’ that they know,” Shank said.
She said only die-hard fans — they’re known as “‘Rent’-heads” — would notice the small departures from the familiar production.
Shank said she decided early in the process that “Rent” was not primarily a visual or spectacle show — “it’s all about that experience of listening to it.”
“I knew the sound was going to have to be good; the voices were going to have to be good. And it’s really an actors’ and singers’ show,” Shank said.
That’s because all the characters are so richly drawn. It also helps that you don’t have to twist anybody’s arm to audition for “Rent.”
The musical ended a 12-year run on Broadway last year and has just recently become available for community and school productions.
“You could have a 6-year-old directing this show and you would have had great turnout at auditions, because these people want to be involved in it,” Shank said.
Brian Mackey can be reached at (217) 747-9587 or firstname.lastname@example.org.