‘Rent’ reaches milestone moment as it ends national tour in San Diego
On April 22, the “Rent 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour” will end its national tour with five performances at the Civic Theatre downtown presented by Broadway San Diego
La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley was the literary manager at New York Theatre Workshop in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, during which time a proposed stage musical crossed his desk: Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.”
“I remember reading this and thinking it can’t be as good as I think it is,” recalled Ashley, who also had received a submission by playwright Tony Kushner for a project titled “Angels in America.”
“It was a lucky time to be a literary manager,” Ashley said.
An early developmental production of “Rent,” which was loosely based on Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” opened at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1994. Two years later, “Rent,” the story of a year in the life of young East Village Bohemians in search of love, identity and survival during the height of the AIDS epidemic, officially premiered off Broadway.
The 35-year-old Larson, who Ashley remembered as “an incredible musician and a creator with an imagination that was on fire,” had died the night before from an aortic dissection.
Within three months, “Rent” opened on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre, directed by Michael Greif, artistic associate at the New York Theatre Workshop and at the time artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse. It would run for 12 years, winning both Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Before that Broadway run was over, however, “Rent” would launch a national tour with a West Coast premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in 1997 where it ran from July to September. Greif directed at his hometown theater. The cast included Neil Patrick Harris as filmmaker Marc Cohen, the story’s narrator. It was the hottest ticket in town.
How can a quarter-century fly by so quickly? Next Friday, April 22, the “Rent 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour” will wind up its U.S. leg with five performances at the Civic Theatre downtown presented by Broadway San Diego. It’s being called the “Final Season of Love,” a reference to the musical’s best known song, “Seasons of Love.”
“Rent’s” longevity is understandable to Ashley, who witnessed firsthand the musical’s evolution and the commitment of those around it to the show in the wake of Larson’s untimely passing.
“From very early drafts that script was capturing something about young people who wanted to start their lives and were battling this terrible plague,” he said. “It was about their energy and how they take care of each other and how they transcend all the difficulties of that moment in New York.
“I’m not surprised that it’s still famous because it was such an event.”
Ashley called Greif “a huge part of the success of that project, and I was honored to work with him on it.”
Director Evan Ensign has worked with Greif, too — in his case for 24 years of “Rent’s” life. He’s directing the farewell tour, just as he directed the 20th anniversary tour of the show.
“There’s a lot of ‘Rent’ that I still feel resonates massively in today’s world,” Ensign said. “Our message is even more relevant: how about love?”
Like many people who’ve been part of “Rent,” as with many people who love the show, Ensign has a personal connection to it.
“I lived through that time period and remember the people that I lost,” he said. “Not only from AIDS. I feel like even my father sits on my shoulder during this show and a whole lot of friends, partly because of the love they’ve given to me in my life. I get to share them in ‘Rent.’
“Love is so universal and ultimately the play is saying make your moments count. Try to let go of the rest of the junk that comes up in our lives. It speaks so positively to love, to living, to the value of life. Those things are timeless.”
Heather Nathans is a professor at Tufts University in Boston whose academic area is American theater with a focus on representation of race, gender and ethnicity on the stage. She’s also a former directing intern at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, having worked on the 1992 musical “Lost Highway: The Music and Legend of Hank Williams.”
“Rent” was a game-changer in Nathans’ estimation.
“Because it’s talking about AIDS, drugs and sexual orientation it was a piece designed to spark those kinds of conversations among an audience that may not have found itself represented on stage,” she said. “It’s also a gritty story about the real consequences of substance misuse, of the ability to make a living and the precarity of a generation that doesn’t necessarily have job security.”
Nathans was teaching college students at the time of “Rent’s” arrival and observed their reaction to the story and the music.
“They played it (the music), they talked about it and they saw it nonstop,” she said. “I remember one student in particular had seen it something like 15 times.”
To her mind, the show “is imagining a world in which a generation can make a community that is all about acceptance, where people eventually decide not to judge each other. That’s what continues to be so appealing to so many people about ‘Rent.’”
Its young Bohemians, she said, “are inviting the audience to dance with them and rebel with them.”
Even after 25 years.
“Rent 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour”
When: April 22 through Aug. 24 (five performances)
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown
Tickets: $70.50 and up
Phone: (800) 982-2787
Coddon is a freelance writer.
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