What we do with ‘RENT’
The struggle to follow your dreams without selling out
Story by Jonathan Larson
Music composed by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Evan Ensign
The Boch Center, Shubert Theatre
Oct. 12–Oct. 17
Is Bohemia dead? No, Jonathan Larson said when he wrote the musical RENT, but it is in a ceaseless struggle with the need to survive before it can live. At the Shubert Theatre in Boston, with the lights back on again after over a year of going dark, this question was posed again by RENT’s 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour.
RENT follows the lives of struggling Bohemian artists living in the East Village in Lower Manhattan. Affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, they search for meaning in their lives in spite of their imminent mortality, all while struggling to make rent. RENT made its Broadway debut in 1996 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical that same year. The Broadway production closed in 2008, but there have been countless other national tours and productions, including this year’s 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour, which promises to be the final chance for people to see it live on tour.
The Farewell tour has a lot of history to honor, and it delivers. The vocals and athleticism in RENT are incredibly demanding, and the cast rises to the occasion. Angel Schunard (Javon King) and Mimi Marquez (Aiyana Smash) are simply mesmerizing, and thinking about Charlotte Odusanya’s solo in the iconic song “Seasons of Love” still gives me chills. This production of RENT — the dance numbers, the performances, and the sheer stage presence of the entire cast — is masterfully executed and an exuberant celebration to the reopening of live theater.
While I enjoyed the execution of RENT, the musical itself wasn’t to my taste. I was partial to “Tango: Maureen” and “La Vie Bohème,” but otherwise it is difficult to recall the tunes after the show. The combination of the lyrics and the notes felt clumsily done. The chords were grating at times, almost designed to raise the hairs on the back of one’s neck, especially in the opening song “Rent.” They added to the countercultural, scrappy nature of the premise but, paired with the sheer amount of movement on stage, were a little overwhelming. Some of the characters came off as stereotypical, caricatured versions of members of the LGBT+ community. I also thought the plot lacked coherence — there were too many characters to keep track of and too many unrelated events in the story that seemed interesting on their own but felt unfinished when linked together. The musical tried to cover too much at once.
But I can see how RENT is so culturally significant. The story of RENT moves beyond the scope of a few artists in New York City in the ’90s — it still rings true for us, too, 25 years later. When faced with death in the near future, the characters cling to what they love, whether it’s their craft or their relationships, and they are constantly wracked with indecision and uncertainty. Does their work have any significance, in the end? Should they let go of their dreams and sell out to ethically dubious corporations in exchange for functional heating and secure housing during brutal New York winters? These questions plague the characters in RENT in the same way they plague us, as we navigate both the exaltant freedoms and the cold realities of adulthood. The search for purpose in our lives continues.