Points – 96
Votes – 14
Firsts – 2
Several people have asked me what I put as my top show in this list. Those who have known me for a while will be entirely unsurprised to find that this is the show.
Jonathon Larson spent several years putting together Rent, based on the classic Puccini opera La Boheme. Deciding to update it to fit the avant-garde areas of nineties Lower Manhatten East Village in New York, he nevertheless retained many musical themes and riffs, and notably adapted the names of the characters – Marcello becoming Mark, Colline becoming Tom Collins and so on. We follow eight principal characters: the filmmaker Mark, his housemate Roger, mourning the loss of his girlfriend and the fact that he is HIV positive, his new love, erotic dancer Mimi, their former housemates Benny, now a property developer and Collins, a new age philosopher, Collins’ new love Angel, a trans street drummer, and Mark’s former girlfriend, performer Maureen with her new girlfriend, lawyer turned stage manager Joanne. He drew on many autobiographical elements himself, having spent most of his time as a young man living in relative poverty whilst creating his own work.
The show took a while to get together and went through many workshops, but eventually opened off Broadway in 1996. As alluded to in a previous entry, Jonathan Larson tragically died the night before the first performance. Anthony Rapp describes the night of the first show in heart-breaking detail in his autobiography, Without You, detailing the loss that the cast felt as they presented a concert version that built with energy, finally breaking out into full choreography at the end of Act I to be finished in full as a fitting tribute for the man they had lost. The reviews were excellent, and it was mere months before the show moved to an official Broadway theatre making it eligible to win all of the Tony Awards that it did that year. It also served as a launch pad for so many recognisable stars of today – Taye Diggs, Jesse Martin, Anthony Rapp, Adele Dazeem (sorry, Idina Menzel) – all got their breaks in the original cast of the show.
As with any popular musical, there are critics (there may be one or two shows I have been… a little disparaging about in this list so far), with the idea of Rent-like shows becoming almost a cliché at some points. However, it is really important to remember that this show is the one that reinvented this wheel so that it was usable again. Some of the bits that may seem commonplace now – the use of LGBT+ characters, analysing the impact of AIDS, the Batman Begins style grittiness – was ground-breaking at the time. Without this show there may have been no Spring Awakening, Hedwig, Lin Manuel Miranda or any other number of huge writers and shows. It also popularised the idea of a lottery for tickets – the original Rentheads were those who would queue outside to be able to get hold of one of the thirty-four twenty dollar tickets that were on sale each day.
I don’t want to go on about it forever either, but Rent was the first thing I directed for DAODS. All I had directed before was a touring production of Five Kinds of Silence, and all I can say about how good I was at that was that it is a good job I had a co-director. Working alongside Ellie and Matt was a dream, and I learnt so much. It was ten years ago this week that we put it on, and I am so thankful to have had that opportunity.
I don’t think that this generation has yet found a rock opera to replace Rent as a cultural touchstone – maybe as a consequence of the diminishing impact of rock music – but they come around every few years – Hair, Rocky Horror, Quadrophenia – and until it is time for the next to arrive, Rent more than holds its own.
(As a little post script, I cannot recommend this Playbill article enough. I love Rent so much that I knew I would never quite do it the justice it deserves here, but that doesn’t matter when such a wonderful and concise piece has already been written.
Alex’s Song Choice – “La Vie Boheme” – I changed my mind on this seven or eight times (in all honesty, if you don’t know the show then go and listen to it now, and if you do know the show then go and listen to it now) but this is such a wonderful number – fun and playful, packed to the brim with references and good humour. A proper go to song.
Lockdown Pick – “Contact” – No. No no no no no. No contact.