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Exploring the ‘Rent’ mystique 20 years later

The cast of the 20th anniversary national touring company of the Jonathan Larson musical, "Rent." (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

For every generation there is a foundational musical born out of the political and social turmoil of its time, as well as the particular genius of its creator or creators.

‘RENT’

When: May 9 – 14

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $25 – $90

Info: www.BroadwayInChicago.com

Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission

In the 1940s and ’50s there were “Oklahoma” and “Carousel,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics that explored both the optimism and pain of American life as World War II raged in Europe, and they would be followed by the more worldly perspectives of that pair’s “South Pacific” and “The King and I.” In the late 1950s there was Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” In the 1960s there was “Hair.” In the 1990s it was Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.” And in our own moment, of course, it is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.”

To be sure, this is the most pared down and incomplete of all possible lists, but it might serve as a workable starting point.

“Rent,” which opened Off Broadway in 1996, and moved to Broadway later that year, is still celebrating its 20th anniversary with a national touring production that arrives May 9 at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. The show has been seen on local stages in many incarnations — from earlier national tours, to a major revival at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre in 2014, directed by Jim Corti, and, just last year, in a remarkable storefront-scaled production at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, directed by Scott Weinstein and produced by Fred Anzevino.

Skyler Wells plays Mimi and Kaleb Wells plays Roger in the 20th anniversary national touring company production of Jonathan Larson’s musical, “Rent.” | Photo by Carol Rosegg
Skyler Wells plays Mimi and Kaleb Wells plays Roger in the 20th anniversary national touring company production of Jonathan Larson’s musical, “Rent.” | Photo by Carol Rosegg

Set in the 1980s, Larson’s musically eclectic work riffs on Puccini’s beloved opera, “La Boheme,” as it spins the story of young artists struggling to survive and create a legacy in New York’s rundown East Village neighborhood (called “Alphabet City” after the names of the avenues — A, B, C and D — that traverse it). It captures these artists’ lives at the very moment the HIV/AIDS epidemic was at its height, when intravenous drug use was ubiquitous, when the sexual revolution seemed to be upended, and when rents (as they always have been in New York) were prohibitive, with gentrification just beginning to get underway.

What made this show such a sensation? Unquestionably a big part of it was the youthful spirit of it all, combined with the terrifying reality of mortality for many in the prime of their youth. There also was the tension between those who opted for art as opposed those who sought financial success. The persistence of love, in all its many forms — and even in the worst of times — was the message that pierced the heart and lifted the spirit. And, topping it all off, was the tragic story of composer-lyricist Larson himself. He died suddenly at the age 35 — stricken by a heart malfunction said to be caused by an undiagnosed connective tissue disorder.

Larsen’s death came in the early morning of January 25, 1996 — on the very day of “Rent’s” first preview Off Broadway. No grand opera could have devised such a plot line. He expired before the rave reviews the show won both there and on Broadway, and before the show was awarded either the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama or the Tony Award. Most tragic of all was that he was cut down before the full force of his talent could be explored. Think of it this way: Larson, whose show ran for 12 years on Broadway, died at the very same age as Lin-Manuel Miranda was when “Hamilton” became a megahit.

“Part of ‘Rent’s’ greatness is its achievement of being both timeless and timely,” said Corti, artistic director of the Paramount Theatre. “With its depiction of the AIDS crisis in the East Village in the late ’80s, and its celebration of disenfranchised young artists, the show is messy, tragic and raw, but also filled with an eloquence, poetry and honesty. It is at once enraged and compassionate. It also is surprisingly accomplished. Larson gives us the wisdom straight from the mouths of babes — their voices risen from suffering and asking us to survive by simply measuring our lives in love. That line — ‘How about love?’ — good question. Wouldn’t hurt to ask it of every generation.”

Corti also recalled: “During the late 1970s I found my way to Avenue A in Alphabet City — on a whim, out of curiosity, as an adventure. It felt desolate, abandoned, strictly on the fringe, impoverished. I noticed in subsequent outings the budding art galleries in old, neglected storefronts, as well as clothing boutiques. But I never suffered this culture’s reality of pain, sexual and racial discrimination, drugs and disease. I was ‘a Broadway actor’ — oblivious to all of it. I went to class, to my job, to parties uptown, and Studio 54. Working on ‘Rent’ years later was a gift. It gave me the opportunity to dig into an empathy for this story that I had only observed as a tourist. These characters are composites of real people. Real lives. Non-fiction. It’s a gift to tell the truth about them all in a safe place — the haven that is the theater.”

The musical was a revelation of sorts for Theo Ubique’s Anzevino when he came to it surprisingly late in his career.

“I never saw the show until Theo Ubique presented it at the No Exit Cafe [in Rogers Park],” he confessed. “Most of the people from my generation — I’m 59 — lived it, so we didn’t need to see it. In fact as a member of the DC Cabaret Company in 1984 we wrote and performed our own musical on the topic called ‘A Dance Against Darkness: Living with AIDS,’ which was written up in a Time Magazine article on artists responding to the AIDS crisis. The show also received several Helen Hayes nominations the year we presented it. At that time it was in the theater that the basic information about the disease was sent out to the community. People weren’t getting the story through the mainstream press and it was the artists who educated through their specific medium.”

As Anzevino noted: “For me, ‘Rent’ has always been a commercial mainstream musical that became highly successful after the real war had been fought. I think Theo brought it back to the ‘in your face’ urgency of the loss and humanity of it all by presenting it in a personal and intimate setting.”

And now, for a generation that wasn’t even born when AIDS was an almost certain death sentence — but for whom the eternal struggle for love, acceptance, creative success and health (and health insurance) are still crucial matters — a first encounter with “Rent” might also be a revelation.

Danny Harris Kornfeld (from left), Christian Thompson and Kaleb Wells star in the 20th anniversary national touring production of “Rent.” | Photo: Carol Rossegg
Danny Harris Kornfeld (from left), Christian Thompson and Kaleb Wells star in the 20th anniversary national touring production of “Rent.” | Photo: Carol Rossegg