The 20th Anniversary production of Rent arrived at the WMC this week following a sell-out run in London and a successful national tour. Originating in a co-production with Theatr Clwyd this feels like something of a homecoming. Of course, the original began many miles away in New York’s East Village at New York Theater Workshop in 1996. Following meteoric success, it transferred to Broadway later that year, where it ran until 2008. It is one of the most award-laden pieces of musical theatre, and is one of only nine musicals to ever win the Pulitzer Prize.
It’s also a culturally ubiquitous musical, referenced in film and television from Friends to Saturday Night Live to its infamous parody ‘Everyone Has AIDS’ in Team America. It’s also a musical that is beloved by its fans – Rent is the Star Wars of Musical theatre – those who love it, do so with such passion and devotion they find it hard to understand those who don’t. Also like Star Wars, it takes seeing it at the exact moment that is right for you to fall in love with it, otherwise while you might appreciate it as a piece of important musical theatre, it will never become part of your musical theatre soul as it does for those who really love it. The original cast are also so deeply entwined with the identity of the production that it is hard, even twenty years later to separate their image and interpretation from the musical.
This production feels like someone has re-built the original from the ground up. And although change-for-change’s-sake isn’t always a good thing (as those who remember 2007’s Rent: Remixed will attest) in staging an anniversary edition of a much-loved piece there needs to feel like something has changed.
This new production feels, if anything raw. There is an energy and urgency to the direction and performances that feels like it taps into what Larson was trying to capture – that group of people right on the edge – on the edge of love, artistry, addiction and life. Anyone who saw a preview of director Bruce Guthrie’s work on Rent in the RWCMD production in 2013 would know that he ‘gets’ this musical.
The cast – too young to remember the original themselves – bring out new perspectives in these characters and remind us of the real joy in revivals of classic pieces. Meanwhile, Guthrie has, in rebuilding it, managed to make moments that never seemed to quite work literally sing. It’s an ensemble piece and the seventeen members of the company truly work together to tell the story. Even the slightest moments are fully fleshed – such as in ‘Life Support’ where each ensemble member attending the support group in the background has a distinct character (cocky cool guy, the girl who brings everyone cookies etc). Meanwhile, in other big numbers, from ‘La Vie Boheme’ to ‘Christmas Bells’, there’s a sense every actor knows exactly who they are and why do what they do at that moment. This combined with energetic, stylised choreography that feels fresh but also reflects the early 90s period really lifts the production.
The decision also to take probably the best known number ‘Seasons of Love’ from its previous static incarnation, the cast lined along the stage breaking the forth wall, and giving it back to the cast as characters is an improvement to the production, and again gives this strong ensemble a chance to shine.
The principle cast give this production real heart. Billy Cullum as narrator-like Mark, who documents his friend’s lives but feels removed from his own, has an engaging manner that brings the audience into his world, while also conveying his frustration and ultimately his grief at the losses he suffers. Cullum brings a sensitivity to an often underrated character – the line ‘Maybe because I’m the one of us to survive’ in ‘Halloween’ summing up the tragedy of Rent. Ross Hart playing Roger is an emotional counterpart to Cullum’s Mark, a raw, heart-on-his-sleeve figure.
For sheer emotional portrayal, however, it is Philippa Stefani’s Mimi who steals the show, from her desperate and rough ‘Out Tonight’ that conveys the drug addict behind the sugar coated romance, to her touchingly romantic relationship with Roger, and finally her decline and almost demise that is at times difficult to watch. Meanwhile, lovers Collins and Angel have a funny and tender relationship courtesy of Ryan O’Gorman and Layton Williams. O’Gormon offers a grounded yet witty portrayal of Collins, which counters Williams’ energetic but vulnerable Angel. His rendition of the lament ‘I’ll Cover You (Reprise)’ is heart-wrenching. Lucie Jones and Shanay Holmes as Maureen and Joanne bring a fiery energy to their relationship, in particular with their roof-raising rendition of ‘Take Me or Leave Me’.
Despite having a reputation as ‘The AIDS musical’ and associations of its tragic elements, there is much in Rent’s book that is humorous and entertaining, something this company conveys brilliantly. From Mark’s somewhat hapless approach to life, to Angel’s cheeky camp humour, there are many moments that make it feel like watching a real group of friends making their way through life.
Larson’s work is essentially an unfinished text. When Jonathan Larson died suddenly on the evening of the final Off-Broadway dress rehearsal, his work became enshrined as it was in that moment. There have always been, therefore, elements of the work and the staging that never fully worked, that remained unchanged. The advantage of time and distance in this production, gives a fresh approach that makes previously clunky moments feel like they’ve finally been given the voice Larson intended. One example being Maureen’s (Lucie Jones) performance-art parody ‘Over the Moon’, a moment that can feel forced, unfunny, embarrassing is lifted here to a hilarious moment that also conveys the underlying message of Maureen’s dairy themed rant. The real moment of revelation in terms of new interpretation comes in ‘Contact’ which is lifted from an awkward bridging song feeling out of place, to a moving moment full of dramatic effect. There are countless smaller moments across the piece that re-interpret well-worn lines and moments between characters giving them new meaning, making this Anniversary Production feel instead like the reinvention Rent needed to give it life for a third decade.
The world in which Rent exists itself has both changed and not changed. In many ways, yes, the New York of Rent has gone, for good and bad. The East Village Bohemian lifestyle has been replaced by the kind of permeant ‘Yuppie Scum’ the characters’ rail against (now ironically ‘Hipster scum’ who probably dress like the cast in a 90s throwback). And yet the musical feels like it could have been written yesterday. The feeling of a younger generation being out of step with the wider world, the impetus for a different way of life – the ‘Bohemian ideals’ of ‘La Vie Boheme’ and the sense of injustice about the wider world. These characters feel very present and as much of the moment today, as 20 years ago.